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The resistible rise of urban dispossession in Europe

Stuart Hodkinson traces the effects of the housing crisis across Europe in light of a new report, 'Resisting Evictions Across Europe'

May 30, 2016
9 min read

housing demo europeAs this timely report makes depressingly clear, the forcible eviction of people from their homes – whether rented, owned or occupied – is on the rise in Europe. In some respects, Europe has arrived late to the global eviction party that each year sees millions of people displaced from housing across the world.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the various national housing crises afflicting Europe’s industrial working classes were gradually tamed through state intervention as part of the broader Keynesian deal that put Western capitalism on a more social democratic course. Private landowners’ right to extract monopoly rents from the propertyless masses was tempered by the creation of a popular right to decent housing – and to the city more generally – through the partial decommodification of shelter. But now, social democracy is all but dead after forty years of neoliberal policies that have seen European societies and especially their cities radically restructured and re regulated along free market lines in the interests of global financial speculation and elite consumption.

Under neoliberalism, governments across Europe – whether of the so-called left or right – have rolled back citizens’ protections from market forces and rolled out new forms of market-based housing provision. At the urban scale, neoliberal policies have impelled the gentrification-led restructuring of central urban areas through gated mega-development projects, widespread clearance of public and low-income housing and the diminution of tenants’ legal protections. Neoliberalism has also exposed cities and neighbourhoods to the destructive race-to-the-bottom dynamics of global inter-urban competition for jobs and investment. The result is the ongoing commodification of public space and the creation of new, exclusive urban spaces of elite consumption in which those surplus populations with insufficient market value – either as workers or consumers – are to be, in the words of Saskia Sassen, expelled by stealth or force.

The new urban enclosures

Connecting displacement to dispossession under the neoliberalisation of our cities is part of a broader process I have called the new urban enclosures. Enclosure links the historical acts of rural dispossession that paved the way for the birth of the capitalist city to today’s acts of urban dispossession that accompany neoliberal urbanism. During the original enclosures in Europe, it was the peasantry who were separated, often violently, from the means of (re)production and propelled over time as a mass landless proletariat into the swelling ranks of the industrialising and urbanising centres. They were victims of a massive appropriation of state and church lands – and their associated natural wealth of valuable resources – into the private hands of individual landowners, generating the concentration and expansion of landed class power. Enclosure also enshrined and ideologically embedded the ultimate cultural value of capitalist society – the sanctity and inviolability of private property rights.

While these old enclosures are very much alive today in the proto-capitalist spaces of the Global South, what is striking about urban life in contemporary Europe and other core capitalist countries is how new acts of enclosure and dispossession punctuate the restructuring of cities. Enclosure abounds in the ‘privatisation’ of urban spaces and services formerly publicly owned, and in the ‘fencing off’ of the city itself through the countless residential, office and retail developments that both destroy the existing use values and publicness of particular spaces and actively ‘displace’ and ‘exclude’ the urban poor from the city. Enclosure moves more insidiously through the corporatisation and revanchist control of public space and the associated political curtailment of the public sphere that have become familiar experiences of urban entrepreneurial strategies.

Yet calling urban enclosures under neoliberalism new is somewhat misleading as they are merely the latest episode in a continuing historical story in which capitalism responds to crisis through the appropriation of new resources or the extension of capitalist relations. Today’s crisis of housing might be immediately traced to the United States sub-prime mortgage crash that triggered the 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent housing market meltdowns in many European countries, but it has much deeper roots in the global economic crisis of the 1970s onwards, which triggered a new and historically unprecedented wave of enclosure under neoliberalism on a planetary scale designed not simply to source new outlets for accumulation but to reorganise the accumulation process itself so as to undermine collective organisation and placebased struggles, depress wages, and make workers vulnerable and precarious and thus more compliant to capital. This two-fold process encompassed the privatisation of industries, sectors and key areas of social reproduction in the core capitalist countries under what David Harvey has called ‘accumulation by dispossession’.

