Home, much more than just real estate

Una dona penja una pancarta al balcó de casa seva en la qual es llegeix: banca estafa engaña © Pere Virgili

“All housing is political” asserted David Madden on his recent visit to Barcelona to present his book In Defense of Housing, co-authored with Peter Marcuse. Madden believes that a housing crisis does exist because the legal and executive system protects the right of property owners, but not the right of the inhabitants of homes. What is the solution? Repoliticising the public forum for debate surrounding housing and understanding the inhabitant as an emancipated political subject.

Many years ago, a friend told me that his bedroom represented a sort of start menu to the videogame of his life. A friendly space where everything that is needed to satisfy an individual’s well-being is at hand. The alpha and omega of every daily adventure, because it starts every day in his bedroom, and draws to a close there every night. When he told me this, my friend was a young fellow just out of puberty, his family had not endured any hardships and his foremost concerns were getting good marks at school and loitering around Barcelona on his bike. Getting home every afternoon with his homework in his backpack, catching the smell of dinner being prepared in the kitchen, hearing the hum of the television showing the same old programme in the background… All these everyday sensations made my friend feel at home. This familiarity gave him (and anyone else in this situation) a sense of autonomy in his own home: the concept of space became the concept of place, and the concept of house became the concept of home. For him, this was the start menu to his life. However, if we ask a philosopher, they will tell us we are alluding to the concept of ontological security.

Without the certainty of knowing how much they are going to raise your rent; without the peace of mind that you will be able to pay the electricity, water and gas bill every month; without the ontological security of your own home, maintaining a family nucleus, doing a job or getting involved in the city’s social fabric turns out to be an odyssey. More than half the inhabitants of Barcelona spend a minimum of 40% of their take-home pay on rent, 15% more than the European average, according to figures in the report La llar és la clau (“The Key is the Home”), drawn up by Cáritas Barcelona and published in December 2018. The study also reveals that 36% of the residents of Barcelona and its metropolitan area live in substandard housing (not including those who have nowhere to lay their head). For the people living behind these alarming figures, insecurity, fear, stress, anxiety and disempowerment are triggering serious health problems.

‘In Defense of Housing’

David Madden, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics, is one of those young university professors decked out in a tweed jacket and polo-neck sweater, with a slow, deliberate and poised discourse. On tour in Spain in early February he presented the book In Defense of Housing, two hundred pages that discuss the political dimension of housing, its commodification and its opposing social movements. An essay that he co-authored with Peter Marcuse, lawyer and Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University (and son of Herbert Marcuse, philosopher of the Frankfurt School).

During the two days he spent in Barcelona, Madden had the opportunity to share experiences with some of the social actors that primarily work on the problem of access to housing in the city such as the Barcelona Renters’ Union and the DESC Observatory.

We took advantage of his visit to discuss some of the more far-reaching reflections on inhabitants’ lack of ontological security in their homes, which he and Marcuse call residential alienation: “When housing is insecure, people stay in jobs that they would prefer to quit. Or they are compelled to take on second or third jobs.” Given that half of Barcelona’s residents spend more than 40% of their take-home wages on paying for their home, it can be asserted that the freedom to reside in our city without serious challenges or concerns is a privilege nowadays.

Madden is a man with artistic concerns and with a refined sense of irony. He lives in the United Kingdom – visibly grieved, he did not wish to comment on Brexit –, although he is a native of New York. He bluntly points out who he considers to blame for the lack of access to housing; his Twitter account has featured a painting by Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, as a permanent tweet since 2015, and the footnote reads “Financialized capitalism [Saturn] and social housing [the devoured son].”

Though the problem may be well defined, the diagnosis of the situation makes the possibility of treating it worse. Seeking to remedy this situation of oppression and alienation puts us up against a huge wall: the housing system of global neoliberal capitalism.

Homes are not only, strictly speaking, a place in which to live and build your life. In a global economic, capitalist system financialised to the hilt, housing becomes the most lasting and expensive consumer good known. For Madden, there are three fundamental factors in the hyper-commodification of housing, three processes that have occurred to get to the current situation: first, deregulation (see Law 4/2013 on urban leases), second, financialisation (see the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008); and, lastly, globalisation, which ousts municipal administrations – those best acquainted with the problems endured by residents – from the management of their own properties.

Alina, resident a Ciutat Meridiana, es trobava el novembre de 2015 pregant a casa seva abans del desnonament que esperava i que finalment va ser suspès. © Pere Virgili Alina, a resident of Ciutat Meridiana, was found praying in her home in November 2015 before the eviction that she was expecting and that was finally cancelled. © Pere Virgili

Housing and State

People do not only live in their homes, but also go about their lives in their neighbourhoods, shop in their shops and pay their taxes. But the urban space taken up by housing demarcates the place where individuals engage in social bonding. Housing creates and consolidates interrelations between people, but also delineates the power relations. Since they were built, modern states have regulated and deregulated the key aspects affecting housing, from land use to rental agreements, and eviction policy in between.

