The following text is an excerpt from the book Municipalism in Practice: Progressive Housing Policies in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, and Vienna ( RLS-Cities: April 2022).
Every year hundreds of thousands of people are evicted in Europe. National governments and courts systematically leave citizens unprotected against displacements fuelled by real estate interests. Cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, and Vienna, where rental markets are particularly tense, have responded differently to the problem.
In response to evictions, governments have intensified public provision and public control, developing a variety of policies, programs, and instruments of preventions and/or mitigation of their effects. Rent debt assumption is still a tool that all cities dispose of, although the case of Berlin shows its lack of effectiveness. There is a tendency towards strategies for the active prevention of evictions, providing counselling at the earliest possible stage and, in some cases, on an outreach basis. This is the case in Amsterdam, which changed its classic bureaucratic approach for a method that consists of social workers visiting citizens as soon as arrears start to accumulate. In this regard, Barcelona has gone one step further: mediation. A specialised institution was created that besides advising and supporting tenants in emergency situations also negotiates with landlords and the courts. According to the municipality, it has proved to be very effective, stopping 90% of evictions. In Berlin, this task is carried out by regular departments of the district administrations.
In all cases, the cities’ goals are to prevent housing loss and to provide adequate housing in the event that an eviction takes place. In Berlin and Vienna the predominant support consists in the organisation of alternative housing after the eviction. Administrations in these cities take on the function of state-organised displacement management. The robustness of the public housing system in these cities – with Berlin having 35,000 spots in emergency shelters, for instance – contrasts with the almost non-existent emergency housing for evicted people in Barcelona, despite efforts by the current administration to expand it.
As for the general preference for use values over exchange value, the security of tenure in rental contracts (whether they allow non-fault evictions, for instance) and the level of rent control are key determining factors for the rate of evictions – although often not in the hands of the city. In all four cities, prevention strategies provide legal counselling aimed at strengthening the implementation of existing laws that contribute to guaranteeing the right to housing. This is the case of FAWOS, in Vienna, which has the goal of preventing evictions and preserving affordable rental contracts, since rent prices are often higher in new contracts. In Barcelona, where non-fault evictions are legal and 98% of the rental market is dominated by private landlords, the anti-eviction law (applicable to the whole of Catalonia) forces big landlords asking for an eviction to offer a social rent as an alternative to eviction for rent arrears, squatting, or the end of the rental contract (no-fault evictions). In terms of accountability, the lack of accurate data on evictions is remarkable, especially in Amsterdam.
While in other aspects of housing policy cities expand the local legal foundations, when we speak about evictions cities are left with the weight of carrying out preventive strategies and palliative measures without being able to legislate on it directly. Barcelona city council has developed an unexplored dimension of the Catalan Law for the Right to Housing and for the first time administrative complaints and sanctions have been made against landlords harassing tenants, which have been used to stop the eviction of all residents involved. Also, the four cities have expanded their role as mediators. Nevertheless, in terms of fighting evictions no city has expanded its legal foundations to directly stop them.
In order to protect cities and their inhabitants against predatory extraction of urban surplus, there are no relevant policies that regard evictions specifically. Evictions occur in all four cities, and, with the exception of Amsterdam, they mostly take place in apartments owned by private landlords – which have less secure tenure than public ones. In Berlin and Vienna, the proportions of evictions in the municipal housing stock are now lower than in the private rented sector. In Amsterdam, households in precarious living conditions are concentrated in the regulated rental apartments of the housing associations, thus cases of rent arrears and evictions are also concentrated in this sector. In Barcelona, given that 98% of the rental market is private and that security of tenure is low (non-cause evictions are legal), most evictions occur in the private sector and predominantly in housing owned by big corporate landlords.
Even if the responsibility for assisting tenants in distress and facing eviction is a local or regional responsibility in all cities, policies governing evictions are national. Therefore, municipal administrations may be interested in changing legislative frameworks by intervening in federal and international institutions. Even though no city claims local authority to regulate or ban evictions, some cities, like Barcelona, do try to intervene in national legislation, as it is the case with the Law for the Right to Housing that is being currently discussed in the Spanish Congress.
Governments have taken more measures largely as a result of grassroots mobilisation and critiques in public debate, nevertheless, in the case of evictions their effectiveness is unclear. Strong links to urban social movements are especially evident in Barcelona. There, the implementation of the most tenant-protective laws in practice require cooperation between the public servants and housing movements. This is the case with the Catalan Anti-Evictions Law or especially the harassment sanctions. Nevertheless, even in cities with progressive government majorities, the prevention or at least postponing of evictions relies mostly on direct intervention by social movements.
Radical democratisation and decentralisation do not seem to be relevant criteria for evictions; activists and other residents demand regulations and enforcement, not decentralisation. In terms of participation, anti-eviction movements demand to be taken into account within the conflict resolution procedures. In all cities, evictions are an explicit topic of social movements, and especially in Barcelona and Berlin there are stable initiatives that have been actively and continuously trying to prevent evictions in practice and to raise the issue in the public sphere. For the most part, evictions in all cities are subject to individually specific constellations between landlords and residents. Notices of termination, eviction suits, and eviction dates are always directed against specific individuals and households. In contrast to other policy areas, initiatives therefore demand not to focus on decentralisation, but to put the problem of evictions on the agenda in the city and nationally in order to formulate political responses.
The four cities considered have different strategies to encourage urban social movements and include them in the practice of governing. In Barcelona, the Anti-Displacement Group stimulated coordination between housing communities at risk of eviction and housing policy initiatives. Nevertheless, while grassroots movements against forced evictions focus on empowering those affected and try to find collective answers to individual crisis situations, they are not always supported by city gover ments. Particularly given their focus on the concrete implementation of acute demands (the prevention of evictions or a moratorium on evictions by public housing associations in the case of Berlin), initiatives against forced evictions tend to be perceived as forms of protest outside the political field – with the exception of Barcelona.