Public Thinker: Sophie Gonick on Housing Justice and Mass Movements

“As often the most vulnerable in our cities, immigrants face struggles that reflect the wider landscape of housing precarity.”

How do immigrants find shelter in unequal cities? And what might their struggles tell us about larger questions of housing insecurity, property markets, and emergent grassroots organizing? Such questions animate Sophie Gonick’s Dispossession and Dissent: Immigrants and the Struggle for Housing Justice in Madrid (Stanford University Press, 2021), which looks at an ever-metastasizing real estate industry in Madrid and its impacts on Andean immigrants. By weaving together ethnographies of immigrant experiences and agency, Gonick produces a cutting analysis of urbanization, gentrification, dispossession, and real-estate speculation. The book focuses on Madrid, one of the epicenters of the 2008 mortgage crisis, during which poor and working-class homeowners, locally, but, also, globally, were faced with unpayable loans. This, she shows, resulted in mortgage-related foreclosures, racialized evictions, unpayable debt, and new forms of civil death.

While diving into the day-to-day effects of this process on immigrant residents, Gonick also historicizes the twentieth-century planning histories that laid the groundwork for this twenty-first-century real estate speculation and housing financialization. At the same time, she shows that just as brutal dispossession was a major outcome of this crisis, so was an unprecedented level of immigrant-led housing justice organizing. To this end, throughout Dispossession and Dissent, Gonick illuminates the formation and workings of the Plataforma de Afectadas por la Hipoteca (PAH-Platform of People Affected by Mortgages), which grew out of this struggle to become one of Europe’s largest anti-eviction groups today. Her work, thus, bears important lessons for tenants and housing organizers across the globe, particularly today in the wake of COVID-related housing precarity and renter debt. She is an assistant professor of Metropolitan Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.

In this interview with Sophie Gonick, we dive into the research and organizing that informed her writing of the book, while further elaborating upon its key themes and implications related to both dispossession and dissent.

Erin McElroy (EM): To begin, what inspired you to dive into this research project? Why were both Madrid and Spain crucial geographies to study regarding the mortgage crisis?


Sophie Gonick (SG): Like with many of our research projects, we get there often through personal investments in a place or a theme. So for me, it was that I lived and worked in Madrid on and off for a while in my twenties, and I had studied abroad there. When I lived there between college and grad school, I had been keenly aware that the real-estate market was going crazy: the price of housing was skyrocketing. Really down and out properties would be going for 300,000 Euros when they were quite literally dumps.

I couldn’t really understand that reality, particularly being aware of the fact that Spaniards just don’t make very much money, because of wage stagnation and a number of other factors. And then the rental market was really unregulated—it seemed like the Wild West. You would be charged one amount if it had a formal contract, another amount if it didn’t have a formal contract. So, I was curious as to how people were finding housing, period.

But I was also interested in the fact that there was more and more immigration that was occurring. Spain, when I got there in 2003, was just starting to be a country of mass migration; by the time that I went to grad school in 2008, it had become a major, major destination for international migrants. Within the space of about ten years (1998-2008), Spain went from very little immigration to just a lot.

While I was in Madrid for pre-dissertation fieldwork, the PAH in Madrid decided to perform their first eviction blockade, and between 500 and 1,000 people showed up. I wasn’t there at the blockade, but I read about it in the newspaper. What struck me was that the house that the PAH organizers were defending that day belonged to a Lebanese baker and a Bulgarian waitress, and that you could see in the images that accompanied the articles that there were a lot of immigrants in the streets with them that day.

I was curious: (a) why and how this couple had bought a house? But (b) why was it that there were so many immigrants and native Spaniards showing up to defend the right to housing of this family? And (c) was the presence of immigrants in this movement just a feature or a bug? And, so, I thought, “Okay, there’s a story here.”


EM: So much analysis about gentrification often focuses on how longtime residents are impacted by real-estate speculation. In the Bay Area, a lot of the discourse about the impacts of the real-estate market is seen around how longtime residents of color are being pushed out to make room for wealthier, whiter tech-industry-affiliated newcomers. But of course, immigrants in the Bay Area—where we both currently are for this interview—but also in New York—where you teach—often bear the brunt of eviction and gentrification, landlord harassment, and bank harassment.

So, it’s important to maintain an analysis of how immigrant communities are being impacted. But there’s also what we could describe as double dispossession: a lot of immigrants are being displaced in various cities after having already been forced out of their home countries and communities. And that’s why your book’s transnational analysis is really crucial.


SG: Double dispossession is a very powerful idea, one that also fosters political resistance. Being dispossessed, being exiled, being evicted from one’s homeland for one reason or another are all experiences that contribute to people’s personal politics. Those politics then show up when faced with other forms of dispossession, such that one of the ironies of dispossession is that it can also produce resistance. Certain communities, such as the Ecuadorians and Peruvians I write about in my book, are vulnerable to a number of different kinds of forms of exploitation. But those same communities apprehend systematic violence and predation and formulate new arsenals of resistance.

