Stiffer punishment for squatters?

Logo of the Spanish Okupa (Squatters) movement

The Spanish parliament recently approved a motion to implement fast-track trials for squatting, apply stiffer penalties and guarantee full prison sentences are served. The motion should become law in the near future.

Adapted translation of an article in the Spanish daily El Mundo.

The initiative comes at the time when squatting appears to have gone down despite continuing to make headline news. While last year the number of sentences passed went up by 87% to 6,132, the number of cases brought to court fell by 53% to 12,900. The discrepancy between the increase in sentencing and decrease in court cases is due solely to the delays in the legal system, which means it can take over two years for a sentence to be passed.

The possibility of being able to take the case to a penal or civil law court means the procedure can go on forever. “The best thing to do is to report the illegal occupation and take legal advice to whether it’s a case for penal or civil law,” say Echeandía & Alevito Abogados, a legal firm specialising in property. “Sometimes a penal case is dismissed and a civil law case has to be opened. So, if there’s any doubt about the viability of a penal case, going straight for a civil law case can save time.” In those instances where penal law does apply, sentences range from three to six months or one to two years in prison.

In the Madrid region, about a thousand properties are currently illegally occupied. The figure is going down, according to regional authorities, who claim this is because economic conditions have improved. They highlight two types of squatting: organised groups whose preferred accommodation is occupying someone else’s property, and people who have nowhere to live and are forced to squat. The latter, although they are doing something “illegal”, are people “who want a solution on the right side of the law”, such as paying for a rental.

The federation of neighbourhood associations in Madrid (FRAVM in Spanish) claims there are actually 3,000 illegally occupied properties in the region. The suburbs are the most affected areas: Entrevías, Alto de San Isidro, San Cristóbal de Los Angeles, Comillas, Moratalaz and Villa de Vallecas. FRAVM’s experience has shown that most are organised occupations. “People who squat through necessity jump at the first opportunity to legalise their situation,” explains Quique Villalobos, the federation’s president.

Squatting Mafias

Politicians, associations and organisations point to organised occupations as the real problem behind squatting. FRAVM says there are two operational groups. “Organised groups who find empty properties, break into them, do them up to rent or sell,” explains Villalobos. And groups who “occupy several properties in the same building where they house their relatives whose anti-social behaviour is a threat to the neighbourhood”.

Experts agree with this analysis. Echeandía & Alevito Abogados claim these organisations “look for half-abandoned properties and often move from one to another”. This makes it difficult to stop them legally. “The effect of the sentence is minimal because court cases are so drawn out, they don’t go to prison and are insolvent,” says the firm.

As regards the type of occupied property, those belonging to large entities such as banks are preferred over privately-owned. Despite public concern, the phenomenon’s downward trend has also been highlighted by Spain’s Public Prosecutor whose last annual report underlined “the end to a cycle that has lasted for a decade”. And beyond stiffer penalties, those affected prefer earlier solutions. “If Spain had an accessible supply of state housing, how many people would bother to get into such trouble?” says Villalobos.

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