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    Global/local learning exchange on contemporary housing struggles: Habitat International Coalition, and Experimentdays Berlin

    By Thomas Doughty, on 27 October 2017

    What is the role of civil society in addressing housing and habitat struggles in today’s globalised world? How can people, activists and organisations from diverse contexts worldwide collaborate and exchange their learning from struggles against the housing adequacy and affordability crises facing cities across the Global South and North? And what can Europe learn from other places?

    Spreefeld community garden tour

    Spreefeld community garden tour

    Habitat International Coalition

    These questions are particularly pertinent to a global civil society network such as Habitat International Coalition (HIC). Undertaking a dissertation fellowship with HIC as part of my MSc, I collaborated with HIC and its members – including urbaMonde, BSHF and Habitat en Mouvement – to research the implications of these questions.

    From its origins as a Europe-based council in the 1970s, HIC has evolved into a more diverse, southern-focused coalition. Today, its membership covers five continents, forming “the global network for rights related to habitat”. Yet as HIC’s locus has shifted southwards, its European role and identity has become uncertain.

    While cities have always been shaped by global flows, neoliberal globalization has pushed the scale and speed with which money, ideas, people and commodities traverse the world to unprecedented levels. The financialization of land and housing – housing’s exchange value as a commodity outranking its use value as a social good – now drives displacement in diverse cities worldwide as cities increasingly clamour to attract global capital.

    Added to this is the increasing blurriness and contestation of the world’s categorization into the global north and south. 2010s Europe, shaped by austerity and quantitative easing, bears striking similarities to 1980s/90s Latin America, shaped by the Washington Consensus, with the casualization of labour and withdrawal of state support for low income housing and other social security pillars. Meanwhile, radical shifts in urban theory reject colonial notions of planning ideas travelling solely from north to south in a linear cut-and-paste process. There is growing acknowledgement of urban learning as iterative and multidirectional: all planning ideas are reshaped locally when applied somewhere new. This can be part of the process, creating greater potential for civil society to learn both ways across the north-south “divide”.

    So, what is HIC’s actual and potential role in uniting global struggles for equitable, sustainable alternatives between Europe and elsewhere?

    It is well placed to facilitate global exchange between diverse members. Rather than seeing the growth of other networks operating in HIC’s thematic space as competition, there is potential for much greater collaboration, to which it can bring its uniquely global and longitudinal perspective. HIC is an integral part of global platforms such as the Right to the City, and the Social Production of Habitat (hosted by urbaMonde, one of its European members) which helps to build such collaboration.

    Since HIC’s origins, the digitalisation of global networks has reshaped the nature of peer-to-peer exchange. Many organisations – including HIC and members – house rich digital platforms online, yet these remain siloed, with potential for far greater interconnectivity. This brings additional challenges of overcoming multifaceted language barriers – from the avoidance of technical jargon, to translation (HIC’s strongest, most cohesive region globally is Latin America, in no small part to the shared language of most of its nations). It also requires more equitable access to communication infrastructures, to ensure all regions can benefit and contribute.

    Yet technology cannot replace physical, face-to-face meetings. The value of sharing ideas and experiences in person is invaluable: from building the visibility and legitimacy of small scale projects and struggles, to facilitating the exchange of knowledge, skills and ideas.

    Experimentdays, Berlin

    Spreefeld workshop

    Spreefeld workshop

    Attending the Experimentdays European Collaborative Housing Hub in Berlin on behalf of HIC and UCL, I discovered the benefits of this first-hand. I presented my research, and collaborated in workshops with participants from over 20 European countries: activists, cohousing residents, academics and professionals, united by the pursuit of non-market, non-state provision and management of housing.

    Communities in Berlin have long taken advantage of its vacant land and building surpluses, following the fall of the Wall, to pioneer alternative housing projects. Today around 10% of the city’s housing stock is cooperative. This relatively unique context is exemplified in Spreefeld, the housing cooperative where Experimentdays began. Home to over 140 people, together with coworking, social and community spaces, it occupies a central riverside site – something difficult to imagine in today’s London for example.  And yet encouragingly, London was represented at Experimentdays by several exciting projects at different stages.

