Book Review, Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance

Raquel Rolnik has written an expansive look at how financial markets have penetrated all aspects of housing everywhere across the globe in Urban Warfare: Housing Under the Empire of Finance. Drawing on her experience as former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Rolnik traverses from the US and the UK, where leveraging housing as a financial asset first took off, to the many parts of the world – Kazakhstan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mexico, Chile and still others – where that model would later be exported. As with the subprime lending crisis, ever hungry financial markets are always in search of newer, fresher opportunities.

Rolnik details the subsidized private housing and microfinance schemes that prey on rural and urban workers alike, offering small amounts of capital at high rates as the price to access often-inadequate housing. As in Sam Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, an accessible book many DSA chapters are reading, Rolnik relates how real estate capital has acquired enormous political power, transforming human living space on a global scale. If that much is true, at the same time, housing justice movements all over the world are fighting back and waging a shared struggle against the consolidation of wealth and power through commodified housing.

Alternating between journalistic vignettes from her UN mandate and detailed analysis of housing policy, Rolnik condemns how the financialization of housing drives evictions and displacement, from the wealthiest nations in the world to the poorest. After laying out the policy framework that turned the US mortgage system and the UK’s privatization of public housing through “Right to Buy” schemes into a global model proliferated by multilateral organizations like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank in Part I of her book, Rolnik turns to the issues of informal settlements in the developing world in Part II. Despite the predominance of self construction and precarious conditions in these settlements, real estate finance has a keen interest in these communities, too. Through land titling programs meant to “unlock” informal communities’ potential, as well as mass expulsions and displacement in the aftermath of natural disasters and megaprojects, capital seeks to incorporate these spaces back into formal land markets so they can be expropriated for private gain. 

Part III and an Afterword examine how these dynamics have played out in Rolnik’s native Brazil. Despite major gains by Brazil’s housing movements since the country’s return to democracy, in the late 2000s the powerful real estate and construction industries used their political influence to direct public investment into a mass mortgage and homeownership program (Minha Casa, Minha Vida), as well as into construction for megaevents like the Rio Olympics and the 2014 World Cup, fueling rising real estate values and mass evictions. Often enough, residents of informal communities had their homes demolished as a result and were then relocated to the MCMV program’s newly built private homes on the outskirts of Brazil’s cities, with little to no connection to urban infrastructure or other city services. 

The bigger picture, as Stein’s Capital City notes, is that real estate today is a $200 trillion industry comprising 60% of global assets. “The real estate state” that Stein refers to in his book’s title is a useful way of illustrating how much power the industry holds. Both Capital City and Urban Warfare share much in common. Both authors come from a background in urban planning (Rolnik was São Paulo’s Planning Director under left-wing Mayor Luiza Erundina and served in the Lula government). Among other influences, both draw from Marxist geographer David Harvey. Harvey’s metaphor of a “spatial fix,” capitalism’s junkie-like drive toward constant territorial expansion, is at the center of Rolnik’s analysis. As Stein argues in his book, real estate capital remains fixed in time and space, giving planners and organizers the means to fight back locally. Rolnik outlines the contours of housing financialization on an international scale while also identifying the local movements resisting it. The global trend of turning housing into a commodity to be acquired and leveraged through debt has left no country untouched, no stone unturned and displaced millions. Rolnik’s Urban Warfare exposes this worrying trend and puts the powerful forces socialists are up against in stark terms. 


Socialist readers should grasp the sense of opportunity inherent to this predicament. The global financialization of land and housing has turned firms like Blackstone into the world’s largest landlord and the world’s greatest purveyor of social and environmental destruction. The other side of the equation is that housing justice organizers around the world have many targets in common. The struggle for adequate housing is at the center of praxis for working class movements all over the world. These movements are often led by organizers of color and indigenous organizers. If real estate profiteers have gone global, housing justice movements must, too. In recognizing their shared struggle with these movements, socialists have the power to transform the growing concentration of wealth and power invested in real estate across the world into capital’s Achilles Heel.