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Evictions dash immigrants' dreams of better life in Europe

By Al Goodman, CNN
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu March 15, 2012
  • There have been 150,000 evictions of Spaniards and immigrants since the 2008 bust
  • Protesters have taken to the streets in Spain to try to prevent people from losing their homes
  • "I just hope we can stay at least until the kids finish school this term," a mother says
  • Ecuadorian immigrants have been hard hit by the evictions, immigrants group leader says

Madrid, Spain (CNN) -- It's late in Madrid and a family of Ecuadorian immigrants is working feverishly to save their belongings.

They face an eviction order, and it could be their last night at home.

Like tens of thousands of others hit hard by Spain's deep economic crisis, they're behind on their mortgage payments.

"I just hope we can stay at least until the kids finish school this term. I only want that," said Kelly Herrera, fighting back tears. "And that they give me time to take everything, even the windows, if I could."

She's lost her job as a supermarket cashier, and her husband's income as a waiter isn't enough to support their two kids -- a daughter, 17, and a son, 11 -- and pay all the other bills.

Herrera's husband, Nelson Castillo, carries a microwave oven upstairs to the third-floor apartment of the family of Herrera's sister in the same building. That living room is filled with furniture and belongings from the apartment downstairs.

Credit was cheap in Spain during the boom years when hundreds of thousands of new homes were built and it seemed that everyone could become a homeowner.

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The boom went bust in 2008, yet Spanish banking associations say 97% of homeowners still are paying their mortgages on time.

But the nation's central judicial authority reports there have been 150,000 evictions of Spaniards and immigrants in four years, for falling behind on their payments.

There have been widespread protests against the evictions and especially against the Spanish law that lets banks seize not only the property but also go after debtors' future income until everything has been paid back.

Yet the unpaid mortgages are a relatively small problem for Spanish banks, compared with the huge tracks of undeveloped land they got stuck with from the real estate crash and which they can't sell, said Miguel Hernandez, a real estate expert who teaches at Madrid's IE Business School.

Herrera and Castillo moved from Ecuador to Spain in 1996 seeking a better life. They bought the apartment in 2006 and said they started paying about $1,190 in monthly mortgage payments. But the flexible interest rate conditions soon drove the payments to $1,850, more than Castillo earns in a month.

To make matters worse, the couple said they and other Ecuadorian immigrants were victims of a fraud in which a man persuaded families who didn't even know each other to become co-signatories to the deeds to provide enough financial guarantee for the lender. That matter is pending before a court.

But Castillo said his most urgent problem is being unable to pay his mortgage. He doesn't know yet how much he might also be liable for on the other mortgage, for which he is a guarantor, for the family he doesn't even know.

"The banks knew the economic crisis was coming," Castillo said. "But they sure didn't mind giving mortgages to people."

Castillo took a break from packing up his belongings to join a protest against the evictions. Dozens of demonstrators, under police escort, marched past banks in downtown Madrid and right by startled onlookers sipping coffee at outdoor terraces, over to the Spanish attorney general's office, which was closed.

"It would make me ashamed," the protesters chanted, "to throw a family out of their home."

Many of the protesters were Ecuadorian immigrants, a group hit hard by the evictions, said Aida Quinotoa, president of the Ecuadorian immigrants association known as Conadee.

She said the evictions effectively trampled the rights of hard-working immigrants and dashed their dreams of a better life in Europe.

The Spanish government last week approved a package it promised would ease the pain of the evictions. It calls for lenders to be flexible in cases where all the adults in the family are out of work, the home is the family's only property and it does not exceed $262,000 in value. But critics quickly said the measures apply to only a small percentage of those facing evictions.

Castillo took the megaphone and announced he was due to be evicted the next morning. He asked people to come to his home at 8 a.m. in solidarity.

The next morning, dozens heeded the call in what has become a familiar drama at homes across Spain as demonstrators try to prevent evictions.

The police showed up next, and an attorney for the family was there to meet them, as well as three officials from the bank and the court, who arrived shortly afterward. Word soon reached the family's apartment on the second floor that officials were willing to negotiate.

But the scene caused too much tension for Herrera. A friend tried to comfort her on the living room couch, and police summoned an ambulance crew to monitor her health.

In the end, officials agreed to postpone the eviction -- but only until the end of this month.

"It's a good sign because something has been won," Castillo said. "It's on the right track."

But his family only has a few short weeks to try to save the home before the officials return.

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