Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond

Does property serve a social function? You might think the answer is “yes, of course”. The purpose of a house, for example, is to house people, to serve as a space in which to create a home. These days, though, it seems that houses are more often used as a financial good rather than to serve a direct use like that of providing shelter. This is evident in the vast international system by which land and property are bought and sold according to the supply and demand of the “property market”. In many national contexts, you cannot really be secure in your housing situation until you own your own house. This in many ways dictates patterns of urban development: people will buy or rent property in areas where the property value is low enough that they can afford; meanwhile, wealthy developers have every right to buy up property and profit off of it as they see fit—after all, they paid for it.

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But this is not an inevitable process; in fact, it reflects only one interpretation of what we call “property”, one that fulfills a trajectory of urbanization that seems near impossible to challenge. It is therefore not surprising that the concept of the “social function of property” whereby property must fulfill a social function and cannot merely be used for profit, is increasingly taken up by social movements fighting for the rights to land and housing around the world.[1]

São Paulo is one city where the contradictions of the “property market” are especially apparent, and groups contesting the situation particularly active. The housing deficit is currently estimated to be at 230,000 homes.[2] Meanwhile, there are hundreds of vacant buildings in the city center. In response to this, dozens of sem-teto or “roofless” movements have formed, demanding the right to secure housing and undertaking occupations of vacant buildings to draw attention to the housing crisis. These occupations not only highlight the current urban reality of unequal property ownership, but also put into question the very concept of property.

The private ownership model of property

In his work Unsettling the City, Nicholas Blomley highlights the hegemony of what he calls the “ownership model” of property, where there is generally one definable owner to a clearly delineated piece of land, and property almost exclusively means private property. Private property indicates a certain form of power that seems to have “an independent, nonstatelike quality”, as the idea that someone can exclusively claim a parcel of space is taken for granted.[3] This model came to dictate what kind of property we are supposed to value–i.e., private, owner-occupied, etc.–which in turn raises the overall perceived value of this kind of property, in a process seen as uncontestably determined by “the market”. But only those who are able to buy into this market get the right to property.

People did not always conceive of property in this manner. This particular understanding of property arose to prominence out of a desire to provide order to the city, beginning with the colonization of land. Indigenous groups did not usually conceive of property in the same way as their colonizers, and so a new, more regulated, interpretation of property was necessary in order to physically “settle” the land: “the colonization of land, the physical substance, could not have proceeded without the simultaneous colonization of property, the mental structure for organizing rights to land.”[4] Adrian Blackwell describes how this ownership model then enabled property to be carefully partitioned and therefore easily exchanged in a capitalist market:

The secret of capitalist property lies in the way in which the most grounded and immobile of things—land—can be made to move through its financialization and exchange-ability, while this same property is rendered absolutely solid, reified, as each absentee owner decides who can and cannot enter it.[5]

Thus property has come to be viewed as a parceled good to be bought and sold. Brazilian scholar and planner Raquel Rolnik argues that housing is viewed increasingly as an investment asset in a globalized financial market, rather than as a social good. She explains how, rather than a means to distribute wealth, housing has become a “means to wealth”, where “the value is the possibility of creating more value, which depends on the speed and number of transactions capable of generating value appreciation”. While ideas of housing as commodity confronted various national welfare models in different national contexts, many governments around the world have mobilized a range of policies to “extend market discipline, competition and commodification”.[6] The result has been urban enclaves created for the wealthy and international elite, with the poor confined to peripheral areas (or, in the North American case, “inner city” areas), often with limited basic services and employment opportunities.[7] Clearly in Brazil as elsewhere, this has meant the growth of informal settlements, forming part of an agenda which Rolnik asserts is “to create an urban scenario where the poor don’t exist and at the same time ‘unlock’ the value of land”.[8]

Viewing property and the real estate market as natural and self-evident has a de-politicizing effect. It masks the actors and social processes involved in deciding the “value” and accessibility of property. It assumes that the value of property lies only in its exchange value, and that this value is to be decided by the “market”. It makes it very difficult to imagine that property could be understood in any other way.

