by Katie Mack
What would happen if a large multinational investment firm decided it wanted to invest in a rundown neighbourhood? You might think to yourself, “good for them, they’re trying to bring an area out of poverty.” Indeed, the act of buying up cheap properties in big cities is becoming more common, with investors choosing to put their money into property, as opposed to stocks and bonds. The standard practice is as follows: an investment firm will be given a reduced rate on a building in return for them investing in the area. The firm will then refurbish the property and sell it on for a profit. These firms claim that they are helping to improve areas, as refurbishments bring jobs, and the newly-developed properties will bring tenants, most likely tourists in a city like Barcelona, who spend money in local businesses. However, not everyone agrees that the process is benevolent. To rephrase my opening question: what happens when a multinational investment firm buys over a building where ten families have lived for a long time, and plans to evict them in order to attract wealthier tenants? This is what happened when a company called Blackstone, the company with the largest number of properties worldwide, decided to take on the residents of the Raval neighbourhood in Barcelona, and how they learned that solidarity amongst the poor is a stronger weapon that it appears.
In 2018, ten families living in the poor and crime-stricken neighbourhood of Raval, Barcelona, were given an open eviction notice to leave their flats. They had been informed that a company had bought the building and was wanting to renovate it. The area, though poor, was near La Rambla, a long street that runs through the centre of the city and is a tourist hot-spot. Blackstone could improve the property and charge higher rent, knowing that tourists and wealthier people would pay to stay there. The type of eviction notice made it harder for locals to organise any sort of resistance as the families could be evicted any day within a two-week period. Barcelona has increasingly seen gentrification in its neighbourhoods (the process whereby areas are “done-up” to attract wealthier outsiders to live and spend time there, forcing the (often) poorer residents further out of the city) so the actions of Blackstone did not come as a surprise to the neighbourhood. However, what did come as a surprise, not to the residents but to Blackstone itself, was the sheer strength and solidarity of the tenants and their neighbours to combat their actions.
A group of residents from the local housing union (SHR) successfully organised musical and cultural events over the two weeks, attracting the support of the city council and some political parties and MPs. They also wrote articles, held press conferences, demonstrated in wealthier areas, and put pressure on the company’s directors. They refused to allow the building in question to be left empty at all throughout the two weeks. There were even protests held in Berlin and London in solidarity with the tenants. Through all their fighting and hard work, the tenants were victorious. Not only were they allowed to stay in their homes, but the council agreed to subsidise a portion of their rent. In the case of #RavalvsBlackstone, human need triumphed over corporate greed.
What can the rest of us learn from this? For starters, we can learn that though it seems futile to think that a small community has any chance of winning against the largest financial assets company in the world (or any investor with their mind set on gentrifying our neighbourhoods), we can win. But we can only do so when we fight back as a community, whose combined wealth may not match the wealth of these companies, but whose spirit and solidarity with our friends, neighbours, and foreign counterparts is more powerful than the impersonal forces of foreign capital.
Though this neighbourhood was successful in fighting a large company like Blackstone, the fight is far from over. Blackstone may well be biding its time for the families to leave of their own accord, or more sinisterly, may allