Renting in the Age of Cities

imgen aportada por Ana Asensio.

A few months ago Europe woke up to a piece of news which many applauded and many others received with a classic doomsday sense of misgiving: Berlin was freezing rent prices.

Some saw Berlin’s action as a model of sensible real estate policy. Others immediately started intoning their requiem for investors. But everyone agreed that the freeze was an attempt to control the rent “market”, to check rent speculation in cities and clip the wings of mega-owners.

They say the measure, together (of course) with the (very necessary) provision of a public rental housing stock, will make it easier for young people to emancipate.

Not wishing to be a killjoy, and fully admitting that I am but a simple laywoman in the field of real estate, I’d like to use this short article to draw attention to another facet of the rent situation in European capitals, and point out how control of rental prices, if implemented on its own, without addressing other associated issues, may in fact be counter-productive. This appreciation is based on a recent experience of my own: a long-drawn-out four-month quest to find an apartment in Amsterdam.

I’ll start by saying that in Amsterdam you can apply for public rental accommodation from the age of 18, but once registered you’re placed on a waiting list of approximately 10 years. So let’s continue with the private sector.

What I learned during those four desperate months was that limiting rental prices is not enough if the possibility of salary-based discrimination continues to exist. (Obviously, the property ladder is also conditioned by many more forms of discrimination other than a person’s income, such as skin colour, nationality, occupation, age, etc.).

Let me explain. In cities very short of living space and in growing suburbs there is massive demand for housing, and this accentuates inequality, both in market prices and in the way people are treated. Property owners turn you down before you’ve even visited their apartment because there’s always someone richer (and therefore, in their eyes, more suitable) than you.

In and around Amsterdam, it’s common practice for owners and makelaars (estate agents) to ask to see documents like invoices, bank statements and your latest income tax declaration. In a city and a metropolitan area where the offer is negligible and demand is excessive, only a very fortunate handful will make it through the net and be “invited to view the apartment” (which is, in any case, tiny and very, very expensive). After that, and as if obeying some unwritten rule, the owner will invariably choose the candidate with the highest salary, “just to be on the safe side”.

If the possibility of requiring future tenants to disclose their salaries and present bank statements is enshrined as normal procedure, allowing owners to choose the “best offer”, then regulating rental prices is like lowering the height of the hurdles in an athletics competition where, in order even to start, you first have to climb over a big wall – a wall for which, in the Inequality Olympics, some runners have ladders and others don’t.

Regulating rental prices without regulating the way tenants are selected (eliminating discriminatory procedures) means placing cities in the hands of the rich, providing houses that are cheap and easily accessible only to the wealthy, and thereby increasing inequality.

This may take us into the domain of so-called “individual liberties”, but today, more than ever, now that the city is a social entity and the central element in world development, we should start thinking about the responsibilities involved in being the owner of urban housing space, and act on our conclusions.

It’s sad that housing as an investment has now become more important than housing as a human need. It’s sad that rural areas are being abandoned and regional development alternatives are being minimised to the detriment of cities. The next step will be to just hand over capital cities to the rich, the epicentre of the world economy, so that all other citizens can be thrown directly out into a kind of territorial, occupational limbo. When designing social measures, we need to outpace the logic of The Market, which is always one step ahead.

Imagen aportada por Ana Asensio

(Almería, 1986) Arquitecta formada entre Granada, Venecia, Londres, Santiago de Chile y Madrid. Especializada en memoria y arquitectura popular (tesina de investigación, UGR), Asentamientos Humanos Precarios y Habitabilidad básica (postgrado UPM), realiza un activismo por investigación, documentalismo, divulgación y acción cultural, especialmente centrada en la experimentación arquitectónica, la cultura contemporánea y el medio rural.

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