The foreclosure crisis that ran roughshod over U.S. homeowners from 2008-2012 has found its way to Europe. Blackstone Group, the international conglomerate that has purchased large portfolios of foreclosed homes and condominiums from the U.S. government and banks, is now swooping into the struggling housing market in Spain.
Blackstone is currently in talks with Catalunya Caixa Bank to purchase their portfolio of mortgages. Activists and community based organizations in Spain have made comparisons to the takeover of the Countrywide portfolio by Bank of America during the U.S. crisis. Americans saw an increased number of foreclosures and evictions by Bank of America once they acquired the Countrywide debts, and the bank eventually paid millions in fines as a result of the takeover and the resulting effect on homeowners who endured foreclosures and evictions.
In recent years Blackstone has satisfied its housing thirst by targeting rental housing in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco among other U.S. Cities. Now the firm has set its sights on single family and rental housing abroad.
Movements in Spain, such as the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) have been very vocal in their opposition of Blackstone’s possible purchase of the Catalunya Bank mortgages and have traveled all the way to New York City to stage protests. On February 11th PAH called for an afternoon of global solidarity protesting In New York City and San Francisco where Blackstone offices are located to coincide with protests taking place in Barcelona.
The call to action in New York City was basically unanswered by housing activists and community based organizations, many of whom are engaged in similar struggles against Blackstone and other international corporations.
As far back as 2011 the Occupy Movement had Blackstone in its sights as a multi-national target. In August 2011, angry U.S.-based housing movements called out the U.S. government for issuing a Request for Proposals on 250,000 foreclosed and distressed properties it owned. Blackstone, realizing this was a huge opportunity, gobbled up those parcels to bolster its Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) portfolio.
But lately it seems as though the city’s housing crisis is seen as only a local problem—or at least a problem with a local solution: Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan.
Trouble is, at its core, the mayor’s plan is flawed because it continues the same model of the prior administration: relying on a combination of public subsidies and exorbitant market-rate rents to allure developers and cross-subsidize their creation of income-targeted units. But any model like that only saturates New York City with market-rate housing while the true housing need is among fixed- or low-income residents. New York City needs housing for families with annual median income of $25,000 or less.
Yes, we need real rent reform, but we need more. We need job-training programs that target families and single adults who reside in shelters and that lead to sustainable wage jobs. We need to reinvest in public housing, which traditionally has served as a social safety net for low-income families. That means the mayor has to advocate for more funding on the city’s behalf in Albany and Washington while refusing to take no as an answer. Finally the city reeds to revisit the 80/20 model of affordable housing and seriously consider at minimum a 50/50 model.
Maybe the grassroots community in New York City needs to take notice of real progressive governments rising to power in Europe. The PAH was certainly inspired by the rise of the Podemos party in Spain and Greece has been offered a real vision of change and hope with the election of the Syriza government. While de Blasio’s Tale of Two Cities sounded as though he was representing the grassroots movement in New York City, the actions of the administration with respect to housing policy suggest it’s business-as-usual at Gracie Mansion.
Does New York City really believe de Blasio’s plan is the answer to the housing problem? It can’t be the answer when there are families paying as much as 70 percent of their incomes for rent. Or maybe housing movements in New York City suffer from the same exceptionalism they so often accuse the government of possessing. Could it be organizations that rely on grants to resource their work are afraid of losing that funding?
I believe that until we answer the global call for solidarity, and exercise our right of self-determination, we will never build the power we need to make the changes we want to see. In the coming weeks PAH will put out another call to action for global solidarity.
Hopefully the New York City housing movement will answer. Miloon Kothari, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, said to me two years ago, “the powers oppressing people around the world are global in nature, the resistance has to be global in nature.” New York City and the U.S. housing movement must step up its game.
Rob Robinson is a member of the Leadership Committee of the Take Back the Land Movement and a staff volunteer at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). After losing his job in 2001, he spent two years homeless on the streets of Miami and ten months in a New York City shelter. He eventually overcame homelessness and has been in the housing movement based in New York City since 2007. In the fall of 2009, Rob was chosen to be New York City chairperson for the first ever official mission of a UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing.