In this note, Laura Colini and Ivan Tosics introduce the financilisation phenomenon of the housing market and its consequences faced by cities at local level. Read more about it and get prepared for the "Housing Fair Finance" web conference Thursday 19, 10-12.30 CET.
Commodification is the name for the general process by which the economic value of a thing comes to dominate its other uses. (…) the commodification of the housing means that a structure functions as real estate takes precedence over its usefulness as a place to live.
In a platform dedicated to how students in the US can repay their university loans, there is one entry that encourages readers to invest: “Over the last two centuries, about 90% of the world’s millionaires have been created by investing in real estate […] it is best to get started early with real estate so you can put time on your side“.
Housing is treated as an asset for profitable international surplus investment. The political and economic process that internationalized the housing market has its roots in the late 80´s and 90´s but it is with the subprime crisis of 2008 that the average public became aware of the speculative mechanism global finance that has profited from this sector. The housing market did not simply open another field of investment for capital but created “a peculiar form of value storage” which relates macroeconomics to the individuals and families through financing mechanisms based on pension funds, investment banks, credit institutions and public institutions. Studies from different disciplines use the terms of financialisation deployed to describe “the increasing dominance of financial actors, markets, practices, measurements and narratives, at various scales, resulting in a structural transformation of economies, firms (including financial institutions) states and household”. Main actors are international and local real estate investors as new landlords of corporate housing, financial actors and firms adopting private equity, hedge funds, real estate investment trusts (REITs), pension funds, etc.
There are different strategies at play created for return-enhancing mechanism of buying for selling on, leasing out, and renting. The first seven years before the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007 were associated with short-term investment strategies of “buying low and selling high”.  At that time, although with uneven results over the globe, rents and sales brought in less money than expected. Buy-hold- and sell-plans had to be adjusted accordingly to the extent that various investors had to see their total portfolios. These portfolios were bought in second phase by REITs and listed real estate funds.
Holiday rental platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo also cover an important role in the process of commodification of housing, covering more than 80,000 cities all over the world. Airbnb values $31 billion and their major source of yield is private homes rentals. The company’s virtually unregulated market in cities, in a short period of time, has peripheralized inhabitants, pushed for evictions ultimately raising rents and making housing less affordable. Some among the most progressive cities governments and social movements in Europe are reclaiming more power to counteract this phenomenon and call for better regulation at EU level.
While the process of financialisation of housing is dependent from intricate international cash flow through invisible or hardly traceable chains, it is strongly anchored to localities, local markets and local governments. Examples of governmental policies that have enabled the rise and spread of the financialisation and speculation include:
Leilani Fahra, the former UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing #MakeTheShift campaign publicly denounced financial institutions and local authorities accountable for poor housing conditions across the world. Her 2018 report recognizes the right to adequate housing as a universal human right and proposes policy recommendations to de-financialize the housing sector. The Declaration “Cities for Adequate Housing”, promoted by a group of major global cities with the support of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) in 2019, recommends cities to engage with a wide range of actors, at different levels, and to design strategies in line with the right to housing. 
Although these recommendations imply that cities are not solely responsible for adequate housing, the conditions for cities to act depend heavily also on other factors, such as national policies on public social housing and welfare. In Sweden free ownership of housing was only possible for single family houses, and private renting is limited. Ownership of flats became possible some 10 years ago but there are only a few hundred cases in the country. The usual form is cooperative, and such flats are usually not allowed to be rented out. Thus, in Sweden practically one flat is/can be owned by a family – if there would be a second flat, it would be impossible to bring it to the rental housing market.
Not only the nations count on different systems for shaping their housing policies in Europe, but cities as well have in their hands different instruments to influence and control their local markets. Below some measures and projects are described, adopted by cities to de-financialize their housing markets.