How grassroots housing movements can change a city


Our quality of life, financial security and mental wellbeing are determined, to a large extent, by the place we call home. Housing is an issue that is at once a personal and everyday reality, and an anonymous, complex system connecting issues from land ownership, finance, and debt, to fuel poverty, and homelessness. When it comes to creating a new economy that works for everyone, housing has a central role to play. Here we look at what lessons Manchester can take from Barcelona.

Housing in Manchester

Cities across the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Rome , London to Lagos, are facing housing crises which are set to render as many as 1.6billion people around the world without access to affordable, adequate and secure housing by 2025 . A fundamental problem is that the prevailing economic model views housing as an asset, rather than a right – an issue which Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham, has recently made calls to address.

In Manchester, the Council’s own figures suggest there are 268 rough sleepers on any given night – an increase of 42% since 2016 and a six-fold increase since 2010 – although some consider this to be a gross underestimate. When looking at access to decent, secure housing these numbers multiply further still, with the tally of people on social housing waiting lists growing, and countless families living in homes that are not fit for purpose.

At the same time, glistening, phallic symbols of power and economic development are being erected across Manchester city centre. The city is being thrust into a new era of growth at all costs, yet who the rampant regeneration is benefitting is less explicit. The staff of the chain restaurants housed in these new builds see their tips go to business owners, while on the other side of the glass many vulnerable city residents unfurl their sleeping bags in preparation for a night exposed to the elements.

In the cases of Hulme, New Islington and Broughton, entire neighbourhoods are being displaced, and the city’s residents are increasingly forced to the margins. Meanwhile, overseas investors are purchasing further Prestigious Residential Schemes registered in tax havens and avoiding their Section 106 duties, as Jonathan Silver’s research into the financialisation of housing in Greater Manchester has revealed. Increasingly, it seems Manchester city centre is not for the people of Manchester.

All is not lost

Tenants unions such as Acorn are developing grassroots capacity to challenge unscrupulous landlords, whilst working closely with groups such as Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) who are looking to promote and lobby for alternative housing futures for the city region. Organisations such as CLES are helping to demonstrate new models of ownership and an economic system that puts people and local places first. From local wealth building activities in cities and towns across the UK, to efforts to deepen democracy through projects such as Elephants. An initiative which sought to understand how people who have experienced severe and multiple disadvantage can effectively work together with decision makers to tackle the causes of inequality across Greater Manchester .

Looking further afield to share knowledge and best practice will be crucial to ensuring that the successes already experienced by housing activist groups across the country can continue, and that transformational change can be achieved. This learning has already begun. Last month, an event took place in central Manchester to share knowledge between the housing movements in Barcelona and Manchester. Anke Kleff from Barcelona en Comú joined Acorn Manchester in conversation on the importance of grassroots housing activism in broader movements to transform our cities. CLES were in attendance and here is a short reflection on what we learnt.

Lessons from Spain

In 2007, homeownership in Spain was at an all time high, with 80.6% of the population owning a home. When the 2008 financial crisis developed into a severe housing crisis, thousands of families faced eviction, each year, as they were unable to meet mortgage payments on properties whose value had plummeted. A group called La Plataforma por Afectados la Hipoteca (La PAH) began grassroots organizing in 2008 to resist these evictions, politicizing the crisis by demonstrating that it wasn’t about individual bad decisions; rather systemic crisis which the families facing eviction were the victims of. Its members were ordinary citizens: school teachers, nurses and mothers, who were galvanised into action after facing housing crises.

Fast forward to 2015, and one of La PAH’s prominent activists – Ada Colau – was elected the first female mayor of Barcelona as part of the political ‘confluence’ known as Barcelona en Comú. BComú draws on one of the central principles of La PAH and other social movements that had emerged alongside the 15-M movement; that through politicizing society at the neighbourhood level, and putting power into the hands of ordinary citizens, we can start to rebuild our democracy.

A key feature of La PAH, and something that is still regarded as one of its biggest victories, are the assemblies that it facilitated, which helped people deal with the fear, isolation, vulnerability and feeling of responsibility in the face of the threat of homelessness and debt. The intention of the assemblies was to empower individuals to defend themselves. The emotional support and solidarity provided to many people in danger of eviction was in partnership with the knowledge sharing of practical and legal advice. Acts of civil disobedience, such as occupying banks and empty properties, also occurred when process of collective negotiation or provision of social housing failed.

