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.