Housing justice is climate justice – how neighbourhoods are organising in Barcelona

picture of la base in Barcelona with cars in front and a man and child on the right

Nishma Doshi travelled around Europe with our Routes programme. Here they describe how fighting for housing rights is a part of climate justice in Barcelona.

What is climate justice? What are we fighting for when we talk about stopping climate change?

Climate breakdown is a problem because it threatens our lives. It threatens our lives because it makes the world around us inhospitable, to us and to other species. It means losing our homes, access to clean water, access to good nutritious food, access to all our basic needs.

So when we are fighting for survival – which is what stopping climate change is about – we are fighting for our basic needs. We are fighting for healthy lives; we are fighting for the continued access to our basic needs. That’s ultimately what climate justice is about. It’s about an globally equal and equitable access to that which gives us life.

That’s why one of my stops in Barcelona was at the La Base: Ateneu Co-operatiu, where the sindicat de barri del Poble Sec (the neighbourhood union for the Poble Sec area) were having their weekly assembly.

Across Barcelona, different neighbourhoods (barris) have collectively organised to stop evictions and protect basic housing rights. Poble Sec is of particular interest as it is relatively small neighbourhood with a diverse population; residents come from across Europe, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Pakistan – as well as local Catalans.

The weekly meetings

The sindicat meets once a week on Monday night. There, they discuss general strategies for upcoming political issues as well as provide support for community cases. Folks with cases – largely related to housing – drop their names in a jar at the beginning of the meeting, and after the strategy session ends, those names are pulled out, they get a chance to state their case, and assembly members collectively suggest support and solutions.

To be more inclusive, the meetings are held in Spanish (Castellano) as many of the migrants from Latin America do not speak Catalan. This is quite an important compromise made as many Catalans refuse to speak Castellano as a voice of dissent against the Spanish government which has repeatedly, and violently, repressed Catalonia’s demand for independence – as we are witnessing right now.

As I don’t speak Castellano or Catalan, I was kindly invited to the assembly by one of the sindicat’s members – Lorenzo. While the original aim of the sindicat was to deal with many political issues, he tells me, most of the actual organising work ends up being around housing as that is what is most urgent. Evictions are common due to rent rises, and increased property speculation. Most cases that come to the sindicat are related to evictions.

With Barcelona increasingly building its economy around tourism, property speculation in popular areas – like the city centre – is rampant. Airbnb** has also become a problem, with an increasing amount of flats and spare bedrooms used for temporary tourists rather than for local community housing.

There are also issues around rights to rent for those without the right papers – that can mean rights of residency to landlords requiring long-term job contracts. Many migrants feel caught in a trap: without rights of residency it is hard to find a job; and without a job it is impossible to rent a space in order to acquire rights of residency. This can be a problem for EU migrants too.

The meetings are organised in a circle (as far as possible) – with members volunteering for different roles each week. These roles can be “Masters of Ceremony” to childcare to welcoming new members. Fragments of the meeting which were translated to me were decisions on how to show solidarity with another barri eviction to how to respond to the sentences placed on Catalan leaders pushing for independence. It is observable how most of the strategy section engages more of the ethnic Catalan activists, while the racialised people* remain mostly quiet.

The case work is particularly interesting – and this is really where the issues of the immigrant population are raised. Once a name is called from the jar, that person either states their problem or gives an update on their case. Members of the community then give their advice and expertise. If needs be, the community will come together and stop an eviction or campaign together to challenge a landlord or the municipal government.

It is also important to note that, of the racialised people in attendence, almost all were women. I was told that women are often left with the responsibility of seeking help/support, especially in issues of housing and the family. This work is deeply gendered, with the majority of the responsibility falling on women.

Furthermore there is a visible divide between the racialised peoples in the space and the white activists – the latter seem to hold most of the organisational responsibility. One of them – Dan – also pointed out this distinction, calling it a unintentional “hierarchy”.

Obviously some work needs to be done to bridge these divides still. As I travelled and spoke to more people in Barcelona, this was an issue that was brought up over and over again. And it’s also been an issue I’ve observed in Scotland too.

In my experience, this often comes to how a space is run – the norms of the organisation can be ‘foreign’ to those who have no direct experience of this kind of organising before. And example of these norms could be consensus decision making or rotating roles. These norms are often uncritically accepted into organisational structures with no real space for reform or explorations of alternatives.

This makes it difficult for those of us who don’t fully embrace or feel part of anarchist organising to feel distanced or ostracised from the project. We are always working in ways which are culturally suited for our white colleagues and not really for us or the communities we come from. A longer discussion on community organising methods which centres the experiences of marginalised and racialised people seems really necessary if we want to overcome these divides.

La Base: Ateneu Co-operatiu

La Base was formed after the Indignados movement, when people felt it was necessary to have infrastructure and access to amenities in order to organise for change.

The space has meeting rooms, a daily kitchen co-operative which serves up an affordable lunch, a workspace for basic building and repairs, a feminist collective, and a number of other projects apart from the sindicat. The projects provide local employment and benefits local companies and businesses.

Housing Justice is Climate Justice

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the lives of so many people, houses were flooded and washed away. But the oak trees remained. They stood tall and weathered the storm because their roots were intertwinned. Of the over 700 oak trees in New Orleans, only 40 died. The rest held on.

As we saw with Katrina, responses to the catastrophic effects of climate change are deeply racialised. Black working class communities are still not getting the support they need.

As Clara-Luisa Weichelt and Julieta Perucca explain:

“Governments worldwide fail to provide safe housing and basic infrastructure for a massive amount of people – and the challenges are increasing. People are frequently driven to live in informal settlements by environmental factors, such as natural disasters or environmental degradation that tend to happen more frequently due to climate change. But, the settlements to which they migrate also place them at risk: Nonresistant houses on land that is at risk of flooding, storm surges, mudslides, earthquakes, or contaminated sites, close to roads, waste and/or factories, is more likely to be vacant and is less likely to be contested for investment or development. The lack of basic infrastructure as access to drinking water, health provision, sewage systems, electricity and education as well as the lack of political and social recognition further exacerbates their vulnerability.”

The Nexus between the Right to Housing and Climate Change – Insights from the Climate Conference COP24 in Katowice, Poland, (Thursday 10 January 2019)

Adequate housing rights for all, especially the marginalised in essential in preventing the worst impacts of climate change. Given the failure of governments to meet these basic needs, it has become essential that communities organise together to defend their rights.

If we want to survive what climate change is throwing at us now, as well as in the future, we need to find ways to supporting each other. The sindicat de barri del Poble Sec is one way which people are building connections and working together to deal with housing insecurity. While it’s not perfect, it’s providing many people with the support that they need; support that prevents them from ending up homeless and on the street.

*In Spain, People of Colour (PoC) or Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) are not used. The word commonly used translates as “racialised people”. This is because the process of Spain’s colonisation was dissimilar to that of British colonialism, and thus racial categories are different.
** While Spain has passed a law requiring all Airbnbs to pay taxes, EU data protection laws allow Airbnb to not disclose who is renting a room through the service. This means that the government struggles to enforce the tax. (This has been further impacted by a recent EU court ruling that has declared Airbnb not a real estate company)

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