On “Critical Mapping for Municipalist Mobilization”

Carla Rivera and Alfredo Palomera are advocates for the right to housing, working with Observatorio DESC in Spain. Observatorio DESC (Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales) was created in 1998 to strengthen awareness and action on social, economic and cultural rights. In an interview Carla and Alfredo shared insights from the multi-year project: “Critical Mapping for Municipalist Mobilization” in partnership with organisations in Berlin and Belgrade. They shed light on why mapping to increase transparency and accountability is an important tool within struggles for the right to housing. And why it involves innovation and iteration along the way: an ongoing process rather than a destination.

Each city took a slightly different approach to the project, depending on the local context and possibilities.

In Belgrade, where 95% of homes are privately owned and yet 80% of people still struggle to access decent and affordable housing, members of the Ministry of Space collective decided to focus on housing affordability. They analysed policies and trends, and built the map “How (un) affordable is housing in Belgrade.” 

In Berlin, 85% of residents are renters, and there are large and active networks of housing advocates. The project participants worked in tandem with existing collectives and movements. Their mapping included legislation and critical events, “who decides on what?”, examples of existing mapping and visualisation tools from throughout the city: and they created the “Buy Back Berlin” map. 

In Barcelona, about 40% of inhabitants are renters (the average in Spain is 25%). Prices are high compared with income, and social housing accounts for only 1.6% of the housing stock. “There had been no systematic efforts to do critical mapping activities related to the property structure on one side, and evictions on the other,” says Carla. “Mainly because of a lack of resources, and lack of people being able to keep working on this over a long time period.” Joining the three-year project with K-Lab in Berlin was an opportunity they jumped at.

The initial goal was to use city council data on housing evictions across the city, and track the owners behind them. But the city data was not publicly available. Instead, Observatorio DESC gathered the data on evictions from communities experiencing the evictions themselves. These included people who had already organised as the Platform for People Affected by the Mortgage (PAH) in response to the 2008 financial crisis, and tenant unions, who posted calls to stop evictions into a telegram channel. 

This participatory approach became an important part of the process. It was not without obstacles. For example, figuring out how to systematise multiple different social movement channels for sharing evictions into a single database and map; balancing the need for simple user-friendly platforms for people to upload information, with the need for privacy measures like password protection; and correcting and updating addresses that had been entered with missing details. But having the data coming straight from people experiencing evictions helped strengthen a sense of agency over the problem, and to continue building momentum for policy changes.

The approach is “very much rooted in a progression of different phases”, Carla adds. “You could change your focus or your activities depending on the needs or desires or demands that come through the process. I think that’s a main feature of what critical mapping is, in terms of the profile of who is carrying out the maps and the methodology. It’s not ‘ok we need to go here’…It’s that we have an intuition that something is needed: let’s start by going face to face with people and be flexible to what comes up through the process. It is also about creating an outcome that has the possibility of other people becoming involved.”

“It is about creating an outcome that has the possibility of other people becoming involved.”

This need for iterative approaches is a theme that recurs across groups mapping ownership patterns in cities. For example the project “Who Owns Cairo?” went through a similar process of learning and adapting by doing, albeit in a very different context in which gathering input from communities themselves was not possible. 

Mapping and organising are parts of a wider process that feeds into campaigns for legislative change. Housing movements have been able to strengthen protections in Catalonia, which in turn has inspired national-level changes. Alfredo cites one clause in these laws, in which if a multi-unit landlord attempts to evict tenants who have limited resources, they first need to offer the home at a social rent (between 10-18 percent of income). In many instances, those renters are people who had invested their savings and incomes into mortgages for their homes over years, to then lose their homes during the financial crisis, and see investors then buy them up and reap the benefits. So while industry representatives argue the measure cuts into their profits, he sees it as an important step towards re-calibrating how value is built and maintained. 

Observatorio DESC’s mapping traced many of the documented evictions to the largest landlords in Barcelona, such as US-headquartered Blackstone and Cerberus, and Spain’s Sareb. Their work has demonstrated that social mobilisation works: for example, 90% of the eviction processes that the PAH has engaged on were able to be stopped. But it also shows that there is a need to scale up the work, given that they are only capturing details of approximately 15% of the evictions that take place overall.

Observatorio DESC plans to continue to build on the work initiated through the Critical Mapping for Municipalist Mobilization project. They are holding workshops to create a more permanent group of people keeping the data on evictions updated, exploring ways to convey the lived experience of the data through stories, and continuing to pursue legal changes – such as pushing for courts to disaggregate eviction data by locality, given that currently each court just provides its data as a whole. The Anti Eviction Mapping Project in the United States (focusing mainly on New York, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles), was a major source of inspiration for this work, and Observatorio DESC plans to continue following their example. 

The CMMM website shares additional avenues of potential research and mapping work: like looking in more detail at the housing-related legislation and policies of the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Investment Bank, two EU bodies that play an important political role in terms of influencing national policies. On the legislative and enforcement side, the Berlin team calls for “enforcing EU laws to combat money laundering and tax evasion in the real estate sector in Berlin, closing tax loopholes and taking effective action against vacancy and unnecessary demolition. Because:

“What happens on land and with real estate shapes the cityscape for everyone, and is one of the decisive factors for social peace in the city.”

This story is part of a forthcoming Building Transformation StoryMap co-hosted by It’s Material and Institute for Human Rights and Business.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *