Dispossession and Dissent
Immigrants and the Struggle for Housing in Madrid
Sophie L. Gonick



Immigration, Homeownership, and Activism

Toward the end of 2006 Maribel decided to buy a house in Madrid. An immigrant from a poor suburb of Quito, Ecuador, she had lived in the Spanish capital for eight years, where she worked first as a live-in nanny, and then as a housekeeper to a series of wealthy families.1 She had managed to save a bit of money, which she hoped to invest in the urban boom that was taking place all around her. Many in her immediate network had purchased housing in the city. A real estate agency in her neighborhood that catered specifically to an immigrant clientele helped her find a forty-square-meter flat in an older building. While the place needed work and was far from the subway, Maribel was excited to become a homeowner.

She would not be a homeowner for long. As the global economy collapsed in 2008, her mortgage rate shot up. She lost her job at the beginning of 2009. When she fell behind on monthly payments, her lender foreclosed on the property. In early 2010 she was evicted from her home but under Spanish law she remained responsible for the paying the outstanding debt, which totaled some 180,000 Euros.2

Dispossession and Dissent reveals the multiple ways that home owner ship fuels dispossession and drives urban inequality. Much more than simply a model of housing, home owner ship promises incorporation, urban inclusion, and the accrual of equity. However, its costliness, its reliance on outsized investments, its ties to debt, and its consumption of land can deepen exclusion and produce new forms of vulnerability. On the other hand, this book also illuminates how home owner ship as a target for activism can bring together diverse groups to imagine radical collective futures. In the case of Madrid, Andean immigrants such as Maribel were the first to protest against the extant terms of the prevalent model of private property.3 In the process, they sparked one of the world’s most exciting and paradigmatic urban housing movements, which now serves as a model for similar struggles across the globe.

Indeed, when I met Maribel in 2013, she had become a seasoned activist with the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH—Platform for Mortgage Affected People), which had emerged to fight to the panorama of crisis that engulfed the nation. Her trajectory from immigrant to homeowner to activist reflects the broader transformation of a city and a nation that experienced numerous, rapid changes over the course of a decade. Spain became an immigrant nation within the short span of a single decade. From 2001 to 2008 its foreign-born population grew fivefold. A country long accustomed to emigration soon saw itself transformed into a site of lively and complex diversity. In Madrid Ecuadorians fueled this transformation.

Madrid has long been a site of arrival. Since the turn of the last century, rural peasants had flocked to the capital in search of employment, a trend that intensified during the brutal economic depression of the Franco era. But mass foreign immigration is relatively new. In 1998 only 10,000 Ecuadorians lived in Spain. By 2005 that number had reached half a million.4 Almost all of this population lived in the Madrid region, where working-class neighborhoods soon became bustling ethnic enclaves. Ecuadorians established cultural associations and businesses, and on weekends flocked to the city’s parks for barbeques and soccer tournaments. Assiduous at saving, they also sent millions of euros home, contributing to Ecuador’s economic development.

These demographic and urban transformations occurred alongside other changes that would lead to profound economic crisis by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. As Spain entered the European Union and then Euro Zone, it pursued a number of measures to make itself competitive within the global marketplace, including banking and finance deregulation and the introduction of novel forms of credit. The securitized mortgage soon became a key tool to bolster both personal and municipal bank balances. The explosion of credit opportunities, meanwhile, coupled with the liberalization of land use laws, allowed for the complete transformation of the urban landscape. Madrid built to the extent of its capacity, constructing hundreds of thousands of new housing units and glittering new centers for leisure and commerce, investing in cutting-edge business infrastructure to attract multinational corporations, and extensively expanding its metro and regional rail systems.

By early 2008 the city found itself on the brink of disaster. Both the municipal and regional governments soon went broke and subsequently slashed services. Myriad businesses that sustained the boom—construction companies and development firms, real estate agencies and financial franchises—closed up shop. The first to lose jobs were immigrant workers. Soon subprime mortgage payments ballooned, and thousands of people faced foreclosure and eviction. In late 2008 and early 2009, however, a few pioneering members of the Ecuadorian community began to challenge increasing housing precarity, both drawing on their own experiences of dispossession and deploying strategies from their community’s past activism. In so doing, they created the foundation for Spain’s most successful social movement. Their participation in the PAH and the broader housing movement, as I argue in this book, was not accidental. They were not mere victims of predatory lending, but rather transformative figures in forging a politics of outrage.