    It was difficult to choose from the inspiring range of workshops being held across the weekend. Exploring approaches to engaging with policymakers with people from a variety of political contexts – from Slovenia to France, UK to Italy – our discussions raised the “chicken and egg” nature of policy change and societal change. Oftentimes policy is catching up with how society is changing, yet policy can also be used to trigger experimentation to mainstream housing practices.

    Another workshop raised the challenge of ensuring diversity and inclusivity in collaborative housing movements, and working towards securing affordable housing for everyone. In Berlin as in Europe, cohousing is often pursued by a middle-class educated population – yet greater engagement with minorities, outsiders, and increasingly, refugees is essential to realise common good goals. In Spreefeld, the incorporation of two flats for refugee families as integral to the community, works towards this wider social benefit. Spreefeld also supports the wider community. For example, it provides its “Teepeeland” neighbours – a collective habitat of teepees on city-owned land – with power, water and advocacy, arguing that there is little difference between the two settlements, both developed on the basis of sharing and recycling.

    Teepeeland map

    Teepeeland map

    Tours on the final day of ufa fabrik and Schwarzwohnerhaus, which originated as squats in former West and East Berlin respectively, reiterated the unique enabling factors of Berlin’s recent history. Yet also apparent was the universal need to establish ways for cooperatives to transition to new generations, while retaining their initial objectives. And, as was raised several times throughout the weekend, global market forces are steadily catching up with Berlin as elsewhere, and its many activists, movements and cooperatives face a challenge to try to retain their non-market driven approach.

    At the end of the final day, I chatted with one of Spreefeld’s refugee residents from Syria, who told me “In Syria, we have always shared our food, our cooking, our childcare and our homes with other families in our community”. Indeed, returning to the question of what Europe can learn from elsewhere – the answer is a lot. What is often seen as pioneering, already has precedence in other places.

    —-
    I am grateful to my dissertation supervisor, Alexandre Aspan Frediani, and to HIC and its members who supported my research. I also wish to thank the organisers of Experimentdays, for facilitating such an interesting and inspiring event.
    —-
    Thomas Doughty is a recent graduate of the MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Coming from an architectural background, he is interested in innovative approaches to sustainable and equitable urban development.

    From heroes to villains: Brazil at risk of moving away from the New Urban Agenda

    By Alexandre Apsan Frediani, on 16 February 2017

    By Julia Moretti and Alexandre Apsan Frediani

    Call to support the mobilisation against a new presidential act that intends to dismantle the regulations for land regularization in Brazil.

    27649969524_0640172ec4_o
    A network of Brazilian civil society organisations is calling the international community to support their mobilisations against a new presidential act that intends to dismantle the regulations for land regularization in Brazil. Since the introduction of the City Statute in 2001, Brazilian urban policy has been setting a series of innovative precedents in the implementation of principles of Right to the City. The Statute involves the recognition of the social function of property, setting the framework for participatory urban planning as well as linking land tenure regularization with urbanization of settlements.

    Since then, this law has been consolidated as a legal guide for the Brazilian land regularization policy and several other statutes were enacted guided by its principles in order to regulate instruments and procedures (Law n.11977/09 about urban settlements regularization; Law n. 11481/07 about regularization on public owned land; Law 11952/09 about regularization on land owned by the Federal Government in the Amazon Region). This legal framework became an international example of progressive urban policy, prioritizing justice over profit, and informing the development of the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda agreed in 2016

    The Provisional Presidential Act (PPA) no. 759/16 enacted at the very end of 2016 attempts to amend the existing legislation regarding land regularization with an act that promises to reduce bureaucracy and increase efficiency. However, its underlying motivation is to reposition land as a financial asset, rather than a right. Apart from dismantling an entire legal body that represents the result of a long term public debate and consolidated collective understanding and agreement of multiple stake-holders, the PPA marks a step backwards in terms of assuring access to land for the poor and implementing the principle of social function of property. Below are some of the problems with the PPA.

    Changing basic principles: legal definition of land regularization established by the PPA suppresses the aim to assure housing rights and environmentally sustainable by observing the social function of property. According to the new law, policies on land regularization are to be economically sustainable and developed based on principles of competitiveness and efficiency.

    Lack of participation: participation is no longer a principle of land regularization. Furthermore, the PPA revokes a consolidated and democratic legal framework replacing it with a not self-operating law enacted without any public debate.

