Some International Lessons From the Current Housing Crisis in Spain


I wrote this paper for an International Policy class at the Silberman School of Social Work in the Summer of 2015. Given the commitment to social justice at my school, I was expecting that in the class we would engage with the history of US and European colonialism and the debt issues of the developing world but it wasn’t even in the syllabus. Our professors spoke poetically of the beauty of the United Nations and the Red Cross and the International Federation of Social Workers but there was no historical context to explain why so many people have ended up so poor. It felt like I was in the Twilight Zone when the professor was showing us slickly made videos UNICEF videos with hungry children and dramatic music. It felt like I was back in elementary school watching We Are the World and Live Aid on television. Most of my classmates were working class students of color who were having their first exposure to discussions of international politics and it was beyond frustrating to me that there were no tangible connections being made between social justice struggles in the US and in other countries.

 We had to choose a country and an issue in that country to write about and I chose Spain because I’m being brought there to speak this coming fall by an international affiliate of The Icarus Project called Red de Apoyo Mutuo de Andalucia. I learned a lot writing this paper and it was a lot of fun to write. I think it’s a good sign for my upcoming trip that my Spanish host was incredulous that I hadn’t mentioned the 20th century history of anarchism in this paper. There are definitely lots of gaps, but here it is in all its summer school paper glory.


Some International Lessons From the Current Housing Crisis in Spain

Social Welfare Policy and Services II: International Social Welfare

Sascha Altman DuBrul

Silberman School of Social Work





Problem Definition

In the following pages I will use the current housing crisis in Spain to explore the broader issue of how unregulated markets and neoliberal ideology are wreaking havoc on working people’s lives all over the planet, and how this directly greatly diminishes social workers’ ability to affect change. The instability of the Spanish housing market, and the misery it has caused the population provides a useful example for those of us in North America, because real estate issues in Spain share many similarities with the housing market in the United States. What is so significant about Spain is that unlike the response here in our major U.S. cities, including New York, is that the Spanish people have chosen to respond by organizing and building an effective movement to resist it. (Della Porta, 2015). The recently elected Spanish local governments are working on policies to reverse this devastating process, and, in the case of Barcelona, become a “world reference as a democratic and socially just city” to other cities around the world. (Kassam, 2015)

As a new social worker in New York City concerned with the direction of our local housing policies, these events are giving me some hope that we can build broad-based international resistance to predatory financial institutions and more effectively oppose the global neoliberal agenda. Through my policy education at Silberman I have come to see how important it is to have an analysis of neoliberalism, an ideology that assumes the inherent wisdom of the market place and one that we have seen successfully advanced here through public policies that involve cuts in government spending, strong promotion of exports, privatization of public enterprises, deregulation of wages and prices, removal of control on trade and exchange, weakening of environmental protections, and in general the removal of any laws or regulations interfering with commercial interests. (Healy, 2012).

While many people in public and private positions of power see neoliberalism as both inevitable and beneficial (Friedman, 2005), the destruction of the Spanish housing market provides an important and compelling example of the need to recognize this ideology for what it is: a cynical push that keeps most people on the planet poor and powerless in the interest of power and wealth for the few (Martinez, 1997).  We need to recognize the egregious destruction of the Spanish housing market and how international financial institutions–many of them based in New York City—played a defining role, which should give us pause before we congratulate ourselves too much about the role and impact of social workers advocating for international policies to make the world a better place. It certainly does not appear that social workers are involved in the key decision-making positions to affect change, while at the same time our profession struggles with being coopted by the same neoliberal ideology that is at the root of the problems.  What is happening on the ground in Spain exemplifies that if there is any hope for the future, it lies in building international movements of solidarity that understand financial institutions and that corrupt politicians must be held accountable. Social workers have an important role to play in helping to develop better systems for taking care of each other that are outside of this corrupt global marketplace and governance system. (Solnit, 2004).

