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Spanish government struggles to respond to home eviction suicides

In less than a month, at least five people who were about to be forcefully evicted from their homes committed suicide. The issue is galvanizing opposition to austerity measures. 

By Correspondent / November 21, 2012

Syful Alom, an immigrant from Bangladesh, holds his head before learning that the family's eviction was suspended in Madrid November 21. Alom, who lives in his home with his wife and his 18-month-old and three-year-old sons, stopped making their mortgage payments after he became unemployed.

Andrea Comas/Reuters

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Madrid

Vilma Margarita Mejía cannot stop crying. She is weak and only whispers complete sentences after taking a deep breath. Any day now, today perhaps, police will come to her door and forcefully evict her, her two sons, and one brother from the home she’s lived in for 20 years.

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Nothing could prevent the bank from auctioning her apartment this week – not even a failed suicide attempt, or the fact that one of her sons recently underwent open heart surgery, or that she is awaiting a second operation possibly related to cancer. She is now illegally occupying the small space she has patiently decorated for years, but homelessness and an uncertain future are now a question of time.

“I’ve begged, but the bank would get mad at me and say I was making up my cancer. But I have nowhere to go and all my money went to the doctors,” Mrs. Mejía, originally from Ecuador, says quietly, sitting in the raucous office of a civil society group demanding reform to an “illegal” eviction law.

Mejía’s case and dozens more like it were the tipping point for pampered Spaniards. The evictions and a string of poverty-related suicides have come to embody painful austerity imposed by the government and Europe, and society is rallying around this common cause to rebel against the gradual tightening of an economic noose.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offered a concession last week, after failing to strike a deal with the main opposition Socialist party to reform the eviction law. They instead decreed a two-year ban on evictions of the most precarious residents, as long as they meet strict criteria.

Mejía spent most of her two decades in Europe working as a nanny in Britain and Spain. The economic crisis and her health made employment slippery. She might have been one of the few who would have benefitted, but the decree is not retroactive.

The government also refused to change the law to allow more indebted families to transfer back the property in lieu of payment. Under Spanish law, mortgage holders remain liable for outstanding debt even after eviction.

Few are happy with the decree. Banks, those awaiting evictions, civil society activists, and other political parties have all criticized the measure. Nearly 80 percent of Spaniards and 62 percent of supporters of the ruling party think the government decree is insufficient, according to a poll released this week.

“Almost nobody will meet the criteria,” says José Mario Ruiz, spokesman of the Mortgage Victims’ Platform, the civil society group leading demands for a more “humane” eviction law. His office was crammed by dozens of people, most of them foreign-born, awaiting evictions this year during a meeting to explain the government’s new decree.

“Most of you won’t benefit from this law. It’s a Band-Aid. All you can do is fight, fight, fight and demand a real solution from the government,” one of the speakers said amid bouts of anger and muted whimpers.

Eviction reform

There have been some 400,000 evictions orders since 2007, according to a report put together by a group of Spain’s top judges. The government claims that only a small fraction of the evictions, as low as 1 percent, are mortgage-related – bank-driven evictions of main family residences of those in more precarious situations.

The majority of them were not homes, and most homes were second or vacation properties, although the government also acknowledges it has no data on how many needy families have lost their homes.

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