Our cities are being remade through these predatory regimes of housing—and really unequal property markets writ large—that very much produce how we live in the city. And as the most vulnerable in our cities often, immigrants face struggles that reflect the wider landscape of housing precarity. They offer a window into the struggles that we must contend with: the heightened forms of exploitation that the housing markets create. But they also can provide alternative models for radical politics and placemaking.

EM: One of the more powerful, even beautiful, aspects of transnational organizing often entails the sharing of tactics across locations and building networks to fight the power that needs fighting. And in your book’s case, there is an entangling of a certain Andean understanding of justice with Spanish urban contexts. There is the historic Spanish colonization of the Americas—and, therein, of the Andes—and the ongoing resultant struggles against dispossession that people have engaged in since. Fast forward to the twenty-first century: in Madrid, it was Ecuadorian immigrants that held Spain’s first anti-eviction protest, back in 2008.


SG: Spain is a place where you saw this confluence—of immigration, the proliferation of credit opportunities, and urbanization—all happening really intensively over the course of about a decade. And urbanization and the construction industry in particular have been really integral to the Spanish economy. In the recovery from the 2008 crisis, being unable to rely on the historical tools of housing construction and speculation, the Spanish state and Spanish enterprises have had to look elsewhere—and one of the places that they have looked is to Latin America.

Spain played a major role in creating colonialism. And places like Ecuador were long seen as sites to extract wealth and, more recently, to extract these kinds of migrations in the interest of labor markets. As much as the right bemoans immigration, immigrants are integral to booming economies and certainly made possible much of the Spanish boom of the early 2000s, because they provided a lot of the cheap labor that allowed for explosive growth. And, yet, as I detail in the book, the state had anxiety over the fact that immigrants are also making money off of the boom and that that money is flowing out of Spain—back into Ecuador and Peru and other parts of Latin America, and also other parts of sub-Saharan African, etc.—without the state having any control over it. And, so, they see homeownership as this fix for that problem.

Long after the actual époque of colonization is over, these kinds of colonial entanglements continue to define the relations between production, social reproduction, wealth, and resource extraction. But, of course, there is only so much control one can have over the flow of people and policy and politics. Immigrants come with their own politics, their own political subjectivities, in addition to their own traditions, and their own traditions of explicitly resisting these forms of colonial and neocolonial extraction and domination.

At the same time that Spain is celebrating immigrant homeowners—because they see it as immigrants investing in the Spanish project, the Spanish dream—immigrants themselves are making that investment for a different reason. They think it is going to offer great future return on investment, that they could take the proceeds of a future real-estate sale, and take it back to Quito or Lima and live comfortably and provide for their communities. Again, we see individual ideas around the homeowner in conflict with, or, also, in dialogue with, ideas around the community, ideas around sharing that don’t fit neatly into prescribed categories.

EM: You write about this fantasy of home ownership and how this relates to concepts of becoming or of being a citizen. You discuss Spanish histories that impact the current moment as well. For instance, the Franco era venerated this figure of the proprietario, or the property owner, who could suppress “the dangerous memory of the proletario.” Throughout your fieldwork, you came to “realize this ideological fairy tale only emerged after the regime had discovered the magic fix of private property as a tool for economic growth.”

A lot of people who have studied the foreclosure crisis understand that Spain was an epicenter of dispossession, and a lot of people know about the Franco regime, but I don’t think that many people have put the two together to think about how the latter informs the former. This is a relationship that you do dive into in your book. How have the planning histories of the Franco regime played into the subprime housing landscape and the fantasy of homeownership?


SG: The legislative landscape in Spain is inherited directly from the Franco regime. Yes, they created a new Constitution in 1978, but they didn’t do away with a lot of the existing legal frameworks, and a lot of the frameworks that dictated how urban planning took place. You really have to go back to these moments of bleak dictatorship to understand some of the present political conundrums and conflicts that exist. They aren’t just about conservative versus more left wing; they’re about the actual kinds of laws that are on the books.

To understand the Spanish homeownership model, you have to go back to its inception, which is really under the early Franco era. This idea of homeownership as a fix to quell the rabble is something that a lot of leaders come up with. In fact, similar ideas circulated within the American context. Similarly in the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression—in addition urbanization and immigration, and with them the potential for radical organizing in places like New York City—property offers this solution: if you are concerned about your house and your home, there is not much time to attend things like union meetings and get organized.


EM: Yes, absolutely. I have seen this, too, in the aftermaths of 1989 in Eastern European cities, where promises of homeownership served as a tactic to inculcate the population with capitalist dreams and visions.