Country Overview:  

Spain was an Empire long before it was a nation, and beginning in the 16th century it played an important role in colonizing the “New World.” As the former Spanish Empire quickly disintegrated with the Latin American wars of independence, and the Spanish–American War of 1898, Spain lost much of its economic and political power. (Costeloe, 1981). In the 18th century there was the rise throughout Europe of the idea of the “nation state” as religious modes of thought were declining, Enlightenment and rationalist secularism were prevailing, and new technology like the printing press were making it possible for large numbers of people to read and therefore conceive of themselves as belonging to new “imagined communities.” The idea of a nation gave a new sense of continuity to the cycle of life and death, and nations imagined themselves as an expression of a glorious past headed towards a limitless future. (Anderson, 2006) In the aftermath of World War I, Spain had a bloody Civil War, which ended in a Fascist government that ruled until 1975, ushering the rise of a more democratic government.

The global political order reorganized itself after World War II and the nation of Spain is now a member of the European Union (or EU), which consists of 28 countries (around 503 million people.) The EU is a political union with common institutions set up by member states to which they delegate some of their sovereignty (primarily in economic areas) so that decisions on “specific matters of joint interest” can be made democratically at the European level.  (Jones, 2012)

In many ways, Spain is a microcosm of the larger problems of Europe: diverse peoples with different cultures and histories are being held together by law, commonality, and sometimes by force (Zulaika, 2000). The EU is a collection of regions that are, to a varying degree, discrete cultures of their own. In Spain, not only are those of the Basques and the Catalans, whose separatist aspirations are well known, but also of Galicia and Andalusia, Valencia and Extremadura (Mughal , 2012).

Ever since the current constitution was passed by Parliament in 1978, Spain has been organized territorially in municipalities, provinces, and autonomous communities. (Martínez-Román, 2013.) But like everywhere else, it is tied to the global economy and its people are subject to the whims and machinations of global financial institutions and the political elites, who transcend political boundaries.


Social and Political Analysis

The particular situation requiring our attention can be summed up in two words: eviction epidemic, which needs to be put in context, so it becomes necessary to discuss global financial markets and neoliberal economics.

Spain lived through the same economic crisis North American’s experienced in 2008, but more dramatically. After an economic bubble of growth and massive new construction, the country is littered with empty buildings, stillborn projects, and idled machines. Today Spain appears as a “museum of doomed developments” (Paumgarten, 2013), monuments to political corruption and a system that was privileging short-term profit over the long-term health of the country’s infrastructure.

At the peak of the economic boom, Spain was building nearly a million houses a year. When housing prices plummeted, they took the job market down a well. Today there is a 25% unemployment rate in Spain, down from almost 27% in 2013, and among citizens aged twenty-five and under, the jobless rate is now higher than fifty per cent. (ECONOMICS, 2015). That has created an eviction epidemic, as people have failed to keep up with their mortgages. In 2014, five hundred people were being evicted from their homes each day. (Ash, 2014)

To better understand this process we need to talk about globalization. Globalization is the key social, economic, political, and cultural process of our time. It is the most significant economic, political, sociological, cultural, and technological process in the world today (Friedman, 2005). Driven by the economic and political liberalization that followed the collapse of communism in the 1980s, globalization has grown enormously as a result of the breakthroughs in information and communications technology that has successively brought transforming revolutions through the fax, email, the internet, and mobile phones in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. (Fukada-Parr, 2003).

The globalization of our economies has also paved the way for predatory financial institutions to wreck havoc on the people. (Korten, 1998). Once the Spanish housing crisis happened, foreign money dried up. No one, in neither the private or the public sector, wanted to finance Spain’s liabilities, and interest rates shot up. Spain is now stuck with an unaffordable currency and seemingly unpayable debts: nearly nine hundred billion euros, eighty per cent of its G.D.P. Interest payments alone consume a quarter of its G.D.P. With the economy contracting, tax receipts are dwindling, and loans failing, the situation is neither sustainable nor easily fixed (Paumgarten, 2013).

