The costs of renting or paying off a mortgage in Barcelona, Spain, have risen much faster than the population’s incomes in recent years. This, coupled with growing unemployment due to the subprime crises (2007-2010) and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic, has increased pressure on household finances and put more people at risk of eviction. A severe shortage of social homes in the city means people face the very real threat of becoming homeless. In June 2022, 650 families were waiting for an emergency home and that number continues to grow.
Despite a moratorium on evictions because of the pandemic, there are still 20 evictions on average every day in Barcelona. This situation is expected to worsen when the current moratoriums end on 31 December 2022.
Several European-level studies and initiatives, such as Housing First, agree that helping people to maintain their tenure and avoid eviction is the most important and effective strategy for ending homelessness.
Since 2015, a municipal mediation service has been working to prevent evictions of vulnerable people in Barcelona, decreasing not only homelessness and its social consequences, but also the associated financial burden on the municipal government for emergency housing services and accompaniment activities.
The Intervention and Mediation Service for Situations of Housing Loss and/or Occupation (SIPHO) is provided by the Municipal Institute of Housing and Renovation of Barcelona and implemented through its neighbourhood-based Housing Office Network. It forms part of Barcelona’s Strategic Right to Housing Plan 2016-2024, which aims to reduce residential exclusion through the increase of the social and affordable housing offer through diverse strategies (direct construction of public housing, collaboration with private and non-profit sectors).
SIPHO intervenes in 90% of cases where people are at imminent risk of losing their home and has so far provided advice to more than 31,000 people. Demand for the service grew significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why SIPHO increased both budgets and staff, moving from 19 to 43 employees in the third quarter of 2022.
The project in practice
SIPHO was inspired by the housing rights campaign Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) and its objective is to stop or delay evictions and to provide mediation, support and coordination with social and housing services. The priority is to keep people in their homes or find a suitable alternative that fulfills the international standards of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The service intervenes in urgent cases where an eviction order has been executed and residents are at risk of losing their home within 15 days. If more time is involved, the mediation process is conducted by another municipal department. SIPHO is informed of impending evictions by the judiciary or via referrals from housing officers, social services or other organisations involved in the sector.
Information is gathered on the case from all available resources to establish household composition (which is especially relevant in cases where children are involved), the type of property owner, and the formal cause of eviction (for example, non-payment of rent, end of contract, precarious occupation, or foreclosure on the mortgage).
An interview is conducted, and a home visit is made, whenever possible, to observe the state of the home. In emergency cases, the interview is carried out within the first 48 hours. Accredited economic data is looked at, including employment status and income, social and community ties, relevant health information, indicators of vulnerability and family burdens. The data and interview are analysed, along with the tenant history on file, to form an intervention action plan.
Working within clear guidelines, SIPHO contacts and negotiates with the property owner, whether that is an individual or a large business, and presents the case and action plan. Often, the resolution takes the form of an attribution of social housing or other subsidized emergency housing solutions.
If the owner is a private company – and 52% of cases are – a proposal is made to stop the eviction as stipulated under the rules of current legislation. Mortgage conditions can be reviewed through aid programmes, or social rental where appropriate. As a municipal service, SIPHO has an authoritative voice, which it has used to develop specific agreements with big property owners, such as Spain’s largest private landlord Blackstone, for the effective coordination of cases.
For the remaining 48% of cases where a small business or individual owner is involved, SIPHO seeks to learn about the owner’s situation and establish a plan to negotiate a postponement of the eviction, whether through the provision of subsidies to avoid it, the possibility of renegotiating the rental price or inclusion in Barcelona’s affordable Housing Stock Programme. In such cases, SIPHO tries to find a win-win situation, so both the property owner and the tenant can take advantage of specific subsidies developed by the municipality.
If the eviction is carried out, SIPHO coordinates the urgent relocation of the household with social and/or emergency services. On the other hand, if the eviction is avoided then a plan is put in place so that going forward the resident gets the help needed to sustain their tenure.
Additionally, people threatened with eviction are given emotional support throughout the process and residents are accompanied by SIPHO staff when dealing with the different parties involved in the case.
SIPHO is primarily focused on helping vulnerable groups, including people over the age of 65, households with dependents, pregnant women, people with disabilities, serious illness, or mental disorders, situations involving domestic violence and people who are economically vulnerable.
These criteria mean it is rare for SIPHO not to assist in a case of eviction. In 2021, 86% of the cases served by SIPHO related to people living under the poverty line and 47% involved children. It is worth noting that a large proportion of the households affected are women who care on their own for dependants or minors.
SIPHO is fully funded by Barcelona’s municipal government. Since 2015, the total cost of the project has been €4,205,270 ($4,441,550 USD).
This amount includes the cost of the current management contract which expires in October 2022. There is currently an ongoing tender to extend the contract for two more years, with the option of extending it for another two after that, for the same amount.
The next stage of the programme is expected to cost around €10 million ($10,560,000 USD) plus tax. This includes staff costs, supply costs (for example, transportation services for those facing evictions) and office costs.
A variety of support and subsidies are engaged by the programme. These are financed through the Housing Consortium of Barcelona, with the municipal authority covering 40% of the costs and the Government of Catalonia covering the remaining 60%.
SIPHO’s growth over the past seven years reflects the increase in poverty among Barcelona’s residents. In each intervention, staff provide financial support in the form of subsidies which cover debt and rent payment support for residents who have recovered their ability to make payments but have accumulated debt in the interim, social support for those who have lost their source of income, mediation and legal support so individuals can access public housing, pensions, assisted living, housing for victims of domestic violence and job placements.
For homeowners there is support from the affordable housing portfolio – a programme that ensures empty homes can be publicly offered at affordable prices – to compensate for the loss of income when a new social contract is negotiated.
Homelessness prevention not only avoids trauma for the individuals at risk of losing their home, but it also saves money for the public purse, as post-eviction support from social services has a much greater economic cost.
In its first seven years, SIPHO has supported more than 31,000 people, a third of whom are minors. It participates in 90% of the eviction processes throughout the city, preventing nine out of 10 evictions. Since its creation there has been a 22% decrease in evictions in Barcelona.
A key feature of the service is its personal approach. SIPHO’s implementation through the Housing Office Network facilitates closer working with vulnerable groups affected by the threat of eviction and moves away from the practice of considering people as numbers and statistics.
In cases involving undocumented migrants, there are limitations as to which subsidies can be used. However, these groups are served as best as possible and are offered other mediation and emergency support where possible.
Transfer and expansion
SIPHO is growing rapidly with the recent doubling of its staff completed in October 2022. This growth brings with it a new structure, which includes added roles for social services, such as mobilising emergency accommodation support, in order to supply more comprehensive and specialised support.
Going forward, SIPHO will continue to consolidate and improve the service it offers, increase its collaborative work with other social services and develop new strategies for keeping vulnerable people in their homes.
Transfer is a key priority for the programme and a study is planned to assess the savings that this type of intervention represents for the public purse, with the aim of encouraging replication of the service elsewhere.
It is rare for local administrations to take such a proactive approach to homelessness prevention, as the issue is usually tackled by social services or by organisations attending to homeless people after homelessness has occurred.
SIPHO highlights the important role that local and regional governments can play in protecting the right to housing and preventing homelessness through mediation between parties. The coordination and integration of services and subsidies, as well as the programme’s humane approach, is proving very effective for residents, who instead of facing confusing bureaucracy now find a useful and friendly service to support them at their time of greatest need.