    Massive privatization of land owned by the Federal Government: the new law creates an instrument that gives property rights indiscriminately, without meeting any criteria regarding social and collective interest. The PPA makes possible and easier to regularize high-income settlements and gated communities in public land without any compensation at a loss of social and environmental function of public property.

    Amnesty to deforestation and land appropriation: the PPA allows regularization of large parcels of public land all over the country even to those who already own land. It accepts deforestation as proof of possession,substantially changing the program “Legal land in the Amazon Region” originally conceived to settle conflicts over landbetween small-scale agriculture and traditional population against agribusiness, preventing deforestation.

    Policy on Rural Reform weakened: according to this new law,land titles resulting from rural reform can be sold in the market,increasing the risk toreturn to a situation of land concentration. Furthermore, the governmental agency on rural reform is released from its obligations regarding the wellbeing of settled families and looses competencies to a Secretary that answers directly to the President.

    Land regularization for social interest weakened: in the PPA, special social interest zones no longer exist.This results in the loss of an important zoning instrument that for a long time was used to demarcate urban territory occupied by the poor, setting priority fortenure regularization. This and other tools and procedures that made it easier to regularize informal settlements occupied by the poor are no longer in place.

    In brief, the PPA focuses on property titles not in assuring basic human rights to those more in need. This new law deconstructs an innovative legal framework based on pillars of participatory urban planning socio-environmental function of the city and property and land regularization as a key element for attaining social inclusion. It represents the triumph of the concept of abstract entitlements held on individual bases, prioritizing the exchange rather than social value of property.

     

    The Open Letter attached is meant to summon social movements and all those who believe in Urban and Rural Reform to demand Brazilian Federal Government to withdraw Provisional Presidential Act No.759/2016 from Congress; therefore stopping the voting process and promoting a large scale debate about land ownership, property and possession, guided by constitutional principles of social function of property and individual and collective human rights.

    To show your support, please sign the on-line petition:

    https://contramp759.wixsite.com/cartaaobrasil


    Alexandre Apsan Frediani is a lecturer at the DPU, and is the co-director of the MSc Social Development Practice programme.

    Julia Moretti is a lawyer at Escritório Modelo Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns

    ‘Africa Regional Dossier’ highlights some key issues raised by civil society groups in advance of Habitat III

    By Rafaella Simas Lima, on 20 October 2016

     

    For the past year and a half the DPU has worked in collaboration with the international civil society network Habitat International Coalition (HIC) to understand the various preparations and processes leading up to Habitat III, set to take place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. Namely, the intent has been to understand how civil society groups and grassroots movements have been involved (or not) in these processes, that are meant to culminate in the ‘New Urban Agenda’, to be agreed upon by national governments at the Habitat conference.

    The first iteration of the DPU-HIC research was to look at the process of Habitat III national report production in eight countries where national report drafts were being prepared. Our research showed that in most cases, civil society participation in the national reporting process was quite limited, representing at best brief consultations, at worst reports undertaken by government institutions or consultants without much outside input. In addition, with a few exceptions, national reports themselves were quite limited in terms of commitments to ‘right to the city’ principles and other rights-based approaches advocated by some several civil society groups.

    Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

    Alexandre Apsan Frediani speaking at the HIC general assembly meeting

    As attention shifted from the national level to regional meetings and the development of regional reports, the second project was an attempt to more actively respond to regional processes. Regional reports were developed by the five UN Regional Economic and Social Commissions and UN-Habitat. Like at the national level, the opportunity for civil society input at the regional level again seemed limited, and while regional reports were ostensibly supposed to build on national reports, it is unclear how much this actually happened in practice. Accordingly, the DPU, steered by an advisory committee of civil society networks, grass-roots movements and academics spanning the African continent, helped coordinate an Africa Regional Dossier (full report available here) to highlight key issues requiring more visibility and reframing in the New Urban Agenda, from a civil society vantage point. Beyond a reliance on selected interviews, the Dossier builds on two pan-African civil society gatherings organised in Johannesburg in November/December 2015: the Global Platform on the Right to the City’s regional meeting and the Session of Inhabitants coordinated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants at Africities VII. Meanwhile, HIC coordinated a Latin America response, which is taking the form of an alternative Latin American regional report (forthcoming).

