20 Oct. 2014

Fighting Displacement: A Transatlantic Workshop

Maria Savel

For photos from this event, go to our Flickr page.

In cities on both sides of the Atlantic, the displacement of people from their homes and neighborhoods has dramatically increased since the 2008 Great Recession. In recent years, cities have increasingly become the spatial representation of neoliberal capitalism. While funding for public housing and social services is being cut, private investors demolish inner-city neighborhoods to make way for new luxury condominiums and office buildings. Rents and property taxes rise dramatically, affluent professionals displace long-time residents, and chain stores force out locally-owned small businesses. Meanwhile, banks evict millions of families and seize their homes as a result of the foreclosure crisis—a crisis the very same banks had caused by flooding the market with subprime loans and then gambling on these mortgages on Wall Street.

In response to the displacement crisis, a growing number of urban social movements in countries across Europe and North America are claiming and fighting for their “right to the city,” advocating for tenant rights, resisting evictions, and defending public spaces.

In order to create an opportunity to meet and share best practices with urban activists engaged in similar fights, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung―New York office and the Right to the City Alliance USA convened a closed-door roundtable on displacement and housing justice in New York City from October 20-22, 2014. We discussed how we can capture displacement and the transformation of cities in the context of 21st century neoliberalism, and learn about best practices to fight displacement. This event brought together scholars working on displacement from Berlin, Athens, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, London, and New York City with international housing justice activists.


During his campaign to become Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio frequently described New York as a “Tale of Two Cities,” as a luxury playground with endless possibilities for the old and nouveau riche that exists side-by-side a city in which millions of residents struggle just to make ends meet. This narrative struck a nerve among many New Yorkers who had grown weary of the deepening divide between the haves and have-nots, and the rising cost of living that strained even middle-income earners.

Few issues exemplify the soaring inequality as much as housing: Shiny glass towers with luxury condominiums are popping up all over the city, setting ever higher records of sales prices well over $100 million (for one condo—not the building, mind you). It’s no surprise then that New York City has one of the highest numbers of millionaire and billionaire residents. Many of these high-end developments receive taxpayer subsidies in the form of decade-long tax abatements, while funding for public housing and social services are slashed and rents and property taxes continue to rise dramatically. Whereas median rents in New York City rose by 53 percent between the years 2000 and 2012, median wages grew by less than half that rate (both nominal values)—thus leaving renters less and less in their pockets to spend on other necessities. More than half of the city’s households are “rent-burdened,” meaning they spent over 30 percent of their income on housing, and about a third of residents are “severely rent-burdened” with rents taking up half of their income or more. As a result, low- and middle-income residents are displaced from inner-city neighborhoods and pushed to the outskirts of the city. Against the backdrop of such widespread displacement, de Blasio’s ambitious promise to build or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units certainly contributed to his landslide victory in 2013.

The “Tale of Two Cities” not only holds true for New York City but for many cities in the U.S., Europe, and beyond that are similarly plagued by stark inequality and a severe housing and displacement crisis. In response to this crisis, a growing number of urban activist groups and social movements in countries across Europe and North America are claiming and fighting for their “right to the city,” advocating for tenant rights, resisting evictions, and defending public spaces.

Since many of these groups are caught-up in their day-to-day struggles and thus rarely if ever have an opportunity to meet and share best practices with other groups engaged in similar fights, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung—New York office and the Right to the City Alliance convened a three-day workshop to discuss best practices in fighting displacement in New York City from October 20-22, 2014. We brought together scholars working on displacement from Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, London, Los Angeles, and New York City with housing justice activists from the following groups and cities:
Causa Justa :: Just Cause (CJJC) – Bay Area
Chinese Progressive Association – Boston
Encounter Athens – Greece
HABITA – (Collective on Housing Rights and the City) – Lisbon, Portugal
Kotti & Co – Berlin, Germany
Neighbors United for a Better East Boston
Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH – Movement of Mortgage Victims) – Barcelona and Madrid, Spain;
Recht auf Stadt (Right to the City) – Hamburg, Germany
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy – Los Angeles
Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA).

