Turning the Tides on Housing

Challenges and lessons learned across North America and Europe


By Adam Almeida and Paula Sevilla Núñez

Affordable housing in Hope, British Columbia, Canada. (Flickr user: BC Gov Photos).

The topic of housing has been brought into sharp focus with the continued presence of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all reoriented ourselves to the extended realities of the coronavirus, many people — those who could afford to — fled urban areas, causing rents to fall across major cities for the first time in a decade. But now, two years on, the claim that we were witnessing ‘the death of cities’ is proving to be wrong, as people trickle back into neighborhoods that had been deserted. It is certainly an encouraging prospect, but for many it is also an anxiety-inducing one, as housing prices once again spiral upwards and rent is becoming unaffordable.

Many of the reforms that have been crucial for survival in the past two years (eviction bans and rent relief packages, for example) had in preceding decades been swatted away — labeled as idealistic. Now that they are at the forefront of policy discussions, there is an opportunity to mobilize and bring about much needed change — not just in specific policies, but also in the way that housing can exacerbate or prevent further inequality and exclusion.

To understand how to take advantage of increased political will and attention to the housing crisis, we looked at what we could learn from past experiences in shaking up housing policy orthodoxies and mobilizing for the right to housing. The case studies from North America and Europe presented in our brief, “Turning the Tide on Housing,” narrate the movement for affordable and decent housing through three strategies: protecting renters, building coalitions and new narratives, and curbing harmful demand.

Protecting Renters

Homeownership has historically been lauded as the gateway towards economic success, but housing policy focused on homeownership has neglected a significant group of urban dwellers who, by renting, do not benefit from tax incentives and other programs. They also tend to be of lower income and belong to historically marginalized groups.

Enacting protections for tenants in cities is therefore fundamental to ensuring that urban space remains accessible to all. In Berlin, private renters successfully pushed to pass the Mietendeckel, a rent cap law which covered the entire city for over a year and tied rent levels to the value of properties rather than the whims of the market. In New York City, the introduction of right to counsel policies for low-income renters ensured legal representation in eviction proceedings and effectively lowered the rate of evictions. Both interventions acted as methods to de-incentive the displacement of working class residents from their homes and to break the painful cycle of poverty caused by evictions.

Building Coalitions and New Narratives

The disproportionate impact of the housing crisis on populations bearing the brunt of racism and those least equipped to adapt to the changing climate, makes the crisis a powerful vector of collective action across social justice movements, generating diverse coalitions and new narratives of solidarity. In the US, coalitions of civil society groups and citizens advocating for racial justice, as well as sustainable urban development have successfully mobilized to overcome exclusionary zoning policies and increase the housing density of neighborhoods. Across the ocean, in Barcelona, Spain, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or PAH) utilised a discourse of solidarity to effectively mobilize disenfranchised communities to fight for their right to housing. Both cases demonstrate the strength of building solidarity across different kinds of struggles to fight back against the pessimism and powerlessness that the housing crisis imposes on us.

Curbing Harmful Demand

Globally, cities are being rapidly transformed to better accommodate those who contribute least to the maintenance and character of urban life, while those who contribute and rely most on the infrastructure of the city are effectively excluded. Elite foreign buyers, ‘luxury’ housing developers, and buy-to-rent schemes have all contributed to the commodification and financialization of housing, while there is a dire lack of the “missing middle” homes affordable to middle- and lower-income households. Presently, housing has become a winner-takes-all scenario for those who wish to grow capital as homes have become safety deposit boxes for the global elite.

Some cities are starting to explore policy options to tackle this concerning trend, but have struggled to achieve success. Lisbon’s attempts to incentivize the conversion of short-term rental units into “safe rent” homes has not provided solutions at scale. Another approach explored in Vancouver, Canada, sought to address the issue of harmful demand and limit negative impacts on the housing market through a wide range of laws and regulations aimed at wealthy foreign buyers, short-term rentals for tourism, as well as an empty homes tax. Those measures have not managed to bring down prices.

Just last week, Canada decided to ban foreign buyers from its housing market for two years, in an attempt to curb the sky-high price of housing. This will most likely not be the silver bullet that solves the housing crisis, but it does demonstrate policymakers’ willingness to tackle the issue. Increasingly, groups who were previously disenfranchised are coming together to address the legacy of exclusionary housing, as well as narratives of solidarity and who has the right to the city. These actions and ongoing debates are changing public opinion and pressuring leaders to act. Capitalizing on the gains of previous action and building on increasing concerns over global inequality, we can redefine what is considered successful — and inclusive — urban development.