Introduzione di Paola Piscitelli
“Come osa questa donna brasiliana venire qui a valutare la politica immobiliare del Regno Unito?”
Questa la reazione dei membri del governo conservatore britannico nell’accogliere nel Regno Unito nel 2013 Raquel Rolnik, all’epoca relatrice speciale delle Nazioni Unite in materia di adequate housing (in italiano traducibile come alloggi adeguati, dignitosi, accessibili, in altre parole, “diritto alla casa”). Era inaccettabile, infatti, che una donna brasiliana di un’economia arretrata si esprimesse criticamente in merito alle politiche per la casa di una delle maggiori potenze economiche globali. Ma l’approccio della Rolnik come rapporteuse ONU è stato lo stesso che l’aveva distinta nei decenni di lotta e attività politica per il Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) e di docenza presso la Facoltà di Architettura e Urbanistica dell’Universidade di São Paulo: confrontarsi direttamente con le più emarginate e inascoltate vittime delle politiche abitative – ora deficitarie, ora fallimentari o discriminanti – anziché affidarsi esclusivamente alle retoriche e alle parole dei funzionari governativi. Un vero e proprio metodo di indagine che ha fatto scuola e l’ha resa vicina agli attivisti dei movimenti sociali e per la casa, testimone diretta (per scelta) e consapevole delle loro lotte per un’offerta abitativa dignitosa come fondamento del diritto alla città. Di queste battaglie, spesso condotte in circostanze provanti, quando non repressive, parla nel suo ultimo libro (primo in inglese dopo diversi testi miliari in portoghese) “Urban Warfare: Housing under the Empire of Finance”, uscito quest’anno per Verso, di cui si propone di seguito un estratto. Un testo fondamentale sulla città in quanto prima indagine comparata a livello internazionale su una delle più gravi crisi globali contemporanee: quella dell’incapacità del libero mercato di fornire alloggi adeguati e convenienti per la maggior parte della popolazione mondiale. L’autrice ne parlerà in un workshop pomeridiano a porte chiuse e con Daniele Lauria e Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Tokyo Institute of Technology) e i discussant Luca Gaeta e Massimo Bricocoli durante l’appuntamento serale “São Paulo e Tokyo. Sicurezza/Insicurezza: come si costruisce la città sicura?”, quarta puntata del ciclo “Atlante delle città-Ritratti urbani a confronto”, curato dall’Osservatorio su città e trasformazioni urbane di Fondazione G. Feltrinelli, in collaborazione con il Politecnico di Milano.
The Global Financialisation of Housing
Scenes from the beginning of the twenty-first century, September 2010. It was a cold and windy morning in Astana, the futuristic capital of Kazakhstan. After crossing a sort of plateau ablaze with the shiny creations of fashionable big-name architects, we finally arrived in a large tent to meet the hunger strikers. Lying on hammocks surrounded by signs written in Kazakh and Russian, Asian-looking elderly people were mixed with red-haired white women and middle-aged couples, taking shifts in beds and chairs. Having paid the instalments for apartments they had acquired off-plan, they were victims of construction companies that had gone bankrupt and disappeared, leaving the buildings’ skeletons unfinished and families with neither home nor money. Astana’s hunger strikers were just the most daring among the 16,000 borrowers affected by the bankruptcy of – mainly Turkish – construction companies that had already halted 450 projects. In addition to the hunger strikers, there were also those affected by foreclosures in Almaty, the country’s historic capital and economic centre. During the years of credit boom, Kazakh banks and their clients contracted debts in both US dollars and euros, and were now struggling to pay their obligations. In Astana and Almaty, the victims of the economic crisis, many now homeless, told us that they had been strongly encouraged by the government to buy apartments via mortgage credit certificates. They also reported that the public institutions in which many of them used to work had even sponsored the sales of apartments to their employees. The group of strikers in Almaty, mostly made up of women, received me in a small apartment decorated with a banner that read: ‘Government, help your people’.
The scenes I have described – in places as diverse as Europe, the US, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia – are the expression and result of a long process of deconstruction of housing as a social good and its transformation into a commodity and a financial asset, which began in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The extent and impact of this process go far beyond the financial subprime mortgage crisis that, spreading from the US since 2007, contaminated the international financial system. It is, in fact, the takeover of the housing sector by finance – the structural element of contemporary capitalism. We live under the empire of finance and fictitious capital hegemony, an era of increasing dominance of rent extraction over productive capital. The international literature on political economy of housing has termed this process ‘financialisation’, that is, ‘the increasing dominance of financial actors, markets, practices, measurements and narratives, at various scales, resulting in a structural transformation of economies, firms (including financial institutions), states and households’. The promotion of the ideology of homeownership, already deeply rooted in some societies and more recently introduced in others, has been a central element of the new paradigm of housing. Together with the ‘socialisation of credit’, it supported a double movement: on one hand, the inclusion of middle- and low-income consumers into financial circuits; on the other, the takeover of the housing sector by global finance. This process opened a new frontier for capital accumulation, allowing the free circulation of funds throughout almost all urbanised land. Between 1980 and 2010, the value of the world’s financial assets – stocks, debentures, private and government bonds, bank investments – increased by a factor of 16.2, while the world’s GDP increased by less than a factor of five in the same period. This pool of super-accumulation resulted not only from the profits earned by large corporations, but also from the emergence of economies such as China. This ‘wall of money’ increasingly sought new fields of application, transforming whole sectors (such as commodities, education financing and health care) into assets to feed the hunger for new vectors of profitable investment. The imbalance between the size of the available financial capital and the domestic markets from which they originated resulted – mainly from the 1990s – in the search for internationalisation of investments.
The takeover of the housing sector by finance does not represent the mere opening of another field of investment for capital. It is, in fact, a peculiar form of value storage, as it directly relates macroeconomics to individuals and families, and allows, through financing mechanisms, the interconnection of many central actors of the global financial system – such as pension funds, investment banks, shadow banking, credit institutions and public institutions. In highly dynamic economies, including some EU countries and the US, homeownership, because of its capacity to feed growth via credit, was also responsible for propelling the rise in household consumption in a context of wage reduction and limited employment growth. On the other hand, the public or semi-public nature of housing institutions and financial policies defines this sector as one of high political relevance. No setting-up of housing financing systems – regardless of its degree of connection to global finance – can happen without state action. Government intervention is needed not only to regulate finance, but also to build the political hegemony of the notion of home as a commodity and financial asset. Therefore, in every context that I have observed in different nation states, this movement also had significant political effects by creating and consolidating a conservative popular base, in which citizens are replaced by consumers and players in capital markets. It is in this sense that we may affirm, with Fernandez and Aalbers, that ‘This housing-finance elixir acts like a political drug.’