The transformation of housing into financial assets normalizes misery in the cities of the Americas

It is crucial to become aware of the advance of financial speculation on poor housing in the Americas, says Saskia Sassen, interviewed by José Zepeda for democraciaAbierta.

José Zepeda Saskia Sassen
24 September 2020, 8.24am
A view of Buenos Aires, Argentina, from the residential neighborhood of La Recoleta, in August 2020
Carol Smiljan/NurPhoto/PA Images

The face of this era is composed of the rapid development of information technology and the liquidity of capital. Saskia Sassen explains the emergence of global cities within this context. Large cities have become strategic places for global capital and migrant labor. Translocal communities and identities have been born. We’re facing the possibility that new forms of citizenship emerge from this reality. And even more so now, when the social consequences of the pandemic are already recognizable.

Saskia Sassen is of Dutch origin and has lived in Buenos Aires since her youth. She is a philosopher, sociologist and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science. She received the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences in 2013. She is the author of numerous books, articles, and essays. Her works include The Global City, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, and A Sociology of Globalization.

José Zepeda: Professor Sassen, it seems that global cities (and those that are not so global), have, in one way or another, transformed into accomplices of Coronavirus’ attack on the weakest sectors.

Saskia Sassen: Actually, this goes beyond Covid-19. It’s been happening in many places. There’s a growing demand for access to the city from various social classes. It's partly because we are using land, which was once residential, for agricultural work, mining, livestock, and poultry. We have a huge combination of elements that leave us with fewer and fewer options for housing construction.

The point is that, in the periphery of cities, for example in New York or Buenos Aires, the spaces for people of modest income are reduced, and even more so for the poorest ones. There’s a transformation of the spaces destined to modest housing, and the objective becomes building more luxurious housing. This pushes people with lower incomes out. It's a very serious situation. The worst thing is that the short and medium-term prospects show that the situation will not improve, but rather, it will worsen.

JZ: There are two different pictures. The first one, the most spectacular and preferred by certain media, is the city as a battleground between the outraged and the State representatives. On the other hand, there is the second picture, which you call the global city, as the space where the power of the less fortunate can make history with their cultural creative capacity, with the celebrations on the streets, with graffiti, with music, with food. Is it possible for this last city, the good city, despite the first one; or, better yet, for culture and art to overcome hatred and repression?

SS: I think it's already happening in some ways, mainly because the new generations are not interested in gaining power, a huge house, a luxury apartment, or a giant car. Not all, but many young people are becoming more interested in taking care of nature. There’s another growing modality, where it matters less to own things and more to provide others with reasons to live a good life.

We see a middle class where some have become more solvent than they ever imagined, and others poorer than they ever imagined.

The question is, are these changes enough to improve the situation? Because the great powers limit the new generations’ ability to demonstrate its deep respect for everything that represents reducing climate change. I’m talking about young people who are aware of what’s going on. The downside is that the economic system continues to generate actors whose only concern is to collect money, to rise to the level of millionaires. In between these extremes, the socially and culturally conscious generations, and the sectors of greed, we see a middle class where some have become more solvent than they ever imagined, and others poorer than they ever imagined.

JZ: Let me insist on this point because here is where a paradox stands out. What the pandemic cries out for is solidarity, a state that focuses on the weakest and is concerned for the most fragile. But the system favours the exact opposite. A bad thing, professor.

SS: It’s the consequence of entering a new era, and that has its own price. I said it, and I insist on it, the expansion of sectors with economic capacity is not small. They may not be the richest, but there is a lot of money. On the other hand, the traditional middle classes have lost ground. We’re witnessing a different middle class from the one we saw thirty years ago. It’s good to see it because poor families have children who acquire greater solvency, earn high salaries, and obtain real possibilities for individual and collective development. Yes, there’s a kind of new modality that, on the one hand, generates a more prosperous middle class, but on the other hand, an impoverishment of the more modest middle class. The neighborhood’s business, the lawyer who helps people's causes, who are also modest, are all experiencing a process of pauperization.

