A round table between Raquel Rolnik, professor of the faculty of architecture and urbanism of the University of Sao Paulo, and Josep Maria Montaner, councillor of Housing and Renovation of the City Council, opened the Barcelona Housing and Renovation Forum (FHAR). The forum was held until Thursday 21 at the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona (MACBA).
The discussion was moderated by journalist and writer Cristina Fallarás, who opened by explaining her eviction experience that took place in 2012, leaving her and her children in the street. This experience showed her how the social contract, by which you can have a home if you study and work, has been broken.
Topics revolved around global challenges and local solutions to housing rights. Rolnik started by saying that the housing crisis “is not exclusive to Barcelona” but rather that “it is a global problem“.
“It’s not just a minor distortion of the market but the result of a broader structural change that affects the very nature and role of housing in the current development of capitalism,” she said. In this context of crisis, Rolnik added, “municipalities are desperately trying to change paradigms.”
Social housing vs. capital assets
For Rolnik, a new paradigm is taking place in which investment funds and large financial groups represent a “new colonial power” that is taking over the spaces of individuals and “restructuring cities and changing our lives”.
According to the expert, these large financial corporations want housing and constructed urban territory to become a market asset. “Social housing is becoming a capital asset.” This happens, Rolnik explained, through the securitisation process, which converts fixed assets into capital assets.
This phenomenon explains what Rolnik calls the “second wave of dispossession” that is currently taking place. In a process similar to the first wave of foreclosures, brought on by the housing bubble that gave rise to the crisis of several years ago, this second stage affects rental housing.
In each part of the world, this process happens in a different way, the expert continued. In this regard, she noted that “Barcelona is a perfect example to show what it means to be under this new colonial empire of territory.” The architect and ex-relator of housing for the UN addressed, for example, how tourism is one of the factors that transforms the housing sector and how vulture funds and large investors have taken advantage of this phenomenon to take over built space.
These are elements that configure, according to Rolnik, this new cycle of dispossession, which consists of “the systematic expulsion of renters”, and that in the case of Barcelona, it affects the “central, historic and modernist” parts of the city. She has also warned that no part of the process has happened by chance, but that “everything is the product of speculation.”
The consequence of this speculation and dispossession process is that in many cities, like Barcelona, there is a great deal of unoccupied housing, due to the properties owned by banking entities and vulture funds where no one lives. In parallel, the dispossession of homes is taking place among citizens.
Housing policies and resistance practices
Rolnik stressed the need for political intervention to change this reality. An intervention that must be made at national level, to regulate the financial market, but also at local level, where municipalities must play a key role. “A change of culture is needed, to develop a political process based on resistance practices”, either by trying new formulas like cohousing, for example, or other ways of socialising housing such as “creating tenant associations that pressure institutions from inside and outside”.
These alternatives, Rolnik added, “are not ready-made models but processes.” The housing expert called for citizen activism to take ownership of space to manage and promote it. “I see it as a movement that will create alternatives to the current model that understands housing as a financial asset rather than a response to the right to housing.”
In this context, “the role of municipalities is not minor, because they should not impose a model; they should nurture, protect and promote new community-based models so they can develop, grow and mature over time,” she added. At the same time, she stressed that municipalities must look out for “the most vulnerable.”
Barcelona, an example to follow
Rolnik highlighted the measures that are being taken in Barcelona to curb the financial colonisation of territory. “What Barcelona is trying to do is send a clear message to markets and citizens that it is not possible to continue with the same paradigm. New organisational models such as housing cooperatives, tenant associations and other formulas that do not treat housing as property should function, according to Rolnik, to halt the situation.
“The urban and architectural effort that has been made in Barcelona in recent years is an example to follow,” said Cristina Fallarás. The journalist also recalled cases such as that of Ana Botella, who “gave away entire lots to vulture funds. We have the opposite case in Barcelona,” she said.
Building on the reflections of Rolnik, the councillor Josep Maria Montaner said that this process of converting built space into capital assets is one that “equalises all cities in their vulnerability to these funds. A historical shock of extreme hardness is taking place, where the right to property predominates while generating an abuse over the right to housing, which stands in the way of creating a life project”.
What differentiates us in cities like Barcelona, from other cases such as Vienna, Berlin or London, are the housing policies that have been carried out, based on “the housing we have inherited and the way we face the present.” In the case of Barcelona, ”what we inherited for public housing was less than 7,000 flats, when 30,000 or 40,000 had been built,” Montaner recalled.
Correcting mistakes and facing new challenges
Another differentiating factor for approaching the situation, continued Montaner, is the way each city faces the challenge of housing. “Our aim is to correct inherited mistakes, and to follow the model of Europe and the policies that have been created up to now”.
With this aim, the councillor noted that the Barcelona City Council has promoted the construction of new housing, rental housing, cohousing and also renovation. “We have tried all the mechanisms and we don’t want to give up any one of them; they all add up.”
Montaner recalled that one of the measures taken by the Barcelona City Council was “to address the issue of tourism,” by making a plan to stop hotel investments in the city and regulate tourist apartments to get rid of those that are illegal.
The City Council also resorted to regulations to apply measures such as the one that claims 30% of all developments for public housing, or to gain greater control over rental prices.
Finally, Montaner also mentioned the problem of evictions and the municipal commitment to prevent them from occurring by setting up mediation mechanisms, among other actions.
With these measures, the councillor added, “a clear message is being given to vulture funds that changes are taking place”, and he stressed the importance of continuing to work “and not resigning ourselves”.