On the first day of the workshop, we watched the documentary “My Brooklyn” about the market-led development and displacement in Downtown Brooklyn and then did a walking tour through the neighborhood. The tour was guided by Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), which has been fighting for community involvement in development plans and to preserve affordable housing in Brooklyn. A highlight of the tour was a presentation by FUREE member Shawne Lee, whose family owns a single-family house in Downtown Brooklyn that was part of the Underground Railroad—a secret network of safe houses where abolitionists hid formerly enslaved people from slave catchers. As part of its plan to “revitalize” Brooklyn’s downtown, the Economic Development Corporation, a city agency, sought to evict Shawne Lee’s family and confiscate the building at 227 Abolitionist Place. With the support of FUREE, Lee’s family sued the city and won a settlement that protected their house from demolition.

The following two workshop days were filled with presentations and group discussions. A panel discussion about how to define displacement and understand it in the context of the neoliberal city of the 21st century started us off. Andrej Holm from the Humboldt University in Berlin explained displacement as an involuntary relocation that can result from a number of things, such as an eviction or the inability to afford rising rents. According to Holm, it is important to distinguish between market-led and state-led displacement although the two oftentimes go hand in hand: In the U.S. and Europe, investors are the primary force behind displacement, whereas in the BRICS and other countries of the Global South state actors are oftentimes driving displacement, for instance to make-over cities for mega sporting events such as the Olympics or the World Cup. Holm also explained that one particular type of displacement is “exclusionary displacement.” In this case no particular individuals are being displaced but the owner of an apartment significantly increases the rent after the residents relocate for other reasons, thus closing the “rent gap” between the actual and potential rent. Because it requires policy changes, exclusionary displacement is more difficult to counter than preventing an individual family’s eviction or rent spike.

Equipped with these definitions of displacement, we then turned to the question of how research can be used as a tool for organizing and for policy work against displacement. Dawn Phillips described how his organization Causa Justa::Just Cause decided to publish a report on displacement in the Bay Area to convince elected officials that it was serious problem, since other tactics such as rallies failed to get their attention. After local and national media extensively covered the findings of their glossy, hundred-page report Development without Displacement, the same local officials were much more willing to have meetings with the group.

Tony Romano said that the Right to the City Alliance had similar experiences when they recently published two reports on Rise of the Renter Nation and The Rise of the Corporate Landlord. They intentionally asked members and allies to research and write the reports and found them to be effective organizing and popular education tools—and the final products proved to be helpful for fundraising efforts as well.

Mapping displacement, Andrej Holm explained, is another way to track and shed light on a process that is often gradual and lacks data. A map of the gentrification in Berlin Holm created arms activists with visual evidence that rising rents are driving long-time residents out of the popular inner-city neighborhoods. A second map Holm is working on is a crowd map that allows residents of one particular Berlin neighborhood to report signs of gentrification such as the opening of a new high-end coffee shop, rent increase in apartments, and building renovations. Providing an easy way to get involved, the map is an effective way to mobilize people in the neighborhoods who might otherwise be hesitant to join an activist group.

Next on the agenda were presentations on what displacement looks like in their respective city and what strategies they use against it. Cynthia Strathmann, for instance, described how her group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) successfully used community-led planning as a way to mitigate some of the harmful effects of “urban renewal projects.” The Los Angeles’ City Council gave the University of Southern California approval for a $1.1-billion development project in a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. It was clear that this enormous complex, which included student housing, stores, restaurants, a hotel, and a movie theatre and was euphemistically called “village,” would have “ripple effects that impact the surrounding neighborhood.” After years-long negotiations and persistent advocacy, SAJE won substantial concessions from the city, including $20 million for affordable housing in the surrounding area and a provision that at least 30 per cent of the workers needed to complete the project will have to be hired locally.