The rich sectors become much richer, which leads to the growth of urban land grabbing capacity for the construction of luxury buildings. Austere houses are evicted and replaced with luxury housing towers. That is the reality in New York, Paris, and many cities. This trend takes away living space and opportunities from a middle class that has always been humble, but has managed to be well off and now is not well off.

JZ: There’s something even worse in the case of Europe. It's the fact that foreign investors, who took advantage of the economic crisis, bought a massive amount of homes at modest prices. And today, those homes are at exorbitant prices, which prevents many people from continuing to live in those cities.

SS: It’s a scandal. We filmed a documentary, which is called Push. I was part of that project. It's monstrous what has happened with the housing.

On the contrary, here we are before international financial circuits. They’ve entered several countries in Africa, and the investment sector presents itself as part of a project that provides housing for many people, but the truth is different. It’s not destined to help the lower classes. The project consists of dispossessing people and acquiring thousands and thousands of houses, because otherwise, they will not achieve sufficient extractive value to make the venture worth it. In other words, certain companies have bought hundreds of large towers in seventeen countries.

We show this in Push, which we filmed with Leila Farha, a woman passionate about citizenship and housing rights. You have to watch it because it explains everything that has happened. What’s tragic is the invisibility. We see a building that has been there for thirty years, but how much has it changed. The construction is perhaps the same, it seems to be the same, but the added value is very different.

There are two circuits: the people who rent, what they pay, and so on. The other circuit is the financial asset, which becomes a flux that circulates in the sophisticated operating systems of high finance.

This is an extraordinary type of abuse because it deprives the lower classes of obtaining a small apartment in a tower in the neighborhood. No, that tower now belongs to high-income sectors because a capital gain can be extracted from it, and it’s not so much about the rent they earn. It's the building itself that functions as an asset. That’s to say, there are two circuits: that of the people who rent, what they pay, and so on. And the other circuit is the financial asset, which becomes a flux that circulates in the sophisticated operating systems of high finance.

It's not the traditional banking system. We're talking about something else. It's algorithmic mathematics at play. Through it, you can transform almost any element. This door, this garden, transformed into something that can be used to generate value. Money, Money, Money. The transformation is colossal, and most people don't know it. They don't see that it's not just a house anymore, that the house becomes a value, like a stock market value. It is no longer a plain house because they've transformed it into value through the algorithms.

So, three thousand houses or three buildings have been transformed into an asset that is bought, sold, bought, and sold. Those who suffer are the lowest income people who cannot continue paying more and more for each house. For me, it's brutal. It's excessive because there is already so much accumulation of money. Did they also have to take that? Did they also have to extract the added value from the humble people?

The normalization of misery

JZ: By the way, I have, more than the impression, the conviction that one of the merits of the European states (beyond the welfare state) is the institutionality. That is, the possibility of having instances that are not ideologically linked to the parties that hold power. Don't you have the impression that this is one of the pending tasks in Latin America?

SS: Yes, absolutely. Some of the big European cities have good housing stories following World War II. Necessary initiatives. That doesn't stop the good and reasonable European governments from also looking for surplus value, but what’s happening in North America, Latin America, and some other parts of the world is of much more brutal and ruthless dimension.

This perversion ultimately affects us who live in the city because we have people living on the streets. We see this in New York and California. At night, the city center is full of people sleeping on the street, and they’re more or less of a certain age. They're not young people in their 20s. No, they're people who have lost everything. They’ve been thrown out of their homes.

How I wish they had more visibility because a more determined reaction is needed. That's not the case at the moment. What happens most of the time is that their circumstances become normal --the normalization of misery.

There’s some sort of generosity. One can say that it’s an irony. We’re the ones who let them live there. It could even be considered a positive attitude, but it doesn't go very far, does it? It's the emerging culture in our cities that normalizes seeing people sleeping on the streets as part of the landscape.

JZ: I was also asking you from the point of view of institutionality because I have the impression that not everything can be left to people’s goodwill. The system still has to provide certain rules.

SS: Institutionality is irreplaceable for attending to the people who are survivors, those who have spent nights without food, nights where it pours, and they end up all wet and sick. When there’s so much wealth, there are so many modalities through which the situation could be changed. We’re not saying that everyone should have a luxury house, no, but the most basic housing that any municipal government should provide. The institutions must be in place to carry out this priority task.