Often governments get involved in housing-related laws under a fine premise: advocating the right to housing. However, if this argument does not rock the foundations of the method of distributing benefits and the costs of housing, it is a weak right, as Madden claims. The outcome is a legal and executive system that protects the right of property owners and not the right of the inhabitants of the homes.

 

We are witnessing a period of expansion in the housing market parallel to a process of burgeoning economic inequality; combined with wage cuts and the surge in the cost of rent, this could mean that we are navigating a crisis in the sector. Something tells us, however, that access to housing has always been in crisis for specific swathes of the population: foreigners, women (often with dependent children) or people in precarious situations; and that only when the middle classes also found it difficult to live in their homes did we add the term crisis to the problem. After all, and in line with the reasoning upheld by Madden and Marcuse in their book In Defense of Housing, a housing crisis does not exist because the system is failing to work, but because it is working seamlessly.

Retrat de David Madden © Pere Virgili © Pere Virgili

In fact, it is not a crisis if we see it from the perspective of the property owners who live off the rental income. Money that comes in regularly that does not create innovation, money with no social value. And that is transformed into virtual money and debt in the mortgage market. Owners and bankers make a profit off real estate through speculative processes. Something logical if we bear in mind that housing is not built or distributed so that everyone has a roof over their heads where they can live in dignity, but like a commodity to make the elite richer. As pointed out by the doctor in Social Anthropology and spokesperson of the Barcelona Renters’ Union, Jaime Palomera, in his introduction to In Defense of Housing, “capitalism has mutated to the point that the home is as crucial to the extraction of wealth as the labour market is”. In the market economy, for there to be rich people, there must also be poor people.

“How can the housing problem be redressed if the crisis is within the very raison d’être of today’s economic system?” I raised this question on 7 February at the conference organised by the CIDOB, entitled “What is going on in the world? In Defence of Housing in Europe”, led by David Madden himself and Sorcha Edwards, Secretary General of Housing Europe, the European Federation of Public, Co-operative and Social Housing. She herself gave the most concise answer: “We cannot wait for the current economic system to collapse to take action on housing.” For Madden, the key lies in the repoliticisation of the inhabitant. Addressing my question, Madden made a case for asserting that “all housing is political”, and that the underlying struggle is cross-cutting: “To the extent that housing is used to bolster a political economic system that is crisis-prone and environmentally suicidal, residential oppression affects everyone.”

 

“Owner before proletarian”

In 1961, the Franco government rolled out a major housing plan. Large-scale construction was undertaken, but not for people to rent, but to purchase. Six million flats were built in fifteen years. José Luis Arrese, Minister of Housing, made the proclamation: “We want a country of owners, not of proletarians”. The Spanish way of life, which was to buy a house and a Seat 600 and to stay put in the country and holiday in Spain, took hold. This is another legacy bequeathed by the dictatorship. According to the Guia de l’habitatge (“Guide to Housing”), published by Barcelona City Council in 2016, the city has 880,000 dwellings for more than 1.6 million inhabitants. Out of these homes, 63.8% are owned and 30.3% are rented. And only 1.5% are social or affordable housing, which corresponds to just over 10,000 dwellings, while there are reports that speak of 80,000 vacant homes throughout Barcelona. Figures that are light years away from the rental stock of the major European cities. The distribution is plainly unfair and socially worrying. The privatisation of living spaces leads to the individualisation of problems and, hence, the lack of collective organisation to deal with them. Moreover, in the spirit of the words of the philosopher Iris Marion Young, quoted by Madden and Marcuse in their book, ownership numbs consciences, “The goal of a dream house sets workers working and keeps workers working, fearing job loss, working overtime. The consumer-driven desire of civic privatism tends to produce political quietism.” To Arrese, the Francoist minister, the words political quietism must have been music to his ears.

Faced with quietism, the only answer is action: decommodify the current housing system, re-endow it with a human dimension and not merely a chrematistic one. Promote public housing and cooperative housing alternatives or housing based on non-tenure systems. On his trip to Barcelona, Madden pressed for repoliticising the public housing debate and gave the example of the Barcelona Renters’ Union as a means of doing so. Going beyond stopgap measures and talking about residential oppression as a way of perpetuating the elite. The inhabitant must therefore be understood as an emancipated political subject. Interestingly derived from the Latin focus (‘hearth’), the home reflects the first domestication of the human being: making a hearth to provide light, heat and protection from the beasts. Appealing to people’s revolutionary sense of the universal right to decent homes holds the potential for radical social transformation.