    The Africa Regional Dossier is not intended to be a comprehensive report, but serves to highlight a series of key urban issues and propositions articulated by civil society actors in need of further visibility and commitment from national and transnational actors, to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda. The propositional aspects of each issue are summarised as follows:

    1) Forced evictions and land grabbing: The urbanisation practices that are driving evictions and land grabbing need to be placed at the centre of struggles around evictions. This implies rethinking the balance between collective rights (including the collective ‘right to occupation’) and individual land rights acquired through land markets. Habitat II commitments to ‘prevent and remedy’ unjustified evictions need to be upheld. There is a need to develop legislative frameworks for legal redress, in order to support community rights in case of evictions that are deemed unavoidable.

    2) Land tenure: ‘Land tenure’ should not be limited to private ownership and private land rights. Rather, diverse forms of collective and individual tenure can be recognised and explored as mechanisms to ensure marginalised groups’ access to land.

    3) Rural-urban ‘divide’: Re-framing ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ not as a dichotomy but as interconnected parts of the same system, allows for the recognition of diverse urbanisation trajectories. Policy making could reflect this plurality and the linkages between the ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ by emphasising inter-municipal and cross-departmental coordination rather than dealing with ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ as separate categories governed by different authorities.

    4) Infrastructure: At the local scale, infrastructure development plans need to recognise and integrate decentralised, low-cost and low-skilled solutions through targeted financial resources and training. Understanding diverse infrastructure provisions within the urban-rural continuum and through a combination of financing sources that connects Africa’s diverse economies is key. This can be facilitated through cross-departmental and cross-boundary coordination among local governments. Additionally, there is an opportunity to view infrastructure and service delivery as providing environmental outcomes, creating employment or economic opportunities, as well as social outcomes, for example, in mobilising youth.

    5) Governance and the right to political voice: There is a widespread call amongst African civil society actors to reframe ‘good governance’ through a focus on deepening meaningful democratic practices. This implies ensuring better recognition of different social actors, facilitating increased participation in decision-making structures, and achieving more equitable redistribution of wealth and services. Equally important as involving civil society actors and other stakeholders is recognising unequal power relations among actors, taking steps to address these power imbalances in decision-making fora, and ensuring that more democratic governance leads to equitable outcomes.

    6) Economic opportunities: The ‘economy’ can be re-conceptualised within a plural perspective of diverse systems—formal, informal, social, solidarity, etc.—interacting together. The fluidity and adaptability of informal practices can be harnessed while pursuing policies to limit potential exploitative conditions. In addition, viewing employment conditions through a human rights perspective would imply the need for the protection of jobs, especially in the informal sector, and the right to legitimate and decent work. At the same time, a focus on the capacity of local governments could improve their ability to generate revenue through taxation and the capture of value from real estate or infrastructure developments.

    7) Security and urban conflict: In order for urban stakeholders to meaningfully address urban security, the varying manifestations of urban conflict and violence must be acknowledged along with the intersecting social, political and economic factors behind such violence. Often, interventions to address urban safety address merely the side effects rather than the root causes of urban violence. Security commitments need to call for building linkages between humanitarian, development and human rights approaches, and the fundamental principles of security and equity.

    8) Climate change and environment: Climate change can go beyond concepts of sustainability and resilience, and be re-framed from the perspective of environmental justice. This allows for the links between social justice and climate change to be acknowledged, and for a discussion about the distribution of environmental benefits and hazards, so that the differentiated effects of climate change can be addressed.

    In addition to these eight issues, the Africa Regional Dossier argues that the New Urban Agenda should place more emphasis on protecting against the loss of entitlements (for example, those outlined in previous Habitat agendas and human rights conventions), the distribution of resources and opportunities towards a more equitable urban development, and to the roles, responsibilities and capacity of local actors to implement and monitor the agreed agenda. The case studies in the Regional Dossier demonstrate some ways in which civil society groups can partake in such processes.

    The regional scope of this Dossier reinforces the need for territorial debates in the process of elaborating international agendas such as the New Urban Agenda. This research also highlighted the lack of opportunities for civil society groups to participate meaningfully in such a process. Lack of transparency and limited access to regional reporting procedures compromised the potential of the agenda-making process to deepen a collective understanding of on-going urban challenges in Africa. This has thus represented a missed opportunity to build commitments from a variety of stakeholders towards a transformative New Urban Agenda.