I examine their history of struggle to draw out the intersections of housing, immigration, and urbanism, a crucial task given that cities are currently being remade through regimes of both property and migration.5 Within contemporary urban landscapes, housing is at the epicenter of fierce debates over our collective futures.6 Urban residents spend disproportionately on their place of residence, a reality that has inspired innovative and exciting forms of social protest. In Madrid, credit opportunities, housing speculation, and migration all surged together over the course of a single decade, followed rapidly by a devastating crisis and subsequent popular outrage. The confluence of people, capital, and crisis makes the Spanish capital an important site to observe how immigrants navigate both boom and bust, and how extant systems contribute to their experiences of settlement and survival in the city.

Home owner ship lies at the heart of this story. Most critical scholarship on home owner ship examines the United States. Yet systems of ownership of housing and land manifest themselves in myriad ways across the globe, each with its own variegated history. We cannot read them merely as transplants of the American model.7 Examining the histories and lived experiences of homeowner ship in Madrid, I came to understand that this housing system offered a particular means of incorporation for the Andean community during the city’s boom. But as I dug deeper, home owner ship revealed itself to have been an engine for a number of different transformations. It was an integration policy for immigrants, but also a means of economic inclusion for members of the working class long denied upward mobility. Home owner ship was a state strategy to spur Madrid’s growth across the twentieth century, but also a technique for discipline, domination, and dispossession. In 2008, however, home owner ship became an engine of exclusion that devastated households and splintered communities. By 2012 housing insecurity had become the focal point of Spain’s most vibrant social movement. Through my research, I discovered that Ecuadorian immigrants had catalyzed that movement, transforming their experiences of vulnerability into outrage and then vibrant, plural contestation.

Scholarship on migration and cities often looks to placemaking and public space, labor, or immigrant social movements.8 Yet as revealed in this book, housing is central to the immigrant urban experience, for processes of settlement and emplacement and for claims-making and protest.9 My attention to immigrants as they navigate and contest urban housing markets led me to the book’s central arguments. First, home owner ship fuels urban inequality and multiple forms of dispossession against promises of inclusion, advancement, and economic growth. Such negative effects, however, can also rupture historical attachments to the ownership model, transforming it into a target of social and political protest. As the Madrid case reveals, immigrants discern and formulate dissent to propertied dispossession, catalyzing protest by drawing on past experiences with exploitation and activism. Resulting struggles such as the PAH model new forms of inclusive collaboration and imagine radical alternatives.


1. I have chosen to use the term “immigrant” instead of “migrant” in this account. Debates in Europe often deploy the term “migrant,” which some argue privileges mobility and stands implicitly against settlement, rendering the migrant presence as temporary. I resist that urge, but I also use “immigrant” because it is faithful to the original Spanish, inmigrante. In a country that has a long history of emigration, the term provides crucial distinction.

2. All mortgages in Spain, similar to most other parts of Europe, are recourse loans. As such, the house does not act as the only collateral—lenders can pursue other assets to recoup the entire amount of the loan. Considering most housing was overvalued during the boom, many borrowers were then responsible for large amounts of money after repossession of the house.

3. Drawing on the lineage of Andean area studies, I use the term to reference mostly Ecuadorians and Peruvians. Most interlocutors and early organizers were of Ecuadorian descent. At the same time, there are many ties between the Ecuadorian and Peruvian communities in Madrid, with the latter being much smaller than the former. Because of their relatively small size, many in the Peruvian community were incorporated into the Ecuadorian community. For an overview of Andean area studies, see Drake and Hershberg, State and Society in Conflict.

4. Iglesias Martínez, La población de origen ecuatoriano en España.

5. Çaglar and Schiller, Migrants and City-Making; Hinze, Turkish Berlin; Sandoval-Strausz, Barrio America; Barber, Latino City; Vitiello and Sugrue, Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States; Stein, Capital City.

6. Rolnik, Urban Warfare; Potts, Broken Cities.

7. Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property; D’Costa and Chakraborty, The Land Question in India; Islamoglu, Constituting Modernity; Zavisca, Housing the New Russia, 9.

8. Dikeç, “Immigrants, Banlieues, and Dangerous Things”; Merrill, An Alliance of Women Immigration and the Politics of Race; Çaglar and Schiller, Migrants and City-Making; Nicholls and Uitermark, Cities and Social Movements; Holmes, “Representing the ‘European Refugee Crisis’ in Germany and Beyond.”

9. While such a statement might seem obvious, there is a surprising lack of scholarship that centers housing in examining immigrants and the city.