In Barcelona, buy-to-leave properties have criminal consequences

“The greed of banks destroys neighbourhoods”. Image: Acció Reina Amalia.

The buy-to-leave properties that dot London’s skyline are a riling reminder of our housing crisis: how it has made homes into financial assets, how rising property values have encouraged speculation, and how these forces have pushed people out of the city.

In Spain, though, empty houses have criminal consequences of a different sort. Narcopisos, which translates as “drug flats”, are the dark face of property speculation in Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid. These empty properties, many of which are owned by banks and private equity funds, have been converted into distribution points and shooting stations for cheap heroin.

El Raval, a central district in Barcelona, was notorious for a heroin epidemic in the 1980s. Now, the drugs have returned. Armed police break into apartments on a weekly basis, lining users up against the wall outside as local residents congregate to watch. There are an estimated 50 narcopisos across the four-mile radius of El Raval, though figures are difficult to verify, with dealers’ locations changing regularly.

For their neighbours, street life is grimy and antisocial; users come and go at all hours and leave used syringes in their wake. Local activist groups have taken to the streets in anger, bashing pans in traditional Spanish cacerolada protests and rallying together under the banner “contra narcoespeculación” (against narco-speculation).

“After the crisis, many people couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages and were evicted from their homes. Then banks started to swoop in and buy up whole blocks of flats”, Andres Perez Conte of Acció Reina Amalia, a neighbourhood action group in El Raval, tells me.

“We’re trying to get more detailed data, but as it stands, it seems that around 65 per cent of the empty apartments taken over by narcopisos are registered to banks like BBVA and real estate funds like Blackstone”, he says, adding that the city’s rising property values following its tourism boom means “banks just sit on these properties, speculating on their future value”.

I first meet Andres at a neighbourhood gathering where activist groups affix green stickers to a street map marking the presence of narcopisos. Acció Raval, one of the most prominent groups of neighbourhood vigilantes, has created a digitised map of different drug flats across the barrio.

“Some people are calling for more police on the streets to deal with this issue. But we want to avoid the war-on-drugs scenario that can end up basically just pushing out poor people – and instead, we’re focusing on rehabilitating users and tackling the financial speculation that is the cause of these empty buildings”, Andres tells me.


But not everyone agrees with him. The drug squatters have exposed a deeper tension over property rights in the city. For people like Andres, their existence points to a systemic problem whose cause is the banks and private equity firms that hold empty properties. For others, it’s a different problem that causes the narco-squatters: the failure to enforce property rights coupled with Barcelona’s anarchistic political culture.

This division came to a head in a fractious debate on Facebook earlier this year, when the owner of an empty apartment cautioned members of a “Barcelona Expats” group to beware invasion by drug dealers who target the holiday pads of foreigners.

“Respect for private ownership is key [to] any society”, one member said, while another excoriated a squatter-sympathiser to “set down the bong and your dog-eared copy of Proudhon”. Some see narcopisos as the result of moral failings, pitting drug dealers and squatters against those who have worked hard for their multiple properties.

But Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, appears to side with an explanation that points to structural rather than individual problems. In April earlier this year, she got behind a policy that will force banks to hand over repossessed properties that stand empty.

At a talk alongside sociologist Saskia Sassen in May, Colau referred to narcopisos as a “vicious circle”, and cautioned attendees about reactionary approaches that only serve as cover for broader political projects intent on gentrification.

“There are hundreds of flats owned by large banks left empty to speculate. Drug dealers use them – and then the right wing takes advantage of the situation to accelerate the evictions of vulnerable people", she said.

As with London, criminality in Barcelona is a contested concept: its meaning depends on whether or not you’re a property owner.

 
 
 
 

The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.