    The process of coordinating the African Regional Dossier demonstrated the appetite of civil society groups to share experiences, deepen their understanding about wider regional processes, and collaboratively build synergies for transnational collective action. We hope that this Dossier, far from being an exhaustive list of key issues, can contribute to the on-going discussions within and around Habitat III, but most importantly, that it can be of use in the building of linkages and collaboration among civil society groups across the Africa region advocating for more just urban development.

    Rio 2016: Games of Exclusion

    By Mariana Dias Simpson, on 18 August 2016

    Two weeks before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games opening on August 5th, a poll confirmed the vibe felt on the streets[1]: 50% of Brazilians were against the mega event and 63% believed it would bring more harm than good to the city. Against a backdrop of political and economic crises, Brazilians were comprehending that hosting such a party was going to cost a lot. And that they weren’t really invited to join.

     

    Protests gained force as the torch travelled throughout the country. Demonstrators managed to extinguish the Olympic flame several times. More often than not, the parade happened alongside protests against poor living conditions. Many of Rio’s public schools have been closed and on strike since March. Hospitals haven’t got the basic materials to function. In July, the governor declared a ‘state of emergency’ due to the state of Rio’s bankrupt situation. In a decree, he established that it was up to authorities to take ‘exceptional measures’ for the ‘rationalisation of all public services’ (i.e. cuts) in order to ensure that the Olympics happened smoothly, as the event has ‘international repercussions’ and any damage to the country’s image would be of ‘very difficult recovery’[2].

    Video of attempts to extinguish the torch in protest in the periphery of Rio available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70q_FOICM-Y

     

    Pretty much the opposite of what the world watched in the beautiful opening ceremony on August 5th, in the ‘preparation’ for the Games citizens watched favelas being bulldozes; Pacifying Police Units trying to silence funk music; the genocide of black youths sponsored by the state; the destruction of a natural reserve for the construction of a golf course; the closing of sports equipment where unsponsored athletes trained; imposed interventions; violence against protesters; corruption; and the absence of a social or environmental legacy for the city.

    Jogos da Exclusão

    Jogos da Exclusão

     

    Resistance

     

    The World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee of Rio de Janeiro is an articulation that has since 2010 gathered popular organisations, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, researchers, students and those affected by interventions related to the World Cup and the Olympics for the construction of a critical view of these mega events. Committed to the struggle for social justice and the right to the city, the Committee promotes public meetings and debates, produces documents and dossiers on human rights violations, organises public demonstrations and spreads information.

     

    In the first week of August, the Committee organised a series of events in Rio de Janeiro under the title “Games of Exclusion” for the promotion of dialogue, cultural activities and protests (met with violence by the ‘National Force’ currently occupying the streets).

     

    As part of the Games of Exclusion, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (Ibase, in Portuguese) took forward a partnership started with the DPU last year to discuss the Olympic social legacy – or lack thereof – for Rio de Janeiro. Ibase aims to influence public debate for the development of the Rio we want: an inclusive, diverse and democratic city.

     

    For the dialogue ‘Housing and Mobility: Connections with the city and impacts in favelas’, Ibase partnered up with community-based organisations from the favelas of Rocinha, Complexo do Alemão, Borel and Providência[3] to debate themes related to transport and mobility within favelas and the latest initiatives, such as the construction of cable cars, funiculars, and the legalisation of alternative modes of transport like vans and moto-taxis. Alan Brum, from the CBO Raízes em Movimento, questioned the priorities chosen by the government when investing over £200,000 in Complexo do Alemão: “Public policies and intervertions without dialogue are for whom? Our priorities are housing and basic sanitation, not a cable car”. The discussion, of course, went beyond favelas’ borders to explore dwellers’ access to the mobility interventions taking place in the city in light of the Games, such as a new metro line, BRTs, VLTs, among other actions.

     

    White Elephant

    The graffitti “The White Elephant and the Trojan Horse”, by Davi Amen from Complexo do Alemão, illustrated the dialogue promoted by Ibase Photo: Mariana Dias Simpson

     

     

    These interventions have a direct impact in housing and public security, continuous sources of concern for those living in favelas. Since 2009, year in which the city was chosen to host the Games, more than 77,000 people were evicted and lost their homes in Rio[4], mainly under the excuse that these communities had to give room to expressways and Olympic equipment. In Complexo do Alemão alone, over 1,700 families are still being paid a ‘social rent’ whilst waiting for the delivery of new housing units. Their expectation, as Camila Santos pointed out during the dialogue, is that the benefit will stop being paid as soon as the Games end and that these family are going to be left empty handed with the state’s empty promises.

     

    Since 2009, police forces have also killed more than 2,600 people in the city[5]. According to figures published by Amnesty International, there was a shocking 103% percent increase in police killings in Rio de Janeiro between April and June of 2016 in comparison to the same period in 2015, shattering any chance of a positive legacy to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. “Security cannot come at the expense of human rights and the fundamental principles of democracy”, defended Atila Roque, AI’s executive-diretor.

     

    In the morning of August 12th, blood puddles were still visible in the favela Bandeira 2. A 14 year-old died and three people were hurt in a conflict between the police and drug dealers Photo: Carlos Cout

    In the morning of August 12th, blood puddles were still visible in the favela Bandeira 2. A 14 year-old died and three people were hurt in a conflict between the police and drug dealers
    Photo: Carlos Cout

     

    In fact, the urbanisation of all of Rio’s favelas by 2020 was supposed to be the Olympic’s biggest legacy to the city and the most ambitious slum upgrading programme ever implemented. When launching the the Morar Carioca[6] programme in 2010, the city government promised to upgrade all of Rio’s favelas and to promote accessibility, waste management, public spaces and services, environmental protection and eco-efficiency, reduction of density, resettlements and housing improvements – “all with transparency and popular participation”[7]. However, the programme was cast aside by the government in 2013 as if it had never been proposed (and the fact was also completely overlooked by the mainstream media).

     

    “What’s Rio’s post-Olympic agenda? We don’t want any more white elephants to show-off policies for favelas. We want to think about the city from the perspective of favelas. Favelas are a constituent part of the city. They present a different paradigm and show that diverse urban spaces may coexist, provided inequities are overcome and adequate living standards are universalised”,  concluded Ibase’s director Itamar Silva.

     

     

    “What's Rio's post-Olympic agenda? We don't want any more white elephants and show-off policies for favelas”, questioned Ibase's director Itamar Silva at the end of the dialogue. Photo: Pedro Martins

    “What’s Rio’s post-Olympic agenda? We don’t want any more white elephants and show-off policies for favelas”, questioned Ibase’s director Itamar Silva at the end of the dialogue.
    Photo: Pedro Martins

    [1]    Dafolha, July 2016: http://media.folha.uol.com.br/datafolha/2016/07/18/olimpiada.pdf

    [2]    Quotes from the decree.

    [3]    Raízes em Movimento (Complexo do Alemão), Rocinha sem Fronteiras (Rocinha), Comissão de Moradores da Providência (Providência) and Agência Internacional de Favelas (Borel).

    [4]    Rio 2016: Jogos da Exclusão, Jornada de Lutas, Rio de Janeiro.

    [5]    Instituto de Segurança Pública do Rio de Janeiro (ISP/ RJ).

    [6]    Morar means “to live”; carioca is an adjective relating to someone or something that comes from the city of Rio de Janeiro.

    [7]    SMH, 2011.

     


    Mariana Dias Simpson is a DPU MSc Urban Development Planning alumni. She works as a researcher at the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (Ibase) in Rio de Janeiro and has worked with urban issues related to favelas, housing, public policies, poverty and inequality for several years.

    If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization

    By Rafaella Simas Lima, on 11 May 2016

    At the start of April, a number of civil society groups, members of NGOs and activists from across Europe met in Barcelona for the European meeting of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. This was in part to complement the Habitat III meeting on Public Space that was to take place later that week. Habitat III will be the third installment of the UN conference on human settlements, held every 20 years. At this Global Platform meeting in Barcelona, priorities relating to the ‘Right to the City’ in Europe and strategic aims for Habitat III, to take place in Quito this October, were discussed.

    Global Platform for the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

    Global Platform of the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

    One of the main issues that emerged in the Global Platform meeting was the financialization of real estate. Financialization can be defined as a “pattern of accumulation in which profit-making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production” (Aalbers 2009, p. 284). The financialization of housing refers specifically to the linking of housing markets with finance markets, where housing is viewed primarily as a financial good. This is what allows banks to speculate on land and housing, which causes house prices to rise far beyond what most people can afford. The linking of mortgages with financial products, especially in the United States, was a central factor in the 2008 economic crisis that had catastrophic effects across the globe.