Continue reading “Does property serve a social function? Re-imagining real estate in Brazil and beyond”

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If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization

This post was originally published on the Development Planning Unit blog on 11 May 2016.

At the start of April, a number of civil society groups, members of NGOs and activists from across Europe met in Barcelona for the European meeting of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. This was in part to complement the Habitat III meeting on Public Space that was to take place later that week. Habitat III will be the third installment of the UN conference on human settlements, held every 20 years. At this Global Platform meeting in Barcelona, priorities relating to the ‘Right to the City’ in Europe and strategic aims for Habitat III, to take place in Quito this October, were discussed.

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Global Platform of the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

One of the main issues that emerged in the Global Platform meeting was the financialization of real estate. Financialization can be defined as a “pattern of accumulation in which profit-making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production” (Aalbers 2009, p. 284). The financialization of housing refers specifically to the linking of housing markets with finance markets, where housing is viewed primarily as a financial good. This is what allows banks to speculate on land and housing, which causes house prices to rise far beyond what most people can afford. The linking of mortgages with financial products, especially in the United States, was a central factor in the 2008 economic crisis that had catastrophic effects across the globe.

In a working group on the topic, participants exchanged experiences of how financialization has manifested in their respective countries. A member of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for people affected by mortgages) in Barcelona summarized the particularly dire situation in Spain, where over 400,000 evictions have taken place since 2008. While each European country has its own unique context, many common themes emerged, such as speculation, inflated housing prices, empty homes, the selling off of social housing, and an increase in evictions and displacement. These phenomena were linked to a systematic eroding of regulations that have allowed the financial sector to exploit housing for profit. Continue reading “If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization”

Kill the bill!


Thousands of people were out on the streets of London Sunday to protest the horrific housing bill which is currently being rushed through parliament (article in the Independent here). As an outsider to the UK nearly three years ago I was initially struck by the institution of social housing which seemed much more vast and ingrained than in other contexts that I knew. Then I began to understand the many ways in which social housing (or council housing as it is known–referring to the local council in charge of each  administrative area) in the UK is being steadily undermined. Namely, existing social housing is being sold off for private renting, no new social housing is being built, and discussions now center around “affordable” housing which falls on the whim of private developers to provide, which they usually don’t, and which is allowed to be up to 80% of the market rent. Now, this bill really seems like the nail in the coffin of social housing in the UK, rendering housing even less accessible to both council tenants and private renters. I don’t even understand how such a bill, that caters entirely to ensuring private developers make as much money as possible, has managed to pass so quickly through parliament (detailed explanations of the UK legislative system are most welcome).

The #KilltheHousingBill campaign has produced a great video explaining the housing bill.

Last week the Radical Housing Network also produced a spoof newspaper of the Evening Standard–they call it the ‘Standard Evening’, which was distributed at tube stops all over London. The paper, which detailed what London would be like many years in the future if this housing bill passes, can be accessed online here.

cartoonIf you live in the UK, please sign the petition: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/stop-the-housing-bill

Let’s kill this bill!

Exploring possibilities for community-led urban land development in Dar es Salaam

Originally posted on the Bartlett Development Planning Unit blog.

For the first two weeks of May, students of the MSc Urban Development Planning worked in three sites across Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as part of their field trip project supporting community-based initiatives for informal settlement upgrading.

Working with the Center for Community Initiatives (CCI), a local NGO, and members of the Tanzanian Federation of the Urban Poor, students have been trying to understand the realities of urban life in these three areas while developing ideas to guide more socio-environmentally just trajectories of urban development at the city-wide scale.

Incomplete houses on the Chamazi site
Incomplete houses on the Chamazi site

The three sites in which the groups are based—Karakata, Chamazi, and Mabwepande—have much in common: they are all growing peri-urban areas, they are all mostly “informal” or “unplanned”, most residents are low-income, and they face similar interlinking challenges such as infrastructure, access to basic services, sanitation, and solid waste disposal. But they also represent different patterns of land acquisition and development within the Tanzanian context.

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Learning about the Gulper machine, a mechanism that the Federation has been using for the emptying of pit latrines in Karakata

Continue reading “Exploring possibilities for community-led urban land development in Dar es Salaam”