Juan Carlos Padilla lives in an apartment building with crumbling walls, exposed electrical wiring and peeling linoleum floors.
It’s far from luxurious. But the rent the 27-year-old sometime construction worker pays makes it all worthwhile: nothing.
Padilla is among an estimated 1,500 young Spaniards who have taken over empty buildings as homes, triggering major clashes with police seeking to evict them.
The “Okupa” (Squatters) movement is fueled by 40% unemployment among 18- to 26-year-olds–almost double Spain’s overall jobless rate–and by high rents.
Last fall, Padilla and some friends broke into a building that had been empty for 27 years, since it was condemned for electrical and building code violations. They made it their home. “This is space for housing,” said Padilla, gesturing at a room he and his fellow squatters have cleaned, painted and furnished with an old wooden table and beanbag chairs. “If the owner lets a place go to waste, we have the right to take it over.”
Barcelona is the heart of the Okupa movement. About 70 apartment buildings and factories have been taken over by about 500 squatters, most under age 30.
A few of the larger buildings are used for political organizing, art exhibitions and theater performances. Others are like bars, serving beer and playing music. Many squatters consider themselves anarchists, drawing inspiration from Barcelona’s far-left labor unions of the Spanish Civil War.
While seeking ways to deal with the issue of idle buildings, the Catalan regional government says it must evict squatters to ensure respect for private property rights.
And neighbors complain of late-night noise, petty theft and hijacked telephone and electricity services around squatter buildings, says Joan Serra, the head of the Catalan youth affairs department.
The Okupa movement gained notoriety in October when 200 helmeted police officers fought a five-hour pitched battle to evict 400 squatters from a movie theater in downtown Barcelona.
Officers, supported by a helicopter and riot-control vehicles, fired rubber bullets and tear gas. The “Okupas” hurled rocks and bottles.
When it was over, 48 squatters were under arrest for illegal occupation of private property. Ten were hospitalized.
The Okupas had chosen the Cine Princesa theater, empty for 15 years, to protest a May 1996 law that made squatting a criminal offense. It was in-your-face activism. The theater is a few blocks from City Hall and a police station in Barcelona’s historic Gothic Barrio.
Since the street battle, police have staged predawn eviction raids elsewhere in the city. The Okupas have responded with tit-for-tat “invasions” of other empty buildings.
In March, police in Madrid evicted squatters from a building, resulting in 158 arrests, injuries to four Okupas and a policeman, and a subsequent protest by 1,000 Okupas and their supporters that snarled traffic on the Paseo de la Castellana for hours.
Eager to calm tensions in Barcelona, the Catalan government is consulting with experts in cities like Berlin and Paris to learn how they dealt with squatter movements there that had a heyday in the 1970s.
The answer: Tough enforcement combined with more affordable housing, said Serra, the youth affairs official.
In Berlin, a 1981 law gave police the right to make immediate evictions. Today, just eight buildings are occupied by squatters, compared with dozens nearly two decades ago, authorities say.
How to provide enough housing is another matter. As long as Spanish property owners pay taxes on empty buildings, there is no law allowing the government to seize the property as abandoned.
Jaume Asens, a lawyer representing squatters in Barcelona, recommends that the city copy an ordinance used by officials in Amsterdam, Netherlands, to fine owners who leave an apartment empty for more than a year.
Officials say they also are studying a proposal to increase taxes on buildings and apartments that are unused for more than a year.
Barcelona has 70,000 vacant apartments, some abandoned, others with rents far beyond the means of young Spaniards.
So far, no formal proposals have been made to create more affordable housing.
Padilla says that until the government creates more jobs and brings down housing costs, squatting will continue.
“What is a young person supposed to do?” he asked. “Live at home his whole life?”