How to fight gentrification in Toronto: lessons from Spain’s barrios

From fines on banks to direct actions and the occupation of slumlord properties, we might do well to look abroad for examples of those who have decided to fight the housing crisis head-on

Barcelona, Spain – The bass of a portable sound system pumps out reggaeton rhythms and the smell of paella is thick in the air. A crowd of 50 people fills the narrow sidestreet. They are dancing, sharing food and conspicuously lining up in front of a six-unit walk-up. A banner covers the front door of the seemingly abandoned building. Moments later there are cheers as the banner is moved aside to reveal a doorway and more banners are unfurled from the balconies above.

“Ni gente sin casa, Ni casa sin gente,” one of them reads. (No people without homes, no homes without people).

On this warm and sunny Sunday in February, the housing assembly in the Sants neighbourhood had just rehoused six local families who had been evicted in an apartment block that has been left sitting empty by its owners.

The February occupation was part of a series of direct actions kicked-off in 2009 with the formation of volunteer-run national network PAH, or the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages

Ever since, thousands of evictions have been stopped by collective action across the country and empty buildings have been successfully taken over by homeless former tenants. Thousands more evictions have been prevented through collective bargaining with banks and other debt holders brought together in local PAH groups and other independent housing assemblies in neighbourhoods across Spain.

Like many cities in Europe, in Toronto housing as investment, has come to trump housing as home, with an array of consequences. 

Homelessness remains an international blight on The 6ix. While tent cities under the Gardiner are turned into luxury dining bubbles for the haves, illegal evictions continue to plague communities across the city amid a condo boom showing no signs of abating.

Some tenants are fighting back – pro-housing and anti-gentrification protests, rent strikes and guerrilla marketing campaigns in Parkdale make this clear. Yet with all that is at stake, that fight will need to cross more ward boundaries if it is going to shake things up at City Hall and Queen’s Park.

Imagine calls for an end to vacancy decontrol. Or the expropriation of slumlord properties not maintained to decent living standards. Or the banning of landlords owning massive property portfolios. And imagine if each of these demands was backed by a mass of residents willing to put their bodies in the way of the destruction of homes and communities. 

In Spain, the housing market has been in a perpetual state of crisis since the 2008 economic crash. The balance of the country’s astronomical eviction rates has shifted from mortgage foreclosures to rental evictions, but Spain still sees an eviction carried out every eight minutes.


London Renters Union protest at Advance Estates to get renter her money back. 

It’s a similar situation in the UK, where 19 per cent of inner London residences sit empty, while untold numbers of families are forced out of the British capital daily by rising rents.

Even in Germany, where housing has historically been cheaper than other European countries, the crisis is hitting home. In 2018, Berlin achieved the dubious distinction of having the fastest growing property market in the world, with prices jumping by more than 20 per cent. Three other German cities also made the top-10 list, drawing in global investors like moths to a flame.

The specific causes of the housing crisis vary from city to city, but the impacts are similar: more and more people unable to live in the places that they have built up and made homes and communities, as urban properties become high-growth investments for a tiny segment of the population.

These effects are not the only common features of this global crisis though. The ways of fighting back are also spreading, at both the street and electoral ends of the political spectrum.

In Barcelona, Ada Colau, one of the founders of PAH was elected the city’s mayor in May 2015, becoming the first woman to hold the office. Her party has implemented and enforced fines on banks that own homes but leave them sitting empty banned new AirBnBs in the city due to the impacts on rental prices and vacancy rates, and legislated that all new major redevelopments in the city include at least 30 per cent affordable housing.

In Berlin, meanwhile, tenants are attempting to make legal history, pushing for a referendum that would force the state to nationalize the properties of any landlord with over 3,000 residential units. If campaigners are able to garner 190,000 signatures on a petition by February 2020, the government will be forced to let people decide if the country’s mega-landlords should have their portfolios converted into public housing.

Even in Brexit-era London, grassroots action is starting to push back the tides of gentrification, like the recent boycott campaign by the London Renters Union to retrieve over £5,000 a local real estate agency had taken from a vulnerable tenant for an apartment she never moved into. 

There are also bigger shifts afoot in the UK enabled by the growth of a housing movement that hasn’t been afraid to occupy empty buildings, shut-down local council offices and resist evictions with bodies in doorways. Those actions recently resulted in the just-announced end to no-fault evictions and the introduction of lifetime tenancies by the Conservative government.

Toronto may not be facing Barcelona’s foreclosure crisis, Berlin’s level of corporate consolidation of rental units, or London’s boom in high-end investment property, but with all that is on the line in Toronto in 2019, we might do well to look abroad for examples of those who have decided to demand the seemingly impossible. The future of our city depends on it.

Liam Barrington-Bush is a housing organizer, author and facilitator from Parkdale, currently living in London, England. He tweets at @hackofalltrades.


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