SG: Yes. But there is actually this interesting book called Housing the New Russia, by Jane Zavisca, who is a sociologist, that is about the creation of the homeownership market in Russia, and, basically, how people resist it. These histories of property are by no means smooth and easily implemented. They come up against local particularities and politics and poetics of resistance.

EM: You write about debt sentences and “civil death,” which is a perfect analytic to describe the condition of someone who enters a credit blacklist, someone who becomes a morosa, in Spanish. This concept illuminates how debt shapes (and forecloses) so much of our social worlds. This form of civil death, you write, has dire effects on someone’s life and future. It determines their access to housing while also undermining their basic human dignity and fomenting shame. In other words, the effects of a debt sentence impact the ability to access housing but also so much more.


SG: At the most basic level, it is very interesting that our language around debt and mortgage is very similar to our language around shame or mortification, a word that contains within it death, le mort. Mortgage, after all, means dead pledge.

I was very keen to understand the production of exclusion and inequality under conditions of debt. I don’t think you can think about indebtedness only in terms of economic conditions, or separate out the economic experience of financial loss from the very affective and also embodied processes that people go through.

There was all this literature on the racial and gendered effects of foreclosures in the wake of the 2008 crisis. At the superficial level, this said, “Yes we know women, people of color in the United States, the Black population: they all experience these kinds of economic events with more acuity and more severity.” But the bigger question is—why is that? And what are the micro-processes that actually lead to forms of exclusion on the basis of race, class, gender, migratory origin? How is it that going into mortgage foreclosure affects a number of other areas of your life?

In the book, I think about how integral home ownership was to the production of an urban regime of citizenship. Its loss must then also cut people off. I wanted to think about how people were then reorienting their relationship to these systems and turning their profound loss into a political claim and a political rallying cry.

So much of our politics contemporarily, as it shows up in a number of different places, is driven by the memories of 2008 and the number of different losses that it created. I look at my students and their politics, and I realize that they grew up under the shadow of the Great Recession, essentially. They never knew even the wholly unequal and patchwork prosperity that I grew up with, largely under the Clinton era; they don’t know that. What they know is the erosion of the pillars of our society.

Take homeownership—and this was especially true in Spain—which was shown not to be this motor of upward mobility and stability that we all assumed it was. The same applies even to a university education.

So much of our politics, so much of our organizing responds to the specter of that moment and the way that that moment revealed the flaws at the heart of so many of the institutions that we hold so dear in many ways. And, that, for older generations, is very hard to let go of.

EM: Would you talk more about what that organizing with the PAH looked like during your time there, both on a day-to-day level but also the affective worlds and community power that were built through it?


SG: When the PAH was first getting off the ground in early 2009—when both the Ecuadorian community that I worked with in Madrid was getting organized, and, then, Barcelona housing activists were starting to get organized—this question of foreclosure was still largely seen as a problem that immigrants faced. Foreclosure had not spread far and wide, in part because a lot of Native Spaniards still had their jobs. But that was all going to change very quickly. Really, 2011 is an inflection point with the advent of the 15M movement but also just the more generalized precarity that you witness throughout Spanish society.

And so when I got there to do research, one of the things that was remarkable was that absolutely everybody was affected in some way by the crisis. Middle-class professionals had their salaries cut, their hours reduced, their pensions taken away; working-class people were struggling to make home payments, if they still owned their own home and hadn’t moved in with family members. The healthcare system was experiencing massive cuts. The edicts from on high from the European Union and the European Commission and the Central Bank of Europe were all demanding massive amounts of austerity, and, so, everybody had some story to tell. In that moment, this generalized sense of the fragility of everyday life meant that a lot of people were drawn to movements. What drew me to the housing movement in particular, and actually what drew a lot of activists to the movement, was that it was a space in which there was a large immigrant contingent. It was a very diverse social movement, as opposed to other mobilizations taking place where you didn’t see that same immigrant presence.

That diversity obviously provoked certain kinds of shock and discomfort, particularly, if somebody is going through a process of foreclosure and realizing that they are no different from an immigrant day laborer who is also trying to save a house from foreclosure. But that also then prompted these new forms of solidarity and community and coming together.

What was just so amazing was all of the many different outlets for organizing and for activism in terms of assemblies and protests and counseling sessions and in various different neighborhood social centers, in plazas, in bars and cafes and then also in neighborhood association buildings. There were just so many different spaces in which to get organized and get involved.

