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"The 'housing question' is no longer simply about housing"

An interview with Saskia Sassen on urban land and housing ahead of the Housing Europe annual conference

New York, 28 May 2019
Photo by Alex MacNaughton
Photo by Alex MacNaughton

She describes herself as 'a student of cities, immigration, and states in the world economy, with inequality, gendering and digitization three key variables running though her work'. Indeed, thanks to her passion and dedication to studying the above mentioned she has helped us understand better modern reality. Next week she will be taking the stage to deliver the keynote speech at the Housing Europe annual conference 'This land is whose land' that is held within the framework of the 2nd International Social Housing Festival in Lyon. In this flash interview, just a few days before she boards the plane from New York, Saskia Sassen, Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, gets us thinking 'who owns our cities'...


Citizens in many major European cities hit the streets demonstrating as they feel massively excluded in multiple ways from the very places they live in. One of your latest books ‘Expulsions’ explains the root causes in depth. Could you please give us a brief explanation of what drives these movements across Europe?

Housing has become a major issue in more and more cities across the world.  I cannot resist bringing in Marx and Engels who gave us the concept of the “housing question”.  But it is important to recognize that today what we confront in more and more cases is a very different issue from that raised by Marx & Engels. In that older period, and in many ways still continuing today, those who made it difficult for modest income people, and the poor generally to get housing were mostly (not only!) small operators. They made a bit of money here and there by cheating on the actual price of the unit, by regularly threatening the people who had rented the unit, and so on.

Today, we confront a very different scenario. Properties that until a few years ago would have been of no interest to major (and I mean major!) financial firms, now are of great interest. And it is not about housing per se; that is not how the big financial firms look at it. I think city citizens should be aware that increasingly they will be dealing with major firms if they want to rent or buy a flat in a big residential building.

The evidence is quite, though not fully, available. The most famous case is Blackwell, a major financial firm that has bought hundreds of major housing complexes in several countries just in the last few years.

The reason: it is not about housing per se, it is about gaining access to assets -and via algorithmic mass you can transform a toilet, a room into an (abstract) asset- something material that supports or backs financialized instrument.

Further readings

Spatial planning and land regulatory policies seem to be inadequate tools nowadays to guarantee everyone’s right to the city. Where does one start to stop the ‘urban land takeover’ you’ve been writing about?

Good question. Not easy to answer! But a first step is to make us all aware of the fact that increasingly housing in big buildings is no longer simply about the flat you rent or buy. If residents of big buildings in major cities can get on the same page and fight for their rights we could start a movement. Key here is that all residents understand what is involved… One way of putting it is that the “housing question” is no longer simply about housing. There are major powerful actors involved who have decided- I guess a few years ago- that their need for assets, real stuff, can also work with houses, no matter how modest as long as they are part of a big housing complex. They can then transform these housing complexes that we can see with our eyes, into a set of assets that we cannot see with our eyes- we only see the building- and that the financial system can sell to investors as “asset backed securities”, a familiar and now highly desirable instrument among high-level financial investors.

Further reading

Provision of affordable housing is a major issue in many European cities. Is Europe’s housing crisis in the end of the day a ‘Land crisis’?

Yes, it is that, but only if we see land as an asset, a material asset, in the same way that the house can be transformed (via algorithmic math) into an asset… 

But, let us remember, that when it comes to low-income residents, they have long suffered a housing crisis. What is taking off now is one of a different sort, as I explained above… We, the middle classes,  are now also threatened at least by major increases in our rents (mostly what we are seeing is the doubling of existing rent). The key market for modest housing complexes is now the modest middle classes- teachers, nurses, firemen, modest accountants, and such.

Further Readings

Interview: Michalis Goudis