To lure foreign investors, the city of Madrid overhauled rental laws, making it easier for landlords to evict non-paying tenants. It worked: Investment in Spanish real estate increased 12-fold last year to 5.2 billion euros. (Dowsett, 2014). But that hasn’t translated into support for the common people: there are over four million empty houses and evictions are still rampant. Cuts in education are making it more difficult for young people to go to university and cuts to health services already are leaving thousands of people excluded from the Spanish public health system. (Delclós, 2013) The social safety net is unraveling.

What are the social and political effects/outcomes of this problem?

The Indignatos/ 15M Movements, V de Vivienda, the Rise of the PAH, Recent Elections

Los Indignatos/15M

The social and political effects of the economic crisis have been anger, resistance, and the building of solidarity among the people who have been affected by the economic downturn.

The anti-austerity movement in Spain, also referred to as the 15-M Movement or “Los Indignatos” began on 15 May 2011, with an initial call in 58 Spanish cities to occupy public space to protest corruption.  The movement’s strategy was based on assembling ad hoc citizen coalitions to help push back and challenge specific government actions while avoided engaging with ideological agendas, unions or professional politicians. They filled city squares, coordinated online actions and targeted specific topics like banking and electoral reform. They experimented with bottom-up networked approaches to challenge the rigid, top-down, party driven system which had dominated Spanish political life since 1978 (Beas, 2011).


The Indignatos movement was actively engaged with the growing movement protesting foreclosures. Going back to 2006, the V de Vivienda movement (a reference to the film V for Vendetta that translates to “V for Housing”) was born in Barcelona. For two years, they articulated the struggle for the right to decent housing and denounced the housing bubble, calling for an end to what they saw as the violence of real estate speculation. When the bubble burst two years later, some of that group’s activists realized that people were going to stop being able to pay their mortgages, and that the struggle would no longer be about access to housing but that many families would actually be left without a home (Delclós, 2013).


The PAH, or Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (“Mortgage Victims’ Platform”), grew out of this young movement. In February of 2009 the PAH put the failure of housing policies on the agenda and put an enormous amount of political pressure on administrations that had played a role in forcing debt on the people. The biggest difference between the V de Vivienda movement and the PAH was its membership: while V for V was mostly made up of young people in precarious work situations who organized and fought to leave their parents’ homes, the majority of the PAH was made up of families who were being foreclosed on. Within a few years there were over 250 PAH groups all over the country. (Lamarca, 2013)

The key to PAH’s campaign has been public civil disobedience by not allowing police to evict people from their homes. As of 2013 the PAH had halted more than 550 eviction so that banks have been forced to negotiate and keep families homes from being evicted. Furthermore, PAH and Indignato groups have been occupying foreclosed building to provide shelter for evicted families with nowhere to go. There have been waves of occupations occurring across the country. In 2012 the PAH got more than a million and a half signatures for a Popular Legislative Initiative to demand a stop to evictions and fundamental changes to the Mortgage Law. Popular pressure is forcing Congress to consider the initiative (Delclós, 2013)


The Recent Elections

In the recent Spanish elections on May 24, 2015, a housing activist from the PAH movement, Ada Colau, was elected the mayor of Barcelona. Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary. Colau enjoyed support from the Podemos party, which grew out of the Indignados movement. (Goodman, 2015).

