Meeting with a banker (as Mayor of Barcelona)

Everyone is aware of my background as a housing rights activist, and of my criticisms of the behaviour of the financial sector. On April 6, I published a post on this very blog called "to dine (or not to dine) with a banker." Well, I still haven't dined with any bankers, but last Friday I had my first formal meeting with the president of a major national bank: the President of CaixaBank, Isidro Fainé.

On May 24 the Barcelona In Comú candidacy won the elections and, on June 13, I was officially sworn in as mayor of my city. I'm immensely proud to be the first woman mayor of Barcelona, and I'm also aware that it's an enormous responsibility!

It's been two weeks since I took office and we've had a lot to do in a very short period of time: find our way around the giant town hall building, get to know its staff, appoint essential personnel to keep it running, implement the first measures of our Emergency Plan, communicate what we're doing to the people and the media, negotiate with the opposition (over advisors, salaries, commissions, committee presidencies ...), react to constant, biased leaks, deal with hundreds of requests for meetings, go to local neighbourhood festivals ... All this with a government of only 11 councillors or, rather, 10 councillors and a mayor. And with the pressure of knowing we're being watched by half the world and being held to higher standards than previous governments. The whole nine yards!

But despite the exhaustion and the nerves, I'm not complaining. We're here because we wanted to be, and because thousands of people have stepped up to the plate with us. Every day, in the street and at public events, hundreds of people give me encouragement and wish us luck. Many tell me they are well-aware that this will not be easy, that many things can not be done straight away. But they say that the key is to keep relying on the people that got us here in the first place, by explaining each step, listening to all opinions, and consulting the biggest decisions. And we must recognize that we're not doing as well as we would like. We haven't had the time to explain many of the things we've done or the things that have happened to us over just a few days. Personally, I have resorted to Facebook to explain some of my feelings because communicating informally is better than not communicating at all. But believe me when I say that we can't wait to settle in to the town hall and to begin to systematize the flow of information.

We've had to explain much of our experience as and when we've been able to. However, there is one thing which, in my case, could not wait. Everyone is aware of my background as a housing rights activist, and of my criticisms of the behaviour of the financial sector. On April 6, I published a post on this very blog called "to dine (or not to dine) with a banker." Well, I still haven't had dinner with any bankers, but last Friday I had my first formal meeting with the president of a major national bank: the President of CaixaBank, Isidro Fainé.

Maybe it's because I went to this meeting as Mayor of Barcelona. Or because the city council has accounts and various contracts with La Caixa. Either way, the fact is that the words that best sum up the meeting are "completely friendly" or even "totally cooperative". Isidro Fainé was accompanied by Jaume Giro, Head of the Obra Social (social responsibility wing) of CaixaBank. I went with Gerardo Pisarello, the Deputy Mayor responsible for the economy. We had coffee and water in the main office of mayor (the one which has works by Miró and Tàpies hung from its walls). Perhaps most disconcerting of all was when, just before starting the conversation, Mr. Fainé asked Gerardo: "Do you speak Catalan?".

Given that we're all polite and sensible people, most of the meeting was predictable: Isidro Fainé, who led the conversation, explained his humble origins (he took evening classes while working as an electrician and taught his parents to read and write), his commitment to the unique role of the Obra Social of La Caixa, and his willingness to cooperate fully on social issues. For my part, I explained that I know that, at least in Barcelona, CaixaBank is one of the institutions with the most foreclosures, but that when organizations like the PAH suggest negotiations in cases of the habitual residence of vulnerable families, it is also the institution that offers the most options of payment in kind and affordable rents. But our mission is to guarantee housing rights, and we must do everything possible to ensure that foreclosure processes aren't even started, let alone evictions carried out. We discussed revising protocols in this regard and Mr. Fainé promised to send his Vice President to the next session of the Eviction Prevention Committee next Tuesday.

My main goal was to transmit to CaixaBank that, aside from preventing evictions, Barcelona has an urgent need for social housing stock with affordable rents comparable to other European cities. Isidro Fainé explained many of La Caixa's social housing developments, certainly much more numerous than those of other banks, but Barcelona can not afford to be at the mercy of charity work from private banks. A guarantor institution must treat every resident in need of emergency housing equally, and in our city there are at least 30 thousand families on the waiting list for affordable social housing. Our duty is to expand the social housing stock, and to do this we need everyone, banks, real estate agents, private landlords – to cooperate. Leaving housing policy in the hands of the market has been an obvious failure. Now it's time for everyone to play their part: banks must manage savings and provide credit responsibly, while public administrations must draw up regulations and policies that guarantee rights. That's why the social housing stock should be a matter for the city council rather than financial institutions, in the spirit of cooperation with all parties, of course.

The biggest substantive disagreement (also predictable): Mr. Fainé disagrees with regulating payment in kind as proposed by the PAH and supported by the vast majority of the population and the Catalan Parliament. He believes that solutions should be offered on a case by case basis, but we already know that this strategy has led to the unacceptable suffering to thousands of families. However, he was willing to continue the discussion.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Fainé gave me his personal mobile number "for whatever", which I responded to by giving him my own. He also gave me one last recommendation: to read "The Revolution of Tenderness and Love" by Pope Francis. Now its about beginning the real collaboration between teams of CaixaBank and the city council, so that each contributes to the common good of the city as a whole, within the non-negotiable framework of human rights and democracy.

This meeting is part of a series of meetings with major financial institutions operating in Barcelona. Bankia will be on Monday and Anticipa-Blackstone on Wednesday. We'll keep you in the loop.