CIDOB Report nº 10

Where are we going to live? the manufactured housing and habitat global crisis

Publication date:
07/2023
Author:
Lorena Zárate, Global Platform for the Right to the City
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When treated as a commodity that allows accumulation and speculation, housing generates social inequality, economic concentration and environmental destruction. If respected and guaranteed as a human right, adequate housing can contribute to more just, democratic and sustainable societies and territories. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, local and regional communities and governments have a key role to play in advancing transformative agendas based on the right to the city, to the commons and to care. 

The right to housing is under attack. Acquiring and maintaining a decent place to live in peace and dignity has become practically impossible for most people. A kind of «perfect storm” seems to be preventing fairer distribution of the housing stock, affecting billions of people around the world. Over the last four decades, the sustained loss of public housing, the lack of regulation of the private rental market, the mass construction of luxury apartments and the limitations of housing improvement programmes and self-built1 working class neighbourhoods have had devastating social and environmental effects. Growing numbers of men, women, adolescents and children living on the streets; working families and young people who cannot afford adequate housing; tenants under constant threat of eviction; people living in marginal areas that lack services – all are visible signs of a planet-wide housing crisis. 

Privatisation, gentrification and touristification have become keywords for understanding the urban dynamics that today affect large, medium-sized and small cities in all regions. For some time now, various experts have described a process of the financialisation of housing – whereby housing has become a financial asset in the hands of large transnational companies. “People without homes and homes without people” is the slogan that sums up the nonsense of an increasingly concentrated and speculative real estate market, in which the state is largely complicit and fearful of regaining its role as regulator and guarantor of fundamental rights. Exclusive new neighbourhoods and large complexes of so-called low-income housing in productive and conservation areas grow and then empty out, for the lack adequate infrastructure and opportunities. At the same time, collective and cooperative options are invisibilized, do not receive the support they need, and are in turn stigmatised and even criminalised. The right to housing is being confused with the right to property, to devastating effects: the social fabric is polarised and torn apart; cities are segmented and segregated; and the environment is neglected and becomes artificial. 

Exchange value is prioritised over use value. Rather than spaces that are essential to life, homes are treated as commodities. In economic, political and cultural terms, accumulation and profit are placed above redistribution and people's well-being. Over recent decades, land, housing and rental prices have grown exponentially, while people's real incomes have stagnated or even fallen. Applying an intersectional perspective highlights those who are inevitably most affected by this spiral of dispossession, exploitation, discrimination and marginalisation: women, young people, children and the elderly; racialised groups and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants; people with disabilities; and people of diverse sexual and gender identities, among others. 

Coordinated, networked local action to guarantee rights and dignity of people 

In face of the inertia and backwards steps at national level, various cities and regions are providing reasons for hope and presenting alternatives. One example, at the United Nations headquarters in New York in July 2018, was when a group of mayors publicly stated their commitment to implement measures that would help realise the right to housing and the right to the city. A decade had passed since the brutal economic and financial crisis unleashed by mortgage and real estate speculation by large banks and construction companies, which affected millions of people in both the Global North and South. In the Declaration over 40 local and regional governments state their willingness to promote urban planning that combines adequate housing with inclusive, sustainable and high-quality neighbourhoods, as well as tools for public–private and public–community collaboration. At the same time, the municipalities demand more powers to regulate the real estate market and access more funds to improve public housing stock. 

Since then, activists, professionals and public officials from cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Montevideo, New York, Paris and Vienna, to mention just a few, have participated in numerous spaces of mutual learning and exchange that have already had interesting repercussions on municipal and regional policies and initiatives. Taking advantage of and even expanding the range of their mandates, various local and metropolitan governments have been experimenting with a series of measures to guarantee social welfare and promote greater environmental responsibility. Regulatory, financial, administrative and management innovations are enabling them to advance in key areas such as municipal housing provision, rent control, regulation of tourist apartments, eviction prevention, land use planning and building codes, including the transfer of land for cooperative and other non-profit projects. 

As a framework, the right to housing provides fundamental keys for decoding the limitations of current trends and for guiding transformative public policies that advance greater equity and socio-spatial justice. As recognised in international instruments and constitutions and laws around the world, the right to adequate housing is expressed in seven interrelated dimensions: 1) security of tenure; 2) availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; 3) affordability; 4) habitability; 5) accessibility; 6) location; and 7) cultural adequacy. The table at the end of this chapter gives greater detail on its scope and implications for the concerted action of various public, social and private actors. 