Tina Röthig outlined how Hamburg is pushing the idea of the city as a brand that must compete with other German and European cities for investors—making life miserable for all those that don’t fit into the image of the beautiful and hip city: the number of social housing units, for instance, decreased from 400,000 in 1970s to 100,000 in 2010. One of the social housing complexes the city recently demolished are the ESSO Häuser (Houses) in St. Pauli, Hamburg’s quickly gentrifying red-light district. In opposition to the city’s plan to replace it with luxury condominiums, Röthig’s activist group created a community planning project housed in two shipping containers—called PlanBude (planning shack)—near the complex, where they are conducting workshops and meetings with residents to develop alternative models for the site.

The case studies of Athens, Lisbon, and Barcelona revealed that in cities affected by harsh austerity measures as a result of the Great Recession, displacement takes on different forms than in thriving metropolises like New York City or Hamburg. Displacement in Athens, Evangelia Chatzikonstantinou explained, “is not so much connected to gentrification but to the repercussions of the crisis and crisis management policies.” Instead of the “softer,” indirect displacement induced by rising rents and gentrification, more brutal and immediate ways to dispossess people such as evictions and the cutting-off of utilities like electricity, heat, or water are commonplace.

In Greece, Portugal, and Spain, homeownership rates have traditionally been substantially higher than in Northern Europe. As a result of the burst of the real estate bubble, the ensuing recession, and the austerity policies imposed by the Troika—of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank— the populations of all three countries are burdened by staggering unemployment rates, particularly among young people. Consequently, high numbers of homeowners are unable to make their mortgage payments. In Greece, the rate of loans with overdue payments rose from 4.5 percent in 2007 to over 30 pecent in 2013. Millions have already lost their homes to foreclosure or are living under the constant threat of being evicted.

To make things worse, the Greek government introduced additional property taxes and electricity fees and cut off the power of those unable to pay. This bears a striking resemblance to the situation in Detroit, where the water has been shut off for thousands of families not able to pay their utility bills. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, who came to the city with the new UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, called this extreme measure by Detroit’s undemocratically appointed “emergency manager” a violation of human rights: “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” In Lisbon, the crisis has led to an increase in police violence and the demolition of homes in Urbicide, an informal settlement on the city’s outskirts occupied primarily by immigrants. As André Carmo from HABITA in Lisbon put it: “The increasing erosion of the social welfare state is accompanied by the strenghtening of the penal state.” Given these elementary threats, residents in cities under austerity governance are resorting to tactics traditionally used in countries of the Global South, such as squatting, debts strikes, the self-construction of homes, and the illegal reconnection of electricity by “guerrilla electricians.”

Despite the many differences between the cities, all case studies highlighted that displacement is a direct effect of neoliberalism. “Displacement is part and parcel of neoliberal urban policy,” Bahar Sakizlioglu, researcher from Amsterdam and Istanbul, pointed out. “It’s a tool to transfer resources from the public to the private sector and from lower to upper class people. It is the socio-spatial manifestation of accumulation by dispossession.” Dawn Phillips emphasized that it is therefore crucial to move beyond the moral arguments that tend to dominate the debate around gentrification. Miguel Robles-Duran, professor at the New School, added that the term gentrification implies that urban displacement is a quasi-natural process driven by individuals; that artists, hipsters and their cupcake shops were to blame for the displacement of low-income residents. There was a broad agreement among participants of the roundtable that this focus on individuals distracts from the structural causes of displacement such as cities’ “urban renewal” policies, privatization, and the excessive power of a small number of real estate firms like the notorious Blackstone Group.

At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge that displacement does not affect everyone in the same way, even among the 99%. White, middle-class homeowners are likely to benefit from rising home values, whereas low-income people of color and immigrants are usually the most at risk of being displaced from their homes and communities. For housing justice activists, it is thus critical to situate themselves within this system of inequality and to consider who should lead the fight against displacement. “You have to talk about race when talking about displacement in the U.S.,” Cynthia Strathmann asserted.

We concluded the workshop with a lively discussion about the relationship between “right to the city” groups and the Left as well as the question of what an effective transatlantic collaboration among housing justice activists and academics might look like. In the end, everyone in the group agreed that the roundtable was “inspiring” and that the exchange of ideas and best practices as well as the opportunity to meet others fighting displacement will help inform the groups’ local struggles.