    In a working group on the topic, participants exchanged experiences of how financialization has manifested in their respective countries. A member of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for people affected by mortgages) in Barcelona summarized the particularly dire situation in Spain, where over 400,000 evictions have taken place since 2008. While each European country has its own unique context, many common themes emerged, such as speculation, inflated housing prices, empty homes, the selling off of social housing, and an increase in evictions and displacement. These phenomena were linked to a systematic eroding of regulations that have allowed the financial sector to exploit housing for profit.

    An open letter to the Habitat III Secretariat signed by members of the Global Platform points to the connection between the 2008 financial crisis and its context of housing financialization, a topic which it says is strikingly absent from Habitat III documents thus far. The letter asserts that land and housing must be treated as goods for people and not for profit. In this vein, the signatories call for a new Habitat III policy unit to be set up that focuses on the global financialization of real estate, to provide recommendations for the social and political regulation of real estate markets and actors.

    But at the moment, as the letter states, Habitat III documents do not seem to be dealing with the issue. The Policy Paper on Housing Policies, an official input into Habitat III, states that “Housing stands at the center of the New Urban Agenda”. It re-affirms UN Member states’ commitment to the right to housing, which it says must be adequate and affordable, with security of tenure. Yet in the 74 pages of the document, financialization is not once mentioned. In a section on affordable housing, there is reference to the financial crisis, and to the increase in mortgage debt and repossession of homes, especially in Europe (p.10). The global estimate that 330 million households are currently financially stretched by housing costs is also provided. But this section concludes with “Nearly half of the housing deficit in urban areas is attributable to the high cost of homes, and to the lack of access to financing” (p. 10).

    In this sense, rising house prices are presented as a natural and uncontestable process, with the core problem simply being that many people do not have access to housing finance. There is no questioning of why house prices are allowed to rise at such a rate in the first place, nor is there acknowledgement of the role of the financial sector in inflating real estate values. The report mentions how vulnerable groups are traditionally excluded from home ownership and rental markets, implying that the solution to the housing deficit is to get more people in on this market. (The paper seems to ignore the phenomenon of sub-prime or predatory lending integral to the 2008 crisis, where vulnerable groups were not excluded, but explicitly targeted for mortgage loans.) Overall, the focus is on the individual requirements needed to access housing, and not on structural factors and the institutions responsible for shaping access to housing.

    Given the very limited diagnosis analysis of the situation, the paper’s proposed policy solutions largely miss the point. The report states that to “To provide affordable housing, the private sector requires incentives (adequate capital and financial returns) and an enabling environment (development process and public policy)” (pp. 22-23). In other words, the financial institutions and private developers who are largely responsible for the massive housing crisis do not need to re-examine any of their practices; rather, the public needs to provide incentives for them to build “affordable” housing because the relentless profit motive of private developers and financial institutions cannot be challenged. In addition, the public sector must provide an “enabling environment” for the private sector to do its work, as if it has not already been doing so by implementing neoliberal policies to slash regulation of lending and speculation.

    To address the assumed core problem of people with limited or no access to credit for housing, the policy paper states “housing finance and microfinance should be integrated into the broader financial system in order to mobilize more resources, both domestically and internationally”(p. 21). This statement ignores the extent to which housing finance has already been integrated into the financial system, and what disastrous effects this has had. If anything, the paper seems to be suggesting an increase in financialization, rather than a re-thinking of this phenomenon that has been a major factor in the housing deficit.

    The housing paper does mention that policies are needed to reduce property speculation and even mentions the “social regulation of real estate”, and that these can be strengthened if “municipalities adopt inclusive housing ordinances and appropriate property taxation policies” (p. 17). This is a start, but it is not enough for a global urban agenda. The details of these policy proposals are not explored in any meaningful way in the current policy paper, nor are they linked to address the current embedding of real estate within the financial sector. Furthermore, this is not just a local problem for municipalities to deal with; both national and international institutions hold responsibility for our current situation, and need to be targeted as entry points for intervention.

    There are many forms of regulation that would at the very least be a step in the right direction in terms of housing affordability. But we need to address the now assumed linkage between real estate and the financial sector if we want to get to the root of the problem. For a conference aiming to come up with a “new urban agenda”, and that has previously agreed on such rights such as the right to adequate housing, the issue of financialization, which has put housing that much more out of reach for millions of people, needs to be addressed at Habitat III.

