With the help of Podemos, progressive activists won control of the big cities of Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz, and Zaragoza. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, is a founder of PAH
In Spain, homeowners are responsible for debts even after declaring bankruptcy, debts that can block them from renting an apartment, buying a home or purchasing a car.
At the same time, according to the 2013 census, 34 million homes and apartments -- 14 percent of the country's housing stock -- are vacant, most owned by banks. And since the city has become one of Europe's tourist magnets, "tens of thousands of once-affordable apartments are marketed to tourists through on-line platforms like Airbnb," says Achtenberg, exacerbating the situation. But PAH and its allies on the city council have slowed down the evictions, cracked down on unlicensed Airbnb owners, and leaned on the banks to free vacant homes and apartments.
PAH now has some 200 chapters all over the country and is planning to press the national parliament to end the "debt for life" law. While allied with Podemos, PAH has maintained its political independence, working both sides of the street: sit-ins and protests, and running for office.
"A perennial question," says Achtenberg, "is whether the impetus for progressive change comes from inside the institution, or from the streets. In Barcelona today, it seems that both strategies are needed, and are working." As Colau says, for progressive movements "both are indispensible. For real democracy to exist, there should always be an organized citizenry keeping an eye on government -- no matter who is in charge."
Putting people in apartments and raising minimum wages does not overthrow capitalism, but many activists argue that such victories are essential for convincing people that change is possible and that the Troika is not all-powerful. They also play to the left's strong suit: building a humanistic society.
Finding that fine line between change and co-optation is not easy, and one formula does not fit all circumstances. Spain has more breathing room than Portugal and Greece simply because it is bigger. The Portuguese may find their path a bit easier simply because they have allies in the eurozone. As Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says, "I think it is not so easy to change Europe when you are alone."
In the end the path may be like that old peace song: "If two and two and 50 make a million, we'll see that day come 'round."