High poverty levels in Spain a ‘political choice’ says UN special rapporteur

Philip Alston advocates for rent control plans and social housing funding after visiting Barcelona and other cities to study poverty levels

Protesters hold up a sign reading “Evict the powerful” during a demonstration against an eviction in Lleida in November, 2017 (by Oriol Bosch)
Protesters hold up a sign reading “Evict the powerful” during a demonstration against an eviction in Lleida in November, 2017 (by Oriol Bosch) / Cillian Shields/ACN

Cillian Shields/ACN | Barcelona

February 7, 2020 07:08 PM

A UN special rapporteur has concluded that “a very significant percentage of the population is in or at risk of poverty is the result of various political choices that have been made over the last decade,” after a visit to Spain and Catalonia to study poverty levels. 

Philip Alston visited Madrid, Barcelona, and other parts of Spain, and told Catalan News that he believes that “rent controls need to be considered much more seriously” than they currently are, and that a social crisis has been brought about from “many areas of social spending” being cut, leading to “almost no money” being devoted to social housing.

In the wake of the financial crash in 2008, austerity and spending cuts were introduced, with the consequences being felt strongly almost 12 years later. 

“Political choices” made by the national government as well as regional executives across Spain led to corporations paying “less than half in taxes than what they were paying before the crisis” while at the same time there were no “serious attempts to regulate the housing market to prevent the sort of speculation that is causing havoc.”

“When you have a housing crisis, people are not able to afford the ever-increasing rents in the big cities,” Alston explains, meaning “you have lots more evictions, you have people suffering all the way down the road in terms of not being able to survive on the minimal amounts of income available to them.”

Political choices to help the issue

In Catalonia, Alston visited Ada Colau and met with the PAH group, a platform of community activists affected by the housing crisis. “I got a pretty good sense of the challenges of high rents and high living costs for people with low income in Barcelona.”

When asked about what measures can be taken to help resolve the crisis, the UN special rapporteur pointed to the examples of the rent control schemes in Paris, Berlin, and various U.S. cities “where rent stabilization schemes are much more sophisticated and flexible and much more effective than the old models that people often have in mind.” 

“My sense is that without taking pretty drastic measures along those lines, the housing crisis is only going to get worse,” he warned.

Constitutional right to housing

Alston pointed out in our interview that the Spanish constitution includes a right to housing. Article 47 states the “right to dignified and adequate housing” and goes on to say that “public authorities shall promote the necessary conditions and establish the relevant norms to enforce this right.”

However, in Alston’s experience from his time in Spain, he says this constitutional right is “meaningless” to politicians. “I kept asking government officials the significance of this, and it’s not significant. I think if they started to take that seriously in administrative terms it would be helpful,” he explained.

“Obviously social housing has been comprehensively neglected for many years now. I think there are lots of measures in the tax system, whether it’s penalizing absentee owners, encouraging new construction, or requiring 30% of housing to be affordable.” 

At the end of the day, Alston says his main conclusion from the report is that “rent controls need to be considered much more seriously than they currently are.”