The relationship-based approach responded to the real human need of members, and there are now more than 200 PAHs across Spain, all functioning in the same way, with no financial resources or funding. Their central role in the formation of citizen platforms such as Barcelona en Comú provide essential lessons for the UK’s network of housing activists.

Feminisation of Politics

A fundamental element to all of BComú’s values and practice, both before election and since in government, is the feminisation of politics. Alongside gender parity, feminising politics means that attention is paid to the relational dimension of politics – decision making is decentralised, emphasis is placed on relationships, everyday life and the community, and tangible improvements to people’s lives are celebrated. Feminising politics is not about inherently ‘female’ characteristics, but about changing the way politics is done and power is held. This is exemplified in three key areas in BComú:

  • Confluence not competition
  • Small wins with tangible results
  • Changing the discourse
Confluence not competition

From the beginning, Barcelona en Comú embraced a bottom up approach, welcoming people to participate as individuals rather than as members of organisations. The confluence is not a coalition. While the latter represents a temporary agreement to work together that requires compromise on all parts, a confluence is a genuine alternative approach to engagement that restructures established processes and practices, while shifting notions of power to enable marginalised groups to access to the political domain.

Small wins with tangible results

Working to effect change at the local, neighbourhood level, La PAH have improved many people’s everyday lives by providing emotional support and empowerment and resisting top down punitive policies. In so doing, they have demonstrated how this approach can lead to truly transformative change. Through continued horizontal, grassroots organising, Barcelona en Comú have been able to step up their efforts from the neighbourhood level to the municipal.

Since gaining office, BComú have been working in the City of Barcelona to combat the AirBnb colonization of city centre apartments, which was displacing residents and damaging communities . They are also working to remunicipalise the city’s water supply, force electricity companies not to cut off services for poor residents, and on July 1st the city flicked the switch to Barcelona Energia – a new electricity distributor set up to make the energy market fairer, more efficient and sustainable.

However, while the policies implemented by BComú should be celebrated, it is important to understand that this is not the be all and end all of their agenda. For BComú activists, the process of getting to the implementation stage is as important as the policies themselves: it is not municipalism whatever the cost, rather a change in practice, priorities and principles that starts from the get-go.

Changing the discourse

The intention of Barcelona en Comú is to work for the common good, seeking to bring local politics back into the hands of local people. Through deeper forms of democracy, different forms of citizen participation are enabled. PAH’s neighbourhood assemblies are just one example of the types of deepening democratic, participatory processes which BComú adopted. These ensured that organising extended outside of activist circles to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens and empower them to play a central role in shaping the discourse and subsequent outcomes. Opening up the discourse also means disincentivising masculine behaviours such as competition, urgency, and hierarchy, in favour of collective models of leadership which ‘promote teamwork, horizontality, participation and power-sharing.’

Manchester en Comú

Though devolution presents an opportunity for greater power at the municipal level, it also presents a threat if real, transformational change is stifled by top-down party politics. The new municipalist movement places towns and cities at the centre of activity, and ‘seeks to reclaim the public sphere for the exercise of authentic citizenship while breaking away from the bleak cycle of parliamentarism and its mystification of the ‘party’ mechanism as a means for public representation‘.

Groups like Acorn who are already practicing elements of feminised politics by focusing on tangible improvements to people’s lives have an important role to play in this. Through their organising, Acorn are already materially improving lives through small wins. From fixing doors and other household repairs, to putting an end to ‘no-fault evictions’ in their current campaign to scrap Section 21 of the Housing Act, they are developing powerful relationships and solidarity with disempowered and displaced people.

Though the tenants’ movement in the UK is still some way off the achievements of BComú, there is ample opportunity for groups like Acorn to organise in innovative ways to effect transformative change. BComú are held as an example of the possibilities of municipalism and show what can be achieved through a disincentivising of masculine behaviours, a reframing of what politics is, and a radical shifting of where it takes place. In the face of the crippling effects of austerity and the ever bleaker prospects of Brexit, many of Barcelona’s lessons must be applied to our own cities to ensure a municipal future that benefits everyone.

Groups such as Acorn, and progressive organisations such as CLES, must come together in confluence to change the discourse and turn small, tangible wins into progressive victories to create an economy and society that works for all.

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