News / Europe

Spaniards Protest High Rate of Foreclosures, Debt

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads "Stop evictions," outside a townhouse during a protest to stop the eviction of a family in Torre del Mar, near Malaga southern Spain, June 29, 2011

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Lauren Frayer

Europe is suffering from its worst ever real-estate market. And one country that seems to be pushing back hard at its government is Spain. More than two months after Spain's so-called "indignados" began occupying city squares to protest high unemployment and perceived government corruption, they have turned to a new target: Spanish banks. Protesters say Spain's banking laws - some of the strictest in the world - leave mortgage borrowers with too much debt.

The Spanish protesters who first took over Madrid's central square in May are back again, this time with a new target: Spain's banking laws, which are some of the strictest in Europe, particularly when it comes to mortgages.

In Spain, if the bank forecloses on your home, you are still liable for your mortgage debt. That means people who have lost their homes are saddled with mountains of debt as well.

It is a predicament that has happened to more than 300,000 Spaniards since the housing bubble burst in 2008. And it is something protesters like Susana Garcia do not like.

"This is a big, big shame. Because people have no houses, and big debt for the rest of their lives," said Garcia. "It's like a crime. It's state terrorism."

Garcia and other protesters find out where the next housing eviction will be, and go to the house. Often they form a human chain around the property, blocking bank officials from entering and serving foreclosure papers.

"Shame, shame!" they chant at bank officials trying to evict mortgage defaulters from their home. The protesters are also circulating a petition calling on the Spanish government to change local mortgage laws.

"Ask to erase that debt. You keep the house. So let me live with nothing, but at least not with a debt for 100,000 euros or dollars," added Garcia.

"The first thing you're going to try to do is sell the house yourself, so you get the cash and you used that cash to pay your debt with the bank," explained an economist at Madrid's Elcano Institute.  "But once you've been forced to give your house to the bank, you still have a debt, which then goes to a judiciary procedure - in which I think it's not that clear cut, what's the amount, if the bank sells the house, you're going to receive or be relieved of the debt."

At a time when more than one in five Spaniards is out of work, these laws make people angry. They are unhappy to see Spanish banks faring better than the average worker in the economic crisis. Only two small Spanish banks have gone out of business in recent years - unlike many American banks, for example, which needed a government bailout.

Jesus Encinar is the founder and CEO of Idealista, Spain's biggest real estate website.

"In Spain, the banks didn't need any kind of government money to stay alive or to survive, as they did in the U.S. The Spanish banks have actually done very well," of Encinar.

Approaching an election in the coming months, the Spanish government has been eager to try to be receptive to the protesters demands. Earlier this month, the government changed some of the rules about how mortgage defaulters' debt is calculated, and how much banks can deduct from debtors paychecks.

But Garcia says that is not enough. Foreclosures continue, at a rate of around 300 a day across Spain. She wants a temporary freeze on all evictions, at least during the economic crisis.

"We're just asking, erase those debts and at least stop, for the moment, the evictions. We, all of us, are affected - in all the world," Garcia added.

While some of the protesters are focusing on Spain's banking system, others say the whole European economic system is the problem. A group of demonstrators left Madrid on Tuesday to march to Brussels, to make their views known there.

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