The right to the city complements this approach, providing a territorial vision that gives material form to the interdependence of all human rights (civil, political, economic, social and cultural), and links them to collective well-being, environmental responsibility and the deepening of democratic decision-making practices. The eight components combine both principles and strategies: 1) non-discrimination; 2) gender equity; 3) inclusive citizenship (detached from nationality and legal status); 4) strengthened political participation; 5) the social functions of property and the collectively defined public–community interest; 6) equity in the use of safe, high-quality public spaces and services; 7) diverse and inclusive economies (including the informal economy and the social and solidarity economy); and 8) fairer and more balanced urban–rural linkages. 

The crisis as an opportunity: what we’ve learned and what comes next 

The multifaceted global crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the growing inequalities that affect our societies and cities, highlighting the priority and urgent issues. Access to adequate housing and basic services became a crucial means of protection against the spread of the disease, and for millions of people around the world a terrible line drawn between life and death. The home became a place of study and work, which highlighted the injustices of the digital divide, while the substantially increased burden of care, borne mostly by women, led to a loss of income and autonomy. Meanwhile, a large number of essential workers in the health, food, energy and other sectors, many of them migrants or members of racialised groups, risked their health by living in overcrowded conditions in areas far from employment centres with poor public transport links. 

Once again, local governments and communities were the first to respond, albeit often without adequate resources and, in many cases, facing reluctant and even authoritarian national administrations. According to a study by the London School of Economics (LSE), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Metropolis (LSE et al., 2020), 64% of the measures taken over the first months were at subnational level, including 43% at city level or below. Even with limited budgets, various local and regional actors took swift and in many cases bold steps to address the emergency. By mobilising a broad network of in-kind support and decommodifying access to essential goods and services, they sought to guarantee housing, water, food, electricity and internet access. Public housing rent moratoriums, rate freezes and food banks were combined with pop-up clinics and remote medical attention. The reuse of buildings, land and public spaces became a critical tool. Empty homes and hotel rooms, conference centres and other community facilities were adapted to provide shelter for homeless people, women and children who were victims of domestic violence and healthcare workers requiring isolation. 

While insufficient and temporary, these emergency measures broadened the horizon of what was possible and showed the way forward for urgent transformations in the medium and long term. Cities know that any effective strategy to deal with the housing crisis will require simultaneous care measures to be combined for three separate groups that together represent the majority of the population: the unhoused; people in inadequate housing; and people at risk of losing their home. A decolonial feminist approach (including redistributive justice, memory and reparation mechanisms for indigenous peoples) helps us focus on care and collective considerations that include housing among the common goods2 that we must protect and strengthen. Housing is at the heart of the great environmental, economic, health and social crisis of our time. The right to housing and the right to the city must therefore be at the centre of the transformations we continue to promote.

References 

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - CESCR. General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing. Geneva: United Nations, 1991. 

Global Platform for the Right to the City (2022). “(Global) Commons Policy Paper”. UCLG Town Halls, 2022 (online) https://decidim-uclg.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/decidim/attachment/file/4289/TH_PP_GlobalCommons.pdf 

LSE, CGLU and Metrópolis. “Monitores del COVID-19 relevantes para la gobernanza urbana y regional. Iniciativa ‘La gobernanza de las emergencias en las ciudades y las regiones’”. Nota Analítica, no. 1 (June 2020) (online) https://www.uclg.org/sites/default/files/egi_report_es.pdf 

UCLG, KNOW. “04 Commoning. Pathways to urban and territorial equality: Addressing inequalities through local transformation strategies”. GOLD VI Report (2022) (online). https://www.goldvi.uclg.org/en/commoning 

Rolnik, R. La guerra de los lugares. La colonización de la tierra y la vivienda en la época de las finanzas globales. Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires y Santiago de Chile: Editorial El Colectivo y LOM Ediciones, 2021 [2017, original edition] 

TABLA ANG

Notes: 

1- Around half of the urban settlements in the Global South have been built by their inhabitants. They tend to be grouped under the generic and derogatory name of informal and irregular settlements, but organisations and networks like the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) have described them as processes of the social production and management of habitat. For more information see www.hic-net.org.

2-  Several networks of local governments and civil society have been exploring the notion of the commons as a strategy to address socio-spatial inequalities, the environmental crisis and the democratic deficit in a comprehensive and territorialized manner. The most relevant of these debates and proposals are included in UCLG, KNOW (2022) and Global Platform for the Right to the City (2022).

All the publications express the opinions of their individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIDOB as an institution.