The fact that so many people found themselves in these situations—that they were losing their houses, and they were going to be stuck with hundreds of thousands of Euros of debt that they couldn’t discharge and that would potentially be passed on to their children—really creates the condition for a mass movement and for a new politics. Mortgage loans in the United States are non-recourse for the most part, meaning you can walk away. In Spain, that debt follows you to the grave. I think because of that crucial difference, we didn’t see here the same kind of organizing. Instead, we saw more localized struggles over conditions of indebtedness and conditions of housing dispossession in the wake of 2008, but we didn’t see the same mass movement.

That is different now from what I can observe in terms of groups such as the Debt Collective and the work that they are doing for student debt. This is similar in certain ways to mortgage debt in Spain: you can’t get rid of it through bankruptcy, and it is also inheritable. And there are particular conditions to student debt, such as its widespread nature, that also makes it a ripe target for activism.

So too with rental debt stemming from COVID: once eviction moratoria expire, and once housing courts are open, rental debt is potentially a site for a lot of organizing and radical activism.


Emergency Urbanism

By Ananya Roy

EM: With the housing precarity that we are seeing rise in the wake of COVID, there are a lot of fears about how renter debt could impact the ability to rent in the future. In the United States, there is a robust tenant-screening industry: nine out of ten landlords screen tenants based upon their credit histories, as well as any eviction histories and criminal records, to essentially blacklist renters already bearing the brunt of poverty, dispossession, and carcerality. There is a big fear today about how COVID-induced rental debt could impact the ability to rent in the future. This seems very similar to civil death and the debt that you track in the aftermath of 2008.

Today, we are seeing companies, Blackstone for example, employ crisis-capital logic to expand their scope and scale, much as they did in the aftermath of 2008. Actually, I remember back in 2015, there was this really beautiful international action that took place. I was in San Francisco at the time, and we held an action outside of Blackstone’s headquarters, in parallel with a group in New York holding an action in parallel with the Barcelona PAH chapter holding an action in Barcelona. It was really exciting for me to think about how very local struggles rooted in particular neighborhoods and cities could, at the same time, employ an international solidarity to fight these global capitalist corporations.

All of that to ask: are there lessons to be learned from the aftermath of 2008 and its resulting organizing that might make us more hopeful about post-COVID futures?


SG: Oh, man. I don’t know; I’m fairly pessimistic at the moment.


EM: I know, I know.


SG: It seems so much of our struggle is to maintain some bare minimum in the face of just a tsunami of shit.


EM: A shit tsunami.


SG: There is debt and housing predation but also climate. Obviously, there is activism going on that is beyond electoral politics. But … all the struggles just to get a miniscule climate bill passed.

But let’s go back to Madrid, look at the PAH. First of all, they re-signified what it meant to be an urban citizen such that it is an active claiming of the city and a right to remain and a right to be housed and a right to create one’s own community that continues. It was also an important site where you could see inter-ethnic solidarity, and an organizing and an awareness of immigrants as savvy political actors, who can actually push the conversation further.


EM: You are absolutely right. It is important to learn from groups that have been able to form huge and decentralized networks. The PAH exists in many different Spanish cities, yet, it can come together and engage in international solidarity and struggles with other groups. I have been to some meetings with the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and the City, where of course the PAH is present. It is powerful to be in a space with different groups from across the continent and witness these international networks growing. To fight the corporately owned housing landscape, we need that simultaneous groundedness and internationalism. While it did emerge in the aftermath of 2008, I’m eager to see it grow further today.

SG: Yes. I go back to the bumper sticker: think globally, act locally. One of the things that the PAH did really well was think through a number of different scales: there is the question of the house and the block and the neighborhood, and, then, of course, the city as a whole and the role of housing within the city. But then also the national scale. And then, because of the way in which housing is financialized and then subject to international capital flows, the global scale. To be able to hold those kinds of scale questions in mind is really key. Social movements do need to think through scale and also think through the different kinds of sites where change can happen.

But, of course, the PAH is a housing-justice movement. And I do think that housing is a really important site for activism. And for a prefigurative politics and also an emancipatory one, too. Indeed, one of the lessons of the PAH is similar to one of the lessons of the American Civil Rights struggle: these kinds of alliances and coalitions are very important for political organizing and for change to happen. But they don’t necessarily need to endure forever after, and, in fact, they usually don’t endure forever. Expecting them to last forever is a road to heartbreak.


EM: Yes. These alliances don’t need to last forever. But, during a certain moment in time, they can be transformative while laying the groundwork for future movements.


SG: In Madrid, I saw lessons and experiences from the indigenous movement in Ecuador, which one might think have absolutely nothing to do with housing in urban Spain. But, in fact, they constituted an important precursor. Maybe one of the lessons is that the experiences and solidarities and political developments that occur in any given place or time don’t just shrivel up and die once the immediate problem is solved. In fact, they go on to be reborn in different guises and sometimes very different kinds of places and around various different kinds of struggles.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured Image provided by Sophie Gonick.