Colau recently spoke to a North American journalist:

“What is happening in Spain and in Barcelona is not an isolated event; rather, there is a crisis in the way we do politics. There is a political elite which has become corrupt and has ended up as accomplices of a financial power which only thinks to speculate and to make money even at the expense of rising inequality and the impoverishment of the majority of the people. Fortunately, there has been a popular reaction, here and in other parts of the Mediterranean—for example, in Greece—to confront the neoliberal economic policies, which are not only a problem in Spain but in Europe and around the world. We see very clearly that the city councils are key to confronting this way of making policy, meaning that is where the everyday policies are made and where we can prove there is another way to govern, more inclusive, working together with the people, more than just asking them to vote every four years, and that you can fight against corruption, and you can have transparent institutions. So we think the city governments are key for democratic revolution, to begin governing, with the people, in a new way. But on the other hand, we’re very aware that the real change must be global, that one city alone cannot solve all the problems we’re facing, many of which are global because today the economy does not have borders. The big capital and the markets move freely around the world, unlike people.” (Goodman, 2015)

Are there any policies in relation to this problem and what are they?

The Shifting Value Systems Exposed by the Crisis: Neoliberalism vs. Social Welfare.

Rather than separate the issues of the housing crisis and the nature of social work I will bring them together by talking about globalization and neoliberalism. Paradoxically, the division of Europe into two competing political and economic systems of capitalism and communism that lasted for nearly fifty years, greatly influenced the development of European welfare states and professional social work. Scheppele (2010) has suggested that the period of ‘compassionate liberalism’ of Western societies actually started with the Russian Revolution (in 1917) and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. When European liberalism lacked the competition of another political system, it started to promote a more aggressive competitiveness, increased the neoliberal ideology of work, and started to re-organise state institutions (ministries, welfare and educational institutions including universities) to serve the private rather than the public sphere. The neo-liberal ideology and processes have substantially transformed social work and social policy throughout Europe (Lyons, 2012).

Who are the major supporters and opponents? Which stakeholders appear most powerful and why?

In short: Business interests who want to protect the status quo and the PAH who wants to redistribute the wealth.

What is the involvement and role of international organizations in relation to this problem?

Example: The Blackstone Group

One example of how this situation is playing out on the international stages is that of Blackstone: – the largest speculative investment firm that evicts thousands of families in Spain and around the world. The Blackstone Group is an American multinational private equity, investment banking corporation based in New York City.  As the largest alternative investment firm in the world (Alden, 2013) Blackstone specializes in private equity, credit, and hedge fund investment strategies, as well as financial advisory services, such as mergers and acquisitions, restructurings and reorganizations, and private placements (DeSorrento, 2008.) Blackstone is a perfect example of a global financial institution that is benefitting from the misery of others by playing the international economy:

In 2014 , Blackstone expanded their business reach by venturing into Spain. Since Spain’s housing bubble popped in 2008, each year about 50.000 families are losing their housing due to inability to pay their mortgages. Blackstone has been buying many of the homes of the people who are struggling to pay rent. They and other “vulture funds” (Palast, 2014) are even buying rent-controlled housing. Madrid’s local right wing government sold 5,000 rent-controlled apartments to Goldman and Blackstone. The government told tenants their rental conditions would remain the same. But now many tenants have received demands for higher rent, many have been threatened with eviction, and some have already been evicted. (Dowsett, 2014).

How is this problem addressed in international conventions/laws? What are the relevant UN human rights declarations or codes or other conventions and their application in the country?

There are a number of recent UN declarations about how international businesses and investors should conduct themselves and the importance of human rights.

The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights

Established in 2000, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights are a set of principles designed to guide companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations within an operating framework that encourages respect for human rights. (Freeman, 2000) “At the UN Global Compact, we believe it’s possible to create a sustainable and inclusive global economy that delivers lasting benefits to people, communities and markets. That’s our vision.”

UN Principles for Responsible Investing.

UN Principles for Responsible Investing is a voluntary initiative based on CEO commitments to implement universal sustainability principles and to take steps to support UN goals. (Gray, 2009)

As they state on their website:

“The world is changing rapidly. While our market-based economy has emerged as the most efficient system for allocating scarce economic resources, it is giving rise to a growing array of social inequalities, environmental impacts and negative externalities which are affecting companies. Unprecedented environmental and social pressures driven by food, water and energy security, access to natural resources, climate change, human rights, supply chain labour standards and ageing populations have become material issues for business and the corporate world. The impact of poor corporate governance practices on shareholder value, accentuated by the global financial crisis, has also lifted issues such as transparency, corruption, board structure, shareholder rights, business ethics, risk management and executive compensation to the top of the investor agenda.”

