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Barcelona Is Fighting for the Right to Housing

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau has taken housing out of the hands of profiteers. In tomorrow's election, she aims to prove that socialists can reject the market-led development of our cities – and win.

Ada Colau speaks during a Municipal Elections rally. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

‘Tackling certain privileges was always going to anger the economic powers. We have implemented a different model for this city — a fairer, more democratic and feminist one… [Within Spain] we are leaders in social spending and public housing. We have increased green spaces and bike lanes, improved public transport and shut thousands of illegal holiday apartments.’

So insisted Barcelona mayor Ada Colau in a recent interview with El Diario newspaper, conducted in the run-up to Sunday’s tightly contested municipal elections in the city. Ten years after the then anti-eviction activist was photographed in a series of viral images being dragged away by Catalan riot police at a sit-in protest at a Barcelona bank, Colau is now an incumbent candidate seeking a third term at the head of the city’s municipal government. 

But her move from activism to institutional management has not been straightforward. Her eight years in office have been one of both convulsion and exhaustion. Elected on the back of the Indignados/15M wave of anti-austerity protests, her first term in office took place against the background of a certain ebbing of such social movement activity. At the same time, the Catalan independence movement mobilised millions in its push for secession from the Spanish state. Taking a more neutral stance on Catalonia’s constitutional status, Colau’s Barcelona en Comú formation has sought to anchor its agenda in a series of urban struggles around the right to housing and the city. 

But if the retreat of the independence movement since the pandemic has revindicated Colau’s insistence on material and feminist issues, her administration has had to pursue its agenda within a difficult balance of forces. Faced with a continual campaign of lawfare from corporate developers and other capitalist interests in the city, as well as with the need to build a working majority on the council with two centre-left parties—the pro-unionist Catalan Socialist Party and pro-independence Esquerra Republicana, Colau’s team have not had it easy. Certain core demands have ended up sidelined, such as the commitment to take outsourced local services under public control, while the limits to the formal powers of municipal government and the torturous pace of institutional politics have also generated frustration among activist groups.  

Yet despite such limits, Colau and her administration have advanced a substantive agenda around housing, urban planning and social policy as they have moved to limit the mass tourism and property speculation that has blighted Barcelona in recent decades. In particular, the council has pushed its legal powers to the limits to halt the Airbnb-isation of the city while, at the same time, implementing an ambitious Right to Housing Plan that is on target to double Barcelona’s social housing stock by 2025. Furthermore, its pedestrianisation model of creating car-free ‘superblocks’ and its pilot schemes in free municipal dental care and psychological counselling services have also put the council on the map internationally.  

Now, however, Colau finds herself in a tight three-way race to secure a historic third term. Polls are divided about whether she, the Socialist candidate Jaume Collboni or the city’s former right-wing mayor Xavier Trias, from the pro-independence Junts, will come out on top (with all three averaging around 20 percent of the vote). ‘We are in a battle for the future of the city’, Mario Rios, an advisor to Colau’s party, tells Tribune. ‘And there are only two options on Sunday: one represented by Ada with her green and socially transformative policies while the other two candidates are offering some version of a return to the pro-tourism, pro-business agenda of the past.’ 

Housing Strategy 

In a campaign dominated by the housing crisis, Colau’s agenda received an important boost earlier this month with the passing of the national housing law, which will finally provide a legislative framework for municipal governments in Spain to enforce substantive rent controls. The country’s progressive coalition has been deadlocked on the issue for over three years. Podemos’ social affairs minister Ione Belarra has faced continual resistance from her more centrist Socialist colleagues over the proposal. ‘The new law is not perfect, and there are outstanding loopholes which will have to be closed at a regional level in Catalonia but, even still, it does represent a major advance’, Eduardo González de Molina, a policy advisor with Barcelona council’s housing unit, tells Tribune 

The overturning of previous Catalan rent control legislation in March 2022, on what sociologist Carlos Delclós describes as ‘a tendentious legal reading’ by the Catalan Constitutional Court, has left Colau’s administration with very limited policy tools to combat spiralling rent prices in the post-pandemic period—which reached historic levels by the first quarter of 2023. Given such a reversal, Delclós sees Barcelona en Comú as ‘having done about as much as it can to hold back the tide [of speculation] in the short-term with some excellent measures’ while also insisting that the city has ‘become a reference point internationally for housing politics because of how it is using the powers at its disposal to lay the ground for an innovative middle and long-term strategy.’ 

This is a point echoed by González de Molina, who, while maintaining that there is no ‘silver bullet or shortcuts’ when it comes to housing, argues that Colau’s administration has implemented a ‘paradigm shift’ in municipal policy orientated around building a renewed strategic role for the public sector in directing and shaping the housing market: ‘Our long-term vision is “Vienna 2.0″—that is a city capable of guaranteeing the right to housing through providing stronger tenant protections and a balance between affordable private, public, and third sector housing.’ 

In concrete terms, this shift is most evident in the council’s ten-year plan to double council housing to break with the disastrous model of for-sale protected social housing that has been the dominant policy model in Spain for decades. Under the latter, public funds subsidised hundreds of thousands of affordable homeownership units (known as VPOs), only for them to be resold on the private market when their protected status expired after twenty to thirty years. This meant that when Colau became mayor in 2015, the city only had 7,500 council flats. ‘This is a ridiculous figure given that we want to reach a level of 15 or 20 percent [of the housing stock] as they have in other European cities, which would mean having 80,000 affordable units in public hands’, the city’s head of housing Lucía Martín explained in a recent interview in El Salto Diario. 

