Law at the Margins of the City

Financialization, Housing, Investors, London

Law at the Margins of the City: a day on law and financialization, Birkbeck, London. Recent debates in urban studies on finance (and financialization) have highlighted new investors in urban development.

Former UN special rapporteur on housing revisits London

Luckily for the London team, the project kick-off coincided with former UN special rapporteur for housing Racquel Rolnik’s visit to the city. Some of the team headed over to Birkbeck earlier this year to hear her speak with the Bartlett’s own Josh Ryan-Collins about the new translation of her book: Urban Warfare, housing under the empire of finance, out now with Verso. Rolnik spoke about what she terms the ‘cloud of money’ looking for a new ‘spatial fix’, tying the destruction of the welfare state and consequential growth in private pensions to how many of us are invested in the property market. In both her speech at the event and more broadly her book she draws on her work for the UN which had her travelling all over the world. She spoke about how projects in an urban setting are shaped to attract the cloud of finance and the mismatch between the projects desired by financiers and citizens. For the former buildings don’t have to be occupied, for the latter if that happens then, as in London, empty skyscrapers can stand tall over tents of homeless. This process of financial logics prioritisation, she emphasised, not a new process but rather it’s happening on a new scale. It has been enabled by neoliberalisation’s emphasis on free movement of capital, exacerbated by technological revolution and the evolution of new financial instruments. For Rolnik, capital can now come in and out of cities in a much less regulated way, and this has undeniably challenging consequences.

Of particular importance for this project, she speaks of her work in London and the ways the media treated her for calling out the city’s housing problems. In this regard, Rolnik’s work follows on from and lays precedent for other research on how private equity firms, pension funds and other forms of institutional investors are playing an increasingly important role in London’ housing market. Learning from this, in our project we hope to follow on and look at examples of where such investors have invested – asking why, how, what their calculative techniques were, and most vitally – how/if their strategies were governed.

Bringing legal dimensions of financialization into the conversation

Beyond Rolnik’s powerful speech, the rest of the day at Birkbeck turned to the legal dimensions of financialization. As Rolnik herself notes financialisation requires private property, something reliant on legal practices. For Rolnik, private property is the foundational logic that connects territories to the markets and to citizens – it’s also the foundation of planning. After Rolnik heard from legal scholars and geographers on the ways in which legal tools are utilised to shape racialised dimensions of financial investment. Sarah Kennan explained the ‘regulation gap’ where law subsumes the new into the old and temporalities are shifted by changes in technology. Priya Gupta spoke about drawing lines of exclusion, looking at the tension between huge capital gains into real estate and the housing crisis.

Law at the Margins of the City’ was a day of fascinating inter-disciplinary analysis of the law can and does shape the means by which finance and financial actors are able to extract value. Importantly, looking at the legal dimensions draws attention to the undeniable role of the state as a mediator of financial power and in our project we hope to explore the means and ways by which the government shapes investment into housing.


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