Housing crisis in a time of democratic backsliding | CAPS22

Part of the challenge of properly grasping authoritarianism is to avoid the kind of homogenous perception given to through history. One often thinks of an authoritarian regime or an authoritarian state, but it is also important to identify practices that co-exist with progressive social policies and other liberties too. Authoritarian phenomena are not problematic only when they are entrenched within a mode of governing, but also when they target groups and communities while providing rights and privileges to others. By looking into housing status, entitlements, infrastructure and policies, the panel “Housing crisis in a time of democratic backsliding” provided an analysis that helps to explain social contradictions and what kind of political action is possible by people excluded and/or repressed given authoritarian spatial dynamics in a society. Natalie Koch referred to this as a method for “spatializing authoritarianism”.

Koch’s work provided historical comparison that helps to situate the contradictions of leftist governments that have social policies for housing that benefit the poor and help to offset urban inequalities but, at the same time, implement urban discipline methods that restrict mobility, impact surveillance and exclude migrants. To support this argument, Koch brought in several examples ranging from the experience of the GDR in Berlin, to the Soviet Mikrorayon, as well as cases in Kazakhstan and within the Chinese Hukou system of household registration. This last situation is of particular note because whereas the scholarship tends to perceive the Hukou system to be part of a set of authoritarian practices, it is important to also consider how there are similar practices in states that are considered to be liberal democracies, leading to the normalization of the practices in such situations. The closest example mentioned was of the Anmeldung system in Germany, which also impacts migrants and creates a set of restrictions to peoples’ lives by turning registration into a requirement to access many different services. These processes tend to concentrate bureaucratic power too, to the point where control can be exercised by individuals through discretionary permissions that make the system unclear to those who depend on it.

The Berlin example was very clear to those in the audience, given the location of our conference. It was also of relevance because many had accompanied and even participated in the process of the “Enteignen!” referendum of September 2021. Back then, a majority of voters in the city of Berlin approved the expropriation of large real estate companies that owned more than 3,000 property units in the area. Mariana Morais presented her research on the campaign behind the referendum, showing a historical connection between the struggles for public housing in Berlin since 1992, when the privatization of East Berlin intensified during reunification. The public stock of housing is low in Berlin and the city has become a city of tenants rather than homeowners. What is also special about the Berlin case is that it helps to connect immigration issues to right to the city issues quite clearly. Berlin’s population is about 21% immigrant, Morais showed, and voting restrictions tend to exclude such a relevant portion of the inhabitants from important decision-making processes, including on access to housing. In fact, the difficulty to find affordable and good quality apartments in Berlin is increased for immigrants who face racism during their rental interviews. This is why, for the campaign, it was important to engage with instruments that went beyond voting, to show that there are other voices that need to be contemplated too. The collection of signatures was such an instrument and so was the display of diversity and different languages while building the campaign and its resources. The case of the referendum shows the power of inclusive tactics that do not depend directly on the state, even if the ultimate goal is to engage the state to do something. Even though the referendum was not binding, it brought the discussion of housing justice in Berlin to another level and even serves as an example today to campaigns in other parts of the world.

For Lorena Zárate, our third panelist, housing and right to the city struggles are anti-authoritarian struggles because they are often bred in broader contexts fighting for democratization. This could be after a dictatorship or regime change, as is the case of many urban struggles in Latin America, but also when we consider movements that push for the expansion of rights when fighting strong levels of discrimination. I would cite as an example how the Civil Rights Movement in the United States has to bridge right to the city demands within its large anti-racist struggle precisely because urban segregation tools impacted how Black people experienced racism practically in their daily lives. Racism is a strong component of the center-periphery dynamic of exclusion in cities and it would not be any different in the chaotic process of urbanization in Latin America. Zárate showed that this reflected on gender and racial components to the structures of housing occupations in the region, since those struggling for housing had to deal with these inequalities so to avoid replicating them in the spaces they built as movements. Here, again, we find value in initiatives that are constructed outside of the state and perhaps in spite of the state. When politicians provide housing programs that end up tied to private corporations, this leads to further housing speculation and can even treat housing as mere properties rather than one element in the process of city-making. This is why housing movements also demand infrastructure and jobs along the way – in negotiating with governments or in self-built neighborhoods.

We ended our panel with comments by Aysegul Can, from IRGAC, that helped to further demystify notions around the good places to live versus the bad ones. A relevant example was Vienna, often considered one of the best cities to live in the world, but whose social housing is restricted to residents and fails to properly address the issue of homelessness in the area. Furthermore, housing is not just about the urban space, but also how the urban is built separate from the rural and, sometimes, as distinct from nature. This creates further processes of segregation that help to fragment social movements and add layers of vulnerability to workers who want to fight for right to education, right to mobility, but are fragile because of poor access to shelter. This is important to identify how exclusion from housing can be part of a set of techniques employed by governments, even those deemed more democratic, to weaken groups and prevent them from having more effective organizing around other sorts of demands for justice.

*Edited by Aurel Eschmann

The panel „Housing crisis in a time of democratic backsliding“ was part of the conference „Contesting Authoritarianism: Perspectives from the South“ that happened in Berlin from 16. to 21. May 2022. You can watch all vídeos here