Who are cities for?

Access to adequate housing is a basic human right, but a global increase in housing price is making it difficult for people to live in cities. In this blog, we share the insights on the global housing crisis and the right to housing that were learned from the movie night with “PUSH-The Film”.

Globally, the price of housing is increasing at a much higher rate than that of income. Housing in today’s world has become a financial asset rather than a place for people, families, and communities to live together. The resulting housing crisis is a breach of the basic human right to housing and a threat to just sustainable transitions in cities as it essentially makes living in a city impossible for many people.

We believe that there is a need to increase awareness of the housing crisis and create knowledge on alternative approaches to tackle it. However, notions of ‘sustainability’, ‘justice’, ‘cities’, ‘transitions’, and ‘right to housing’ are vastly complex and interconnected, and discussions about these can easily turn into an abstract academic exercise. This is why in June 2020, we organized a screening of “PUSH - The Film” on the housing crisis, followed by a World Café group discussion to share knowledge and connect ideas.

The movie night was the first in a series of online events to engage people with the theme of sustainable and just cities with focus on tangible urban challenges (e.g. housing, energy, mobility, health). This event focused on the basic human right to housing, that aims to provide vulnerable citizens access to adequate, safe, and affordable housing. It was organized by the Vital Cities & Citizens initiative, in collaboration with the UrbanA project on just sustainable cities and the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions

Housing has become the largest expenditure for many households who now find it difficult to live in cities where they work. However, the housing crisis affects people differently and disproportionately. For example, certain socio-economic groups are more vulnerable to health risks during the Covid-19 pandemic than others due to the lack of affordable housing. Leilani Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Right to Housing and Director of The Shift, formulates the urgency of the situation as: “Housing has become the front line defense against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation” (OHCHR, 2020). 

Top three insights from the movie night

Below we discuss three main insights that we synthesized from the movie night. Though we are not experts on housing and neither claim to know the solutions, we share these insights as learned during the event. 

Insight #1. Financialization as a leading cause of the global housing crisis 

“PUSH - The Film” focuses on the idea of ‘financialization’ of the housing market, where buildings function as assets and financial investors as key customers. In the documentary, Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, explains that an empty apartment is sometimes a better asset than its use as a home. The scale of this phenomenon can be estimated from the fact that the global property business is worth $217tn, which is more than twice the world’s total GDP. 

The financialization of housing is causing a record increase in housing prices resulting in a global crisis that affects us all. This has contributed to a range of challenges: rise in homelessness, forced eviction from informal settlements and low-income neighborhoods as they become subject to speculative investment, decrease in housing affordability, privatization of public space, gentrification, touristification, etc. 

Finance, like mining, is extractive by its nature and unbridled financialization is problematic for housing, which has been agreed globally to be a human right. As formulated by Leilani  Farha: “I don’t believe that capitalism itself is hugely problematic. Is unbridled capitalism in an area that is a human right problematic? Yes.” Through personal stories from several cities across the world, the documentary reveals an interconnected global pattern of housing financialization and the tragedy it causes at a human level.

Insight#2. Neoliberal policies enable private equity firms to endanger the right to housing

In the documentary, private equity firms emerged as the main actors behind the housing financialization, who hold massive capital and can move it swiftly within the globalized market. Blackstone company was especially highlighted as it has massive control of global ‘assets’ through its subsidiaries. For example, it is the biggest private owner of low-income housing in Sweden and is also accused of raising the rent up to 50% after upgrading a housing estate in Uppsala.

What was striking was the role of the government to not only allow but enable the private equity firms to financialize the housing market. The neoliberal policies and market deregulation created conditions for capital flow across nations and unequal wealth distribution. These firms also managed to grow despite the crisis in the financial system. In the documentary, Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economy, explains that during the 2008 financial crisis the US government encouraged the sale of distressed ‘assets’ which led to thousands of evictions and increase in wealth of the new owners - the hedge funds and private equity firms. 

Some participants were also astonished to discover how some companies use tax havens for their real estate money-laundering business which further exacerbates the crisis. In the documentary, Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist explains “You buy things with legal money – a restaurant, hotel or houses – then you sell those properties to your company in a tax haven. If you want to bring your dirty money back into your country, you simply buy it from yourself at a much higher price than you paid.” 

Housing financialization is a complex socio-economic and political issue. Even capital from legal sources such as taxpayer’s pension funds flows to the hedge funds and private equity funds for investments. The public institutions, who now acknowledge the crisis and want to restore the right to housing, grapple to fully understand this complexity. During the discussion, a few participants noted that they found it problematic to point out one single ‘bad guy’. 

Insight #3. The transformative potential of government and social movement for the right to housing

The tragic documentation of long term residents being pushed out of their homes evoked a strong emotional reaction for us and participants alike and raised several important questions. How do we ‘push back’? How can we bring balance to, or dismantle, the system? The group discussions pointed to the transformative potential of both government and grass-roots interventions to ensure the right to housing. The public institutions can bring transformative change by regulations such as imposing rental control, restricting real estate speculation, regulating private investments in housing, etc. 

Collective action at the grassroots level (such as the right to housing movements and alternative housing arrangements) is also critical to empower citizens and protect vulnerable citizens. For example, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages is a social movement in Spain that prevents the systematic eviction of debtors due to the non-payment of mortgages and rents. It also proposes solutions such as converting mortgaged houses into public social rentals. As one of the participants rightly noted, “it is crucial that the voices are being mobilized from people and communities that are affected.” 

While some participants emphasized that it is primarily the task of public institutions to hold the financial actors accountable for their practices that threaten the right to housing, others advocated the need for grassroots social movements to protect and empower vulnerable citizens. We believe that both are crucial and play a complementary role in bringing systemic change and challenging speculative neoliberal market ideology (see the list of other grassroots social movements and networks below).

Is the Right to Housing at the core of Sustainable and Just Cities?

The main lesson for us is that access to adequate and affordable housing is an essential foundation for sustainable and just cities, as it forms a precondition for a safe and healthy life. However, the complex and highly interconnected nature of the housing financialization makes it difficult to fully understand and tackle the issue. While “PUSH - The Film” features an organization like Blackstone to be directly responsible for the housing crisis, it also emphasizes many other processes and actors involved (e.g. pension funds, tax havens, governments). This illustrates the need to navigate a healthy balance between calling out visible organizations that are contributing to the housing crisis, while also addressing the more systemic and structural problems. 

How we can achieve our right to housing and directly challenge the housing crisis was the prime concern for several participants. Based on the movie night discussions and our research experience with just sustainability transitions and social innovation movements, we are convinced that both legal government action and grassroot social movements approach are essential to ensure the right to housing. There are many examples of grassroot social movements and networks across the globe (see list below) that address the right to housing, which can be beneficial for those who are interested in more direct action or increasing their knowledge on the issue. 

We also believe that there is a need to increase knowledge about the intersectional and interdisciplinary nature of the housing crisis for a long-term transformative change. The housing inequality not only affects and gets affected by the financial system, but also intersects with other forms of social exclusion and inequality in sectors such as health, energy, food, water, climate injustice, etc. While each of these needs to be addressed as important issues in and of themselves, we also need to discuss how they come together in wider narratives and movements around the right to the city and just sustainability transitions. Engagement with platforms and networks such as Communities for Future or Transformative Cities can be one of the ways to continue sharing and learning on these intersectional and interdisciplinary challenges. 

Resources from the movie night event:

Watch “PUSH - The Film”: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/pushthefilm 
Movie Night Report: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18oNDYJIgdy6xK7cimydiAlQey0hkEAAX/view?usp=sharing 
Right to Housing UrbanA Wiki Page: https://wiki.urban-arena.eu/index.php?title=Right_to_housing 
Push Back Talks (Podcast): http://www.pushthefilm.com/pushback-talks/?mode=list 

List of grassroots social movements and networks for the right to housing:

The Shift: https://www.make-the-shift.org/ 
Network of housing projects in Germany: https://www.syndikat.org/en/
Social housing program in Vienna: https://www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_featd_article_011314.html 
Platform for People Affected by Mortgages in Spain: https://afectadosporlahipoteca.com/2014/09/18/stop-desahucios-octubre-2/
Placemaking Leadership Council in  Brazil: http://www.placemaking.org.br/home/conselho/ 
Masoveria Urbana per la Llar Alternativa in Spain: https://masoveriaurbana.wordpress.com/la-masoveria-urbana/ 
Estate Watch in London: https://estatewatch.london/ 
Housing Europe: https://www.housingeurope.eu/ 
European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City: https://housingnotprofit.org/
Rent Strike 2020: https://thenewinquiry.com/rent-strike-2020/ 
Right to the City Alliance - Fighting for democracy, justice, and sustainability in our cities: https://righttothecity.org/
Homes for all: https://homesforall.org/ 
MOBA Housing SCE - A network of pioneering housing cooperatives: https://moba.coop/ 
Asian Coalition for Housing Rights: http://www.achr.net/ 
Housing Lab: https://www.housinglab.co/ 
Reclaim Real Estate: https://www.reclaimrealestate.com/ 
Habitat for Humanity: https://www.habitat.org/emea/about/who-we-are 

About the organizers

Vital Cities & Citizens (VCC) is part of Erasmus University Rotterdam and works towards improving the quality of life in cities by identifying the conditions for equal opportunities in life, safe living environments, and harmonious coexistence for an increasingly diverse population. 

DRIFT or the Dutch Research Institute for Transitions is also based at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and aims to accelerate transitions towards more just, sustainable, and resilient societies by generating new knowledge and creating societal impact. 

UrbanA or the Urban Arenas for Sustainable and Just Cities is an EU-funded project that brokers and synthesizes actionable knowledge on and for sustainable and just cities that are relevant and accessible to as many people as possible. It aims to facilitate and co-create an open-source knowledge commons and community of practice of city-makers and city-thinkers that share a passion and interest for transforming their urban environments into more sustainable and just cities.

About the Authors

Vaishali Joshi
Vaishali Joshi is working as a research assistant for the VCC project within the theme of Sustainable & Just Cities. She has recently completed her MSc. in Development and Rural Innovation at Wageningen University & Research and has also worked as an intern at DRIFT. She has expertise in online and/or blended communication and has researched in the field of urban sustainability, justice, and migration. 

dr. Flor Avelino
Flor Avelino is the theme lead of Sustainable & Just Cities within the Vital Cities & Citizen (VCC) initiative of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She works at DRIFT as senior researcher in the politics of sustainability transitions and social innovation. She specializes in power and empowerment theories, and is involved in research projects on transformative social innovation (TRANSIT), sustainable & just cities (UrbanA) and social innovation in energy transitions (SONNET & PROSEU).
Personal page Flor Avelino

Sarah Rach 
Sarah Rach is a researcher and consultant at DRIFT who focuses on urban transitions and has a specific interest in aspects of (in)justice. She is currently working on the EU-funded projects UrbanA and SONNET, and several consultancy projects. Recurring themes include participatory processes, reflexive monitoring, socio-spatial justice, and governance.

Dr. Flor Avelino
Vaishali Joshi
Sarah Rach

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