In response, early in its first term, Colau’s administration articulated a three-pronged strategy to radically increase public and socially affordable housing. The primary component has been new builds, principally council flats under the direction of Barcelona Housing Authority (with 5,929 units at various stages of development by the end of 2022), as well as a series of collaborations with grassroots cooperative housing providers, which have now totalled nearly 1,000 units. Secondly, the council has enacted an aggressive housing acquisition strategy through the use of the council’s right to first refusal, which has seen it obtain a further 1,600 residential properties. ‘No other city in Europe is buying on this scale right now, with the exception of maybe Paris’, González de Molina notes. 

Finally, the council has also boosted the supply of socially affordable housing by mobilising 1,600 vacant private apartments in the city through financial incentives, such as renovation grants, in exchange for which landlords commit to rent out their properties at reduced rates for fixed periods.  

Combatting Speculation 

‘We have made serious leaps forward’, Martín insists, pointing out that Barcelona now has the largest council housing stock in Spain. But she also acknowledges that, given where the administration started from, ‘many of the housing policies we have approved will have to be pursued for the next ten, twenty or thirty years to produce structural changes’. This is where rent controls become crucial, and Colau has promised that Barcelona will be ‘the first city to implement the new housing law and with maximum ambition’ as she prepares to declare the whole city a high-pressure rent zone. Yet in the absence of such powers, the council has sought to confront a range of abusive practices through planning regulations, local ordinances and the setting up an anti-eviction unit.  

In terms of the latter, González de Molina tells Tribune that as ‘Ada came from the anti-eviction movement La PAH, the creation of this unit has been crucial for us’. Since its creation in 2015, its team has dealt with 15,400 cases, halting evictions in nearly 90 percent through mediation between landlords and tenants and enforcement of anti-eviction protections. This has led corporate landlords to bring charges of unlawful coercion against officials on various occasions. ‘There are still a large number of evictions in Barcelona, but if you add up all the ones that they stopped through their mediation service, it has been significantly reduced’, Delclos insists. 

Beyond that, Barcelona also stands out as a clear exception from the rest of Catalonia in its large-scale crackdown on AirBnBs, as well as with its moratorium on new hotels. Between 2015 and 2023. the total number of holiday flats in the wider Catalan region went from 45,000 to nearly 100,000, whereas Barcelona’s total has remained unchanged at around 9,000 units—with the council closing 8,000 unlicensed flats during this period and a policy of refusing to renew licences in the areas of the city with the highest density of AirBnbs. ‘We cannot outright revoke licences—that would require a change in regional law—but with local ordinance, you can push quite far in regulating the licencing,’ González de Molina explains. ‘Furthermore, our new dedicated enforcement agency has had a zero-tolerance policy with unlicensed lets.’ 

In contrast, the moratorium on hotels has had more mixed results as developers resisted repurposing the sites for residential apartments and instead built corporate student accommodation, co-living units and other high-end rentals designed for foreign temporary residents like digital nomads. Since the 2008 financial crisis and the arrival en masse of international investment funds, 25 percent of Barcelona’s private rental stock has been concentrated in the hands of corporate landlords for whom signing a long-term residential contract with a tenant is seen as providing the lowest return on their investment.  

This points to a fundamental dilemma Barcelona en Comu has grappled with: as it engages in the patient institutional work of developing a comprehensive regulatory regime, these financial forces are constantly radicalising the market with new speculative practices that exploit any loophole. For example, in response to the spike in digital nomads post-pandemic, her party is now seeking to build a consensus in the council around banning new temporary residential rentals (i.e. those with leases of between one and eleven months), but in the meantime, landlords continue to flow out of the long-term rental market and towards this much more lucrative sector. 

An Inflection Point

Back on the campaign trail, conservative media outlets are pitching the election as about Barcelona’s status as an increasingly lawless and dysfunctional city under Colau’s watch—even though the Catalan capital has seen the largest drop in crime of any major Spanish city since 2019 (falling 16 percent). In particular, right-wing parties have focused heavily on the question of squatters in an attempt to reframe the housing crisis around questions of law and order and the threat to private property. Such scare tactics culminated in far-right vigilantes marching on two Anarchist social centres in occupied vacant buildings chanting ‘Ada Colau is a whore and a squatter’ and making fascist salutes on the first day of official campaigning. 

Yet both her centrist rivals in the mayoral race have also leaned into this narrative, with the Socialists even promising a new local government office dedicated to preventing squatting in the city. In response, Barcelona en Comu has made light of the hysterical nature of much of the coverage, as reflected in its slogan ‘Everything is the fault of Ada Colau’, while also focusing on the idea of Barcelona as a vanguard city, which since the 1919 general strike (and the winning of the eight hour working day) has been at the forefront of social change in Europe.  

As much of the continent now lurches to the right, the message of Colau’s party is that a historic third term in office is vital to deepen its progressive, post-neoliberal reform agenda for the city. Despite the war of attrition waged against her, Colau’s popularity with progressive voters has endured much better than other insurgent left-wing leaders around Europe over the last decade. ‘She has made a successful transition in her leadership style—from an anti-establishment populist candidate in 2015 to now having a more institutionalised profile centred on a substantive left and green reformism rather than a rupture from the old ways of doing politics’, Rios argues.  

The polls for Sunday show a technical tie between the three leading candidates, with Rios predicting that the difference between first and second place could be as close as 4,000 votes. Youth turnout could be decisive, with higher participation among young voters likely to give Colau a boost. But in a context quite distinct from that of 2015, when there was an air of generational change about local elections in Spain, it remains to be seen if her party can mobilise such voters in sufficient numbers. Her victory, however, would ensure Barcelona’s continued place at the forefront of the wider struggle in our cities around asserting the primacy of housing as a right over housing as an asset.