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Corporate capture of housing and the colonization of cities

by Leilani Farha | @leilanifarha | United Nations
Monday, 22 January 2018 12:13 GMT

Pedestrians walk at a scramble crossing at Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo, Japan September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Human rights based housing strategies must recognize that that cities are for people – all people

Cities are becoming increasingly uniform. Without question, multi-national brands, be it Starbucks, McDonalds, or H&M, have firmly installed themselves and are sanitizing our streetscapes. In Melbourne, Australia, Apple has taken over part of Federation Square, a civic centre devoted to culture, displacing an Aboriginal centre. In Lagos, Nigeria 30,000 low-income residents living on a waterfront have been evicted to make way for a luxury development that includes a shopping mall.

But the commercialization of cities goes beyond fast food outlets, coffee chains, shopping venues and high tech industries. The corporate capture of residential real estate and its effects is the newest form of colonization.

The pace and extent to which financial corporations and funds are taking over housing and real estate and causing homelessness, displacement and unaffordability is staggering.  On a global scale, residential real estate is now valued at least 163 trillion dollars, which is more than twice the world’s total GDP. To put this in context – the total value of all the gold ever mined is worth $6 trillion.

Residential real estate is simply the pre-eminent asset class.  Banks, pension and hedge funds, private equity firms and other kinds of financial intermediaries seek out housing in “hedge cities” as a safe haven to park excess capital. They often benefit from tax shelters and use a lack of transparency to provide cover for anonymous investors and capital gained through corruption. And, with no intention of living there. Thousands of homes stand vacant. 

This influx of capital has increased housing prices in many cities to levels that most residents cannot afford – in many cities upwards of 50% in less than a 5-year period.    Housing prices are no longer commensurate with household income levels, and instead are driven by demand by global investors.

The effect of skyrocketing housing prices is to push out the people who sustain cities: school teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses and doctors, and the employees of the multi-national coffee, food and retail chains. Some simply move away, facing long commutes back to the city and their jobs. Increasing numbers are forced to live in hostels or on the streets.

If rendered homeless, stereotypes and discrimination that often inform city laws and policies make continuing to live in the city nearly impossible. People living in homelessness are often criminalized for engaging in activities necessary for survival - like standing, sitting or sleeping and sharing food on public lands. They are prevented from using public services like libraries, and shunned by service providers and store owners. In some jurisdictions people who are homeless are swept off the streets and relocated to different jurisdictions.

The risk of allowing cities to continue on this path is that they will become “monocultural”, as Saskia Sassen recently warned of New York. Cities are already starting to resemble sterile airports: filled with smooth glass and steel, lined with generic stores and services which lack any particular cultural relevance, populated only by those who can afford to be there and who come and go, where the population is viewed predominantly as customers, where difference is regarded as a security threat, and where meaningful social interaction rarely occurs.

And yet, what makes cities great is people in all of their diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender identity, ability, and the cultures they create by living in their neighbourhoods and interacting with each other. This vibrancy cannot flourish if the people are pushed out. 

If we want to avoid cities as cultural voids and domains intended for the affluent only, governments must take a detour and embrace the commitments they made in the New Urban Agenda and Agenda 2030 to ensure access for all to adequate, secure and affordable housing. This will require that they develop human rights based housing strategies.

Strategies must have as their ambition structural change. They must aim to transform societies where economic policies and housing systems create and sustain inequality and exclusion, into societies in which housing is a means to ensure security and inclusion.

Strategies must transform how States interact with those who are homeless and inadequately housed. The elimination of homelessness must be an urgent priority, and it must be undertaken in a manner that is human rights compliant and that recognizes the right to a dignified life. 

Instead of viewing people who are homeless or inadequately housed as needy beneficiaries, “objects” of charity, or worse as criminals, they must instead recognize them as rights-holders and active subjects, empowered to be involved in decisions affecting their lives and enjoyment of their rights. This would ensure strategies are responsive to their lived experiences and are thus more effective.

Strategies must also transform the relationship between the State and the financial sector. Because most States rely extensively on the private sector to meet housing needs, strategies must ensure that human rights implementation is the overriding goal of all investment in housing and residential real estate, and that housing’s social function is not displaced by speculation and corporate greed.

Simply put, human rights based housing strategies must recognize that all levels of government have legal obligations to people. And that cities are for people – all people. 

Leilani Farha is the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Farha is also the Executive Director of the NGO Canada Without Poverty, based in Ottawa, Canada.