So-called ‘regeneration’ schemes have been used as sophisticated land grabbing machines, bribing, cajoling or forcing low-income populations out to the periphery of major cities

Accumulation by dispossession goes to the heart of the housing story under neoliberalism. Post-war state intervention in the housing system not only imposed limits on accumulation to speculative capital and strengthened working class power in the labour market, it also built up a valuable stock of housing and land that was removed to varying degrees from the market but with the potential for its to be included on highly profitable terms. This is why privatisation has spearheaded the neoliberal attack on housing, opening up precious stocks of public and social rented housing to new private owners, whether former tenants, so-called ‘charitable’ social landlords or for-profit companies, and shutting down affordable and secure alternatives to the market. Privatisation has also enabled finance capital to gain more profitable access to the land rents previously locked up within the old collectivist model of housing finance. So-called ‘regeneration’ schemes – typically under public-private partnerships – have been used as sophisticated land grabbing machines, bribing, cajoling or forcing low-income populations out to the periphery of major cities under the guise of urban renewal, and unleashing the forces of gentrification and speculative corporate investment.

Essential to the financialisation of housing has been the political promotion and financial lubrication of home ownership that was a central feature of most European societies from the early 1990s. The financialisation of housing generated vast increases in house prices everywhere from 1997 to 2008 but it was built on a fundamental contradiction with circuits of capital increasingly organised around investment and trading in mortgage debt and derivative products, which depended on rising asset prices and increasing numbers of people taking on higher levels of personal debt to access housing. We know what happened next. Uncontrolled international speculation in national housing markets detonated the 2008 global financial crisis and the consequent wave of evictions and repossessions detailed in this report. This was the inevitable outcome of the neoliberal project to recommodify and financialise housing.housing bannerHowever, rather then representing a turning point against neoliberalism, the post-2008 world has witnessed the speeding up of the neoliberal project under the aegis of austerity. A major factor in Eurozone countries like Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain has been the onerous terms and imposed structural adjustment programmes of the EU bailouts in response to the sovereign debt and banking crisis since 2009. States in relatively less affected countries, like the UK, meanwhile, have chosen to use the 2008 crisis and the subsequent rise in public debt as an opportunity to complete the unfinished neoliberal revolution started over three decades ago. The outcome everywhere is the intensification of housing privatisation policies alongside welfare state retrenchment that is producing greater precariousness of work, income and shelter, whilst boosting private landlord power to choose tenants and evict at will.

What is now different about the urban landscapes of Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, however, is the rise of a new threat to tenants from outside the nation-state in the shape of global financial actors scouring the planet for profitable opportunities. These include ‘global corporate landlords’, primarily private equity firms like Blackstone and Goldman Sachs acting like vulture capital to accumulate wealth from the urban dispossession of hundreds of thousands of households losing their homes from mortgage defaults by buying up repossessed homes and mortgage loan books from troubled banks. The idea that Wall Street is now landlord to many thousands of tenants, including former homeowners, in Spain, opens up not only a bitter irony, but a major political problem of how to regulate and hold to account opaque private equity firms headquartered thousands of miles away. Global finance is also embodied in the institutional investors and sovereign wealth funds who attend the annual international and European real estate fairs held by MIPIM looking to exploit what Tom Slater has called ‘planetary rent gaps’ through acquiring, redeveloping and gentrifying devalued public / social housing and land from indebted local authorities and social landlords.

Resistance

As always people are fighting back in innovative and heroic ways that point us in the direction of effective resistance that can also generate alternative housing models and social relations based on solidarity, dignity and need – and not profit. The emergence of the European Day of Action against MIPIM and the ongoing Global Days of Action against Blackstone are hugely significant developments in the creation of cross-border organising networks and campaigns. The work of the Detroit People’s Platform in the United States serves as another beacon of hope. In October 2015, activists raised an astonishing $100,000 in just 10 days through an international public crowdfund appeal and purchased 14 of 8,000 occupied Detroit homes being auctioned off and secured them permanently in a Community Land Trust. Just as capital thinks and acts globally to extract locally, the Detroit action was conceived during an international roundtable of activists and researchers in Berlin inspired partly by the solidarity model of the Spanish housing movement, the PAH. It shows how the rise of urban dispossession in Europe, however powerful, is resistible when people unite across borders.

The full report, supported by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, has been written by members of the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and to the City and can be accessed via their website.

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