The Undefeatable Price Of Space

The world teems with enough marvelous places where people from all social groups can prosper and live in peace together. What is preventing this dream to come true for so many citizens of different social classes? Amongst other reasons, it must be because of the ubiquitous unaffordability of social integration through the inaccessibility of proper housing. It isn’t a secret to any urban planner that the urban structure distinctively traces social inequalities. Neither is it classified information to anyone that the real estate hierarchy underlines social exclusion through the financial ditch between landlord and tenant, which locks the latter group on a social echelon impossible to climb. The omnipresence of the issue has been proven to exist on the far corners of this world.

From Minneapolis where tenants live in the fear of being evicted by their landlords, to Rome, where zones of public housing have mutated into nucleus of poverty, to Vladivostok, where the already scarce availability of dwelling is financially inaccessible to the inhabitants of the city, the issue is perpetrated. Amongst other oddities on the topic, “the paradox of the coexistence of numerous empty houses with as many homeless families” that was noticed by Enrico Pucci from Osservatorio Casa Roma, would have to be the one that strikes a nerve with policy-makers.

Unfortunately, too frequent is the nonchalance of political authorities around the subject, leaving millions of communities distraught and giving rise to irreparable social tensions. Governments, economists, and private investors have tried to redesign financial approachability around housing, perform restructuring programs of entire neighbourhoods, achieve new plans of construction or social integration. The situations in Minneapolis, Rome, and Vladivostok are ideal landscapes of inequalities materialised in urban space. In those cities, the responses from the various parties around those social issues call for analysis. 

The case of Minneapolis speaks for all American cities. The pandemic saw an uncontrollable and wild spike of evictions, despite the CARES Act being implemented around the country. Indeed, “the $600-a-week supplements to states’ stingy unemployment insurance weren’t doing enough to shield many renting families from homelessness,” observed professor Matthew Desmond, writing for the New York Times. This is because, as the 2013 New York South Bronx crisis showed, the solution for the tenants does not reside in money, but in significant legal counsel in eviction court. The Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) was founded to launch the axiomatic campaign for the right to have a lawyer in eviction court, which didn’t exist in America at the time. The right was won in 2017. However, authorities continue to turn a deaf ear on the fundamental distinction between cash and justice.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a government expansion of rental assistance, and the same short-term solution was proposed by the National Apartment Association and the National Low Income Housing Coalition when COVID-19 hit Minneapolis in 2020. This time, tenants of the Corcoran Five, already tangled up in a lawsuit against their landlord, figured out the trick. Roberto de la Riva, co-director of tenants’ rights organisation Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice, or IX), asked the assembly: “You’re going to apply for a huge bunch of money, just so you can pay it back to your landlord?” urgently pointing out that “there is a different power relationship that we’re asking of society right now.” Indeed, temporary stimulus packages for renters is helicopter money that does not solve the systemic and long-lasting injustice of tenants lacking sensible defense when facing eviction. We talk about the undefeatable price of space not only because space is pricey, but mostly because, as the above events describe, this price of space is uncontrollable, dictatorial and the absence of democracy within its essence makes it undefeatable. 

Another question raised in Minneapolis was the question of right to a decent habitation. This is the initial cause of the above orchestrated lawsuit. Chloé Jackson, a tenant at the Corcoran Five, describes that she “often pulled out a bucket or two to catch the leaks. But to sit at a neighbour’s table for coffee, [we] often had to step over some half-dozen buckets. Many units had roaches and mice, filthy carpets”.

Vladivostok suffers from the same issue of coarseness with his habitations and authorities tried to remedy it by implementing an affordable housing plan. The city saw its demographic shrink for the past years, so wanted to renovate its sites to facilitate the influx of new human resources. However, a report from scholars Bekker, Buzina and Tupikova from the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) explains that construction organizations struggled with operational capacities, cost of materials, and lack of “up-to-date construction technologies. Because of lowered standards, “approximately 23 to 25 thousand people leave the city each year; over 80% of which being economically active and well-educated people with high professional skills. This population is substituted with low-skilled migrants and residents of minor neighbour settlements”. Because there are no territories for complex development, infill construction prevails and leads to increased construction and rental costs, leaving the new inhabitants constrained to live in unsettling conditions and the alarming disappearance of social mixity.

The situation in Rome sums up the failures of policy-makers in Minneapolis and Vladivostok by displaying a concrete pattern of socio-economic segregation. Social housing conditions in neighbourhoods built after 1945 (e.g. Ponte di Nona, Labaro Prima Porta, etc.) are “marked by the lack of adequate and effective housing policies, perpetuating the compelling and poorly planned model of management typical of all the Roman local welfare…despite the fact that there is no lack of financial resources nor Italian and foreign virtuous examples to follow,” as observed by Federico Tomassi from Roma Tre. Acute social stratification sharply exacerbates the index of social unease, especially in financially disadvantaged communities. The examples of Rome and Vladivostok display how the gradual building and fortification of underprivileged neighbourhoods considerably reduces the accessibility to social capital for the inhabitants of those districts, inevitably dwindling even further down their economic capital. 

At the macro level, cities are ruled by investors who ensure an incredibly large annual net operating income, by owning hundreds of apartments. However, they create no added value that could be used to help the world keep its sustainable momentum up. The contribution their tremendous annuity could make simply disappears in thin air. Policies to limit the possession of properties for individuals who do not plan to live in them have already been implanted in certain cities and their scope should be deepened. Such annuitants are very common in cities that welcome many tourists and their activities fail to take into consideration the needs certain inhabitants of the city might have regarding housing. In Minneapolis, the director for People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee campaign, Tara Raghuveer, claims that, “in our vision of the world, there isn’t a profit motive connected to housing, period. Housing is truly a public good.”

The acquisition of a multitude of properties at exorbitant prices only to accommodate occasional visits, or to exploit them by furnishing an unmonitored indecent place to live, with a motivation solely financial is uncivil and sometimes illegal. It is also inconsiderate of what this investment could do to the housing market, and that should be more carefully audited. Given the price and ubiquity of the purchase, the dwelling markets in capital as such are saturated and no longer serve the interest of the community. Instead of being compelled by social welfare, cities are driven by financial speculation, themselves conducted by uncontrollable bubbles. Working class residents have no choice but to move and live in the deprived periphery participating in a perilous urban sprawl that should be constrained, exactly as it is the case in Rome.

The monopoly of the highest bidder over the prosperous centers of cities is the principal cause of this distress and should be regulated with firm rules. Property developers, who cooperate with investors, ensure the absence of social mixity to comply with criterias regarding the outward aspect of certain districts. A drastic measure to avoid this sort of gentrification was taken by Berlin in January 2020: to freeze rents. Frost is the best solution against fiery decisions. “We have created an instrument that will stop the partially absurd price developments for the next five years […] it is up to politicians to create the basic conditions for lower – and middle-class earners to be able to afford to live in Berlin.” announced Katrin Lompscher, Berlin’s senator for city development and living. 

Tenants in Minneapolis proved that a landlord could be fairly evicted if one acted in unity and harmony. A coordinated movement is the key to an intelligent response from policymakers who have no choice but to face the truth. Social exclusion is a reality that remains too hush-hush to this day. But Tony Samara, program director for land use and housing at Urban Habitat, does not lose hope, affirming that, “We’re in a 1920s moment where we might see massive tenant actions around the country that could unfold over the next several years.” Citizens of Vladivostok are too misinformed on their condition as well as sparse in the city, and this delays work because no unified social movement is being created. Chloé Jackson from Minneapolis wants the world to know that when a cooperative body is conceived, residents suddenly realize that  “there was a time when we were just neighbours, not really talking to each other. Now, we’re a family.”

And indeed, solidarity is the only power that can carve the so-called undefeatable price of space into pathetic little bits.

Mélusine Lebret

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