    References:

    Aalbers, M. B. (2009) “The sociology and geography of mortgage markets: Reflections on the financial crisis”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(2), 281–290.

    Habitat III Policy Paper 10 – Housing Policies, 29 February 2016, available at: https://www.habitat3.org/bitcache/3fa49d554e10b9ea6391b6e3980d2a32ce979ce9?vid=572979&disposition=inline&op=view

    Possible tags: Habitat III, Financialization, Housing policy, Right to the City, Right to Adequate Housing, Barcelona, Europe


     

    Rafaella Lima is an alumna of the the DPU and currently works as a graduate teaching assistant for the MSc Urban Development Planning. She has been involved in research looking at civil society engagement with Habitat III processes in various countries.

    Reading Harvey in Bangkok

    By Camillo Boano, on 12 May 2012

    Just a few days before my departure to Bangkok with the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development group for the annual fieldtrip, David Harvey’s book Rebel City: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution arrived to my doorstep.

    The eleven hour flight from London allowed me to read it and the Bangkok reality, working on a project called “Co-production of Housing at Scale: Collaborative People-Centered Partnerships for Slum Upgrading in Bangkok, Thailand” in collaboration with CODI, Asian Coalition of Housing Rights and the Community Architect Network, offered rich materialities to unfold its rich and provocative narrative.

    Harvey in the introduction of the book, elaborating on the relevance of Lefebvre seminal work The Right to the City, assert that such right is both a cry and a demand. A cry as a response to the existential pain of withering crisis of the everyday life in the city, as well as a demand to confront such crisis and create an alternative urban life (p.x). While sustaining the relevance of the critical Lefebvrian thinking, Harvey call for a meaningful adoption of  “dialectical methods of critical inquiries” (p.xiii). Thus, the struggle to the Right to the City make evident that cities are no more perceived as collective body politics but instead constructed for a boutique-lifestyle reflecting the driving forces of a capitalist production of territories.

    So, moving from an empty meaningful signifier (p. xv) the Right to the city become the right that should “be accorded to all those who have had a part in producing the common“ (p.78)

    What follows is a series of quotes subtracted from Harvey’s latest superimposed as captions onto a photographic essay capturing a reality completely different than the one tackled in Rebel Cities. Traveling with this text into the field, it became apparent that our fieldwork explorations of reality found could easily feed off the author’s quest of an alternative reality.
    All the pictures are credited to Atiyeh Ardakanian, Ariel Shepherd, Bethany Ritter, Budoor Bukhari, Camila Cociña Varas, Christopher Montgomery, Diogo Cardoso Martins, Elizabeth Price, Elisabetta Bricchetto, Elsbet Alen, Francesco Pasta, Laura Pinzon Cardona, Lisa Marie Hanking, Lina Gonzalez Arango, Maria Luz Navarro Eslava, Ojama Akagwu, Paola Maria Fuentes, Rachel Felicia, Sarah Ahmad, Stefano Mascia, Zhu Han. Harvey’s Rebel City quotes, were selected in several discussions with Benjamin LeClair Paquet.

    “The World Bank [World Development Report 2009] plainly favors speculative capital over people. The idea that a city can do well (in term of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from the privilege class) and the environment do badly, is never examined” (p. 29).

    “The property market absorb the great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction” (p.11).

    “The central conclusion is that the collective laboring that is now productive of value must ground collective not individual property rights. […] The common is not, therefore, something that existed once upon a time that has since been lost, but something that is, like the urban commons, continually being produced” (p. 77).

    “The is a categorical error to view globalization as a causal force in elation to local development” (p. 101).

    “Why not focus, therefore, on the city rather then the factory as the prime site of surplus value production?” (p. 129-130).

    “The actual site characteristics are important, and the physical and social re-engineering and territorial organization of these sites is a weapon in political struggles” (p. 118).

    “Those who create an interesting an stimulating neighborhood life lose it to the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and the upper class consumers bereft of any urban and social imaginations. The better the common quality a social groups creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit – maximizing interests” (p.78).

    “ We don’t have to wait for the grand revolutions to create heterotopic places” (p .XVII)

    “Any spontaneous alternative visionary moment if fleeting; if it is not seized at the flood, it will surely pass” (p. xvii)