International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW)

In the 2001 Definition of Social Work issued jointly by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) it is stated that the ‘principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.’ (Hare, 2004)

While these definitions and declarations are very well written and clearly the result of much hard word-smithing, it is not clear that they have any actual impact on situations like the housing crisis in Spain, nor moreover on the neoliberal globalization and control of the economy by predatory financial institutions, whose bottom line seems always to place profit over people or the environment. It actually could be argued that these well-smithed words provide them cover, enabling the system to seem more friendly and humanistic, while businesses operate as usual and more and more people suffer the consequences of unchecked free trade.


Discussion and Conclusion: What is the role of social workers?

Like in the United States, if social workers in Spain are public sector employees then they have legal obligations, so are limited in what they can do. They can propose policy improvements internally, but may not make public statements, evaluations or proposals public. Since social workers from non-profit organizations are usually dependent on public funding, often they are unwilling to risk their and their organization’s financial survival by raising issues of social justice. In Spain there is a high rate of unemployment among social workers, with many working in temporary or precarious employment. (Martínez-Román, 2013).

At the same time, as I have discussed, there are thriving social movements existing outside the traditional professional contexts. It appears that organizations like the  Indignatos and PAH have enough political power to realign the political spectrum and elect third party candidates determined to reshape the system.

Based on your training as a social worker, what recommendations would you make to reform policies?

Based on my understanding of how power works, I think it is important for us to acknowledge that in 2015 there is a limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital.  The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains, but unlike in the early years of the nation state, as an institution it is clearly not taken seriously by the big players of globalization. By many measures, corporations have become  more central players in global affairs than nations. The United Nations resolutions to curb the excesses of greed are clearly a joke that’s not funny.

From my research it appears that in Spain that the social movements have been much more effective frankly than social workers in shifting policy and creating tangible change on the grassroots level. I am coming away from my studies of International Social Policy with less interest in the United Nations related policy efforts, and a renewed interest in international solidarity movements that can take advantage of global communication technology and the perspective of  “globalization from below” as was written about in an International Labor Organization report in 2004 (World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, 2004). I am interested in helping to foster alliances between radical housing groups in cities like Barcelona and New York. I am inspired to discover that the networks already exist (

As I type this conclusion, in the background  the radio is playing an announcement that a new international trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership was just “fast-tracked” through Congress. Meanwhile, my housemates and I are getting evicted from our house in Bed Stuy Brooklyn at the end of the summer so the landlord can jack up the rent. At the same time, I have windows open on my desktop where I’m corresponding with people in Andalucia and Barcelona about sharing ideas for mental health mutual aid networks and translating copies of our organization’s materials into multiple languages. If not bright, the future at least is going to be very interesting!






Ada Colau: “[E]ven if we have formally democratic institutions, we have the sense that the decisions are not being made in Parliament, but by the boards of directors or by international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, which are profoundly anti-democratic and which the people do not control, and that they also make decisions against their own people, generating misery around the world.

This awareness of a kidnapped democracy has led to the rise of many grassroots mobilizations, propelled from the bottom, by the people, which are also seeking a way of direct representation. They’ve seen that formal democracy is not enough, that we need to find new ways of political participation where everyone can be an actor, and each person can directly contribute as much as each person can contribute…


We see very clearly that city councils can be key to confronting this way of making policy, meaning that is where the policies that have great impact on everyday life are made, and where we can model and prove there there other ways to govern- more inclusively, working in collaboration with the people, rather than just asking for their  vote every four years. and we can assist in the fight against corruption, and the creation of  transparent institutions. So I think that city governments are key vehicles to help secure democratic revolution. (Goodman, 2015)





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