JZ: I know there’s no one single solution, there must be many, but is regionalization one of the solutions in the sense that it can help decentralize this huge concentration in global cities as you call them?

SS: Absolutely, yes. That's very important. You said it. I totally agree. I add to that that we have to protect housing, especially housing, where the most vulnerable people live. I think that both the regional and municipal governments should be a little more concerned about this. There are various types of logic circulating here, various cultures at play, where we see that some customs are marked by a kind of indifference to the social situation, while other cultures, as is it the case with the French, the Germans, the Swiss, have a greater sense of awareness. The Americas are the most problematic regions. I think the Americas are not coming out of this situation well.

The question is, to what extent is determinant the fact that America is a continent that emerged from robbery after robbery, from those who came to capture and enslave.

JZ: Why is that? Why are some people and countries becoming more socially aware than others?

SS: It seems to me that the Americas are born out of violence. They entered, killed, and pushed out. They have destroyed nature, waters, and mining. Until a few years ago, I would never have said what I’m saying now. And the question is, to what extent is determinant the fact that America is a continent that emerged from robbery after robbery, from those who came to capture and enslave. They managed the situation through extreme brutality by eliminating the indigenous peoples. And those who remained were put in camps.

These are the things that one notes and thinks: it is not possible that we, as humans, could act like this.

In Argentina, we had two modalities. One that begins with Perón and consists of generating housing for the most impoverished classes because the city was in an accelerated process of growth.

There are still positive elements that intend to facilitate a good life. But now it’s very different. Ah, there are minerals that we can exploit over there, along with a disdain for poor people.

Having said that, I’d like to mention the good things, such as the search for a healthier life, better food, and less ostentation from young people.

We have positive developments, but at the same time, some actors that are so powerful, so internationalized, that they spoil realities without even being aware of it. It’s as if they’re floating above all the abuses.

JZ: Reading your books, it seems to me that in all of them, there’s the following message: Look, the time has passed for totalitarian strategies that sought to change everything by “storming the heaven.” Today, what we need is more modest, effective strategies. The city, the local, the neighborhood. Let’s start from the bottom to change this world that needs it so much.

SS: In the long run, this will be the best modality we can count on. The world has hardened because there is too much suffering. If you think of India, countries with so much poverty, so much abuse. It is as if, up to a certain point, we automatically protect ourselves so that we don't think too much about these things, to avoid seeing them. Or, we stop worrying because we can't do anything about the alarming rise of social injustice.

We seem paralyzed or diminished in our ability to act, overwhelmed in situations where we have zero power. That competition existed in small cities. It was vital for citizenship. Today we lack the platform to stand up and say, I don't accept this anymore! We have to recover the capacity to make ourselves heard, to recreate the community presence and its impact on common life.

JZ: I'm going to end on a positive note, but not simply out of goodwill, but because it's a reality, and it has to do with the Netherlands. There are communities here where people of all ages come together to live in a neighborhood built to share responsibilities. They’re a kind of ecological, social, and human nucleus that’s like a seed of transformation.

SS: Very good. But the Dutch are also a special case.

JZ: Why?

SS: Because the country is very small. So they, since they’re little, learned to value many things, especially the value of space. As it’s a country with a considerable population, so each piece of land takes on an important value. It's strange to find people who don't use bicycles, including politicians, businessmen. Right now, we have a Prime Minister who has become famous for using his bicycle. The population knows that it’s the most rational, the most effective. It's not a romance. It's a concrete reality.

A small country, after World War II, hat to either reinvent itself or end in disaster. The Dutch demand a lot from the imagination. Now, they’ve invented a platform to place it above the rivers. Cows and a whole range of animals are raised on these platforms. There’s no more land available, so platforms it is. They build very high silos to fill them with agricultural products. There's no more land, so vertical construction it is.

Similar initiatives could be implemented in several Latin American countries. The big question is, why doesn't that happen where there’s so much land, so much wealth? Big landowners have their share of responsibility, but so do citizens. It’s that kind of inability to say we are going to transform this as the Dutch did, because they had to do it. And we’re also obliged to do so.

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