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Debt and the Violence of Property

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Jose Nico

There are multiple faces to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. One of the most important is the housing crisis. Over the last few weeks, with incredible velocity, many workers have had their incomes cut drastically, leaving them unable to pay rent or utilities. These missed payments add up and new debts accumulate.

As a measure of protection, the injunction to “Stay at Home” is not so simple for everyone to follow. The national government has attempted to respond to this situation with the Family Emergency Income act (which so far has provided two lump sum payments of approximately USD $150 each to low-income families) and by issuing decrees that prohibit evictions and freeze rent prices. Nevertheless, evictions continue to occur, demonstrating the absence of the state’s own mechanisms to enforce such an order. The increase in rent debts produces situations of violence in everyday life, along with violent evictions, there is the everyday harassment by landlords, as well as new debts generated to pay for food, to pay for medication, and to pay utility and phone bills. As the feminist movement has made clear, debt, as a form of economic violence, makes women susceptible to multiple other forms of violence from the workplace to the household.

As the feminist movement has been saying, public debt, which has grown exponentially over the past four years, was translated in austerity measures that spilled over into homes as household debt. Along with inflation and the subsequent loss of purchasing power of benefits and wages, it became necessary to go into debt in order to access the most basic goods such as food and medicine.

For already precarious lives, household debt is a time bomb. To be forced to take on onerous debts in order to pay for housing unveils the violence of property exercised through the direct abuse of owners and real estate agents, who take advantage of the difficult situation, threatening and harassing tenants, not renewing contracts, and going as far as directly evicting renters. This situation is further aggravated when it comes to women with children, lesbians, travestis and trans persons, who are more likely to have lost incomes with this crisis, where this harassment can turn into more direct forms of gender-based violence.

This violence of property also flares up in the informal real estate market, in which homes are hotel rooms or rented rooms in a slum, or shared houses in a settlement. Typically there is no contract or receipt of payment in these situations, but the costs, which rise at the rate of inflation, turn out to be equivalent to or even greater than the cost of renting a small apartment.

These debts seek to confiscate future incomes: whether salaries promised for the end of the pandemic or state benefits, or, more directly, by forcing people to take out new debts from family or informal circles. This also becomes loot for financial companies that are buying debt to be able to execute their properties in the future.

It is not a coincidence that the neighborhoods flagged as epicenters for the exponential spread of the virus are the villas (the slums) of the city of Buenos Aires, where the housing crisis is a priority on the residents’ political agenda. In the case of Villa 31 and 31 Bis, next to the city’s main transportation hub in downtown Buenos Aires, social organizations have complained for years that the City Government has not moved forward in implementing a true urban development of their territories.

More specifically, the Feminist Assembly of Villa 31 and 31 Bis has shined a light on the mechanisms of covert eviction through debt that are included in the urban redevelopment plan. That plan is based on forced relocalizations, titling through loans, and new housing built with horrible materials, which is lauded as the model for the neighborhood’s modernization.

That same Feminist Assembly issued a series of posters last week that clearly explain, for example, that the recommendation to “Maintain social distance” is impossible when there are more than 40,000 people living in conditions of overcrowding or that it is impractical to tell people to wash their hands when the neighborhood has not had running water for over a week.

Some compañeras hesitate to go to the doctor because they are afraid that they will be evicted while they are at the hospital. Others know that any rumor of suspicion that circulates about their health will make them liable to being blackmailed into rent increases due to their supposed “risk.”

Along with the increase in reports of gender-based violence since the beginning of the quarantine, there is also the gendered violence of those who are held hostage by their landlords, both in the formal and informal real estate market. Those landlords continue to speculate in the midst of desperation and anguish and make life even more precarious, to the point that it becomes unsustainable. Being a renter today is to be in debt. Being indebted is to be forced into ever more precarious forms of work and now, along with domestic violence, there is the gender-based violence characterized by the abuse exercised by the property owner.

We know that for many, debt is the prelude to eviction and, at the same time, a way to postpone it. For many people, losing their place to live means immediately having to live on the street or return to violent homes, from which they had previously escaped. For many, it means overburdening family members and producing situations of greater overcrowding and precarity.

This week, the tenant organization Inquilinos Agrupados issued a statement about the increase in calls from women renters complaining of situations of abuse, mistreatment, and violent evictions. Along with the NiUnaMenos collective, they demanded, in a shared text, that the house not be a place of sexist violence or real estate speculation, that housing must be a right, not a business, because now it is even more clear that homes are not safe spaces for everyone.

Several central political dilemmas seem to converge on the home. First, there is a de-romanticization of the idea that the home is a place of refuge for everyone, as has already been made clear by the feminist movement’s struggle against domestic violence and exploitation. At the same time, because of the deregulation of real estate, which facilitates excessive levels of landlord profitability, we see that even a few square meters to lay one’s head in cost almost an entire month’s wages (or, alternatively, all sum of all the piecemeal work that adds up to its equivalent).

The rent strike is a form of collective action that is gaining force in many cities around the world from Spain and Italy to the United States. It is a response to the housing crisis caused by the colonization of land and housing by large financial funds.

Therefore, a common agenda emerges for feminist movements and social organizations, specifically, in this case, between Ni Una Menos and the tenants’ union, which takes on an internationalist dimension through coordination with the PAH in Spain. This agenda calls for the extension of relief measures that were originally planned as temporary, demanding that the prohibition on evictions be enforced right now and extended for twenty-four months. These organizations work on multiple scales from contesting specific evictions to demanding legal protections for tenants at the state level. That agenda also includes debt relief policies for renters and for a true urban development of poor neighborhoods because we cannot allow for debt to become the only way of surviving the crisis.

Translated by Liz Mason-Deese