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Is Spain's squatting problem really that bad?

The Local Spain
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Is Spain's squatting problem really that bad?
Protesters during a okupa demonstration in 2018. Photo: Josep LAGO /AFP.

'Okupas' are becoming an increasingly controversial and politicised issue in Spain, but some argue this alleged scourge on society has been exaggerated and isn't as prevalent as it's made out to be by politicians and the press.

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Squatting, the 'okupa' movement as it's known in Spain, has long been a controversial issue.

In recent months, it has even started to become a live political debate, with the man likely to be Spain's next Prime Minister, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, turning it into a campaign issue and pledging to start 'express evictions' to remove squatters within 24 hours.

The okupa (squatter) symbol was also included on far-right party Vox's controversial poster that showed various symbols being thrown in the bin, including the LGTB flag and the Catalan Estelada flag.

Squatting is becoming an increasingly charged issue in Spain, and it can often be presented as a blight on Spanish society and a phenomena that is becoming increasingly widespread. But how true is that in reality?

Opportunism or desperation?

For some, okupas are an opportunistic, near anarchist-type practice that preys on vulnerable landlords and homeowners and takes advantage of legal loopholes to get away with not paying rent. For others, the increasing number of squats in Spain is symptomatic of something else: rising rents, economic downturn, and the abundance of empty properties in Spain.

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Okupas can be found across Spain but the regions that tend to have the most are Catalonia, which is far ahead with roughly half of all squats, followed by Madrid, Andalusia, the Valencia region and the Canary Islands.

Some point to the more than 3 million empty properties across Spain and the cost-of-living crisis as reasons to be more understanding when people can’t pay the rent. Yet Spain’s ‘okupa’ movement is much more than that, with organisations intent on exploiting legal loopholes, or individuals who own their own properties which they rent out to others whilst they occupy ones that don't belong to them.

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READ ALSO: Why there are half a million new homes in Spain that no one wants to buy

There is no doubt that some people in Spain do organise themselves to take advantage of the system and live for free. But the issue of okupas can also be overplayed. During the recent local and regional election campaigns, the issue was framed by the Spanish right as some sort of moral panic.

As if often the case, the real answers lies somewhere in the middle.

Okupa profile

Much of the debate around okupas assumes a certain profile of the type of people who squat. But data shows that often this isn't exactly the case.

Okupas, many say, are parasites living at the expense of others in Spanish society. Often when this is portrayed in the media, the squatters are young, single men, perhaps non-Spaniards, perhaps anarchist or hippy types, who prey on vulnerable older Spanish ladies and hard working families. But the reality is that the picture is a little more complicated than that.

Often okupas can be families with nowhere else to go. According to a report from Barcelona's Social Work department, the average okupa in the city is between between 36 and 45 years old and many have dependent children. It's worth noting that the presence of children gives squatters increased legal protection. According to the report, 68 percent of squatters in Barcelona do so as a family.

In fact, in 55 percent of the occupied households in Barcelona there were minors. 72 percent were Spanish nationals, while just 3 percent were undocumented immigrants.

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The numbers

The scale of the problem, too, can be overplayed. According to a report by the Institut Cerdà and the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), there are around 100,000 occupied homes in Spain. When you consider that there are over 25 million properties in Spain, that works out to less than 0.4 percent.

The media narrative is that opportunistic squatters are taking advantage of helpless landlords (though, it must be said, this undoubtedly does happen) but again, a closer look at the data reveals a slightly more complex picture. Okupas in private flats, that is, owned by individuals or families, are actually quite rare.

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READ ALSO: How to stop squatters from moving into your empty home in Spain

In 2017, for example, there were almost 4,000 occupied flats in the Community of Madrid. Of all of them, just 16 percent belonged to private individuals while more than a third belonged to banks.

The rest were owned by commercial companies (17 percent) and public companies (30 percent). In Barcelona in 2016, of the 869 occupied flats more than 80 percent belonged to financial institutions, according to a report by the City Council.

Though it's true that some of this data is slightly outdated and the okupa movement has grown since then, it does give a useful reference point for the types of people and types of properties involved in squatting, and serves as a useful counterbalance to some of the more sensationalist reporting on the issue.

In the right-leaning Spanish media in particular, okupas are often presented as highly personalised cases. More often than not they find a vulnerable grandma or young family and portray them as having been turfed out of their own home by work-shy anarchists who don't fancy paying rent, and though this surely does happen sometimes (and is very sad) the media presents these sorts of cases as the norm rather than the exception to the rule, as the data suggests they are.

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Anti-okupa insurance and 'Inquiokupas'

Yet, despite all that, the problem of squatting in Spain has become serious enough that insurer Direct Line has lunched specific 'anti-okupa' insurance. The insurer estimates that in 2022 there were roughly 16,700 complaints about squatters, which works out to around 45 every single day.

The coverage includes loss of income, accommodation for the owner, supplies, damages and legal expenses, something important as getting squatters removed from a property can be a lengthy legal process in Spain.

In addition to what seems to be the growing number of okupas, there's a new trend and form of squatting emerging in Spain known as 'Inquiokupas'. This growing phenomena is when someone signs a rental lease and pays rent, but stops after several months and then refuses to leave the property.

The word has been recently coined by combining the word inquilino (tenant) with okupa or okupación (squatter or squatting), resulting in inquiokupa or inquiokupación, but even this is a hotly contested topic because it can be difficult to differentiate inquiokupas from people who have fallen on hard times during the cost of living crisis and are unable to pay their rent.

READ ALSO: Inquiokupas: The type of squatter homeowners in Spain fear most

Spain's squatting problem undoubtedly exists, and is growing. However, the problem can often be overstated by both the media and politicians.

That's not to say that there isn't a risk for homeowners in Spain - and it's usually a traumatic, costly and drawn-out legal process when a squatter does move into one's property - but the chances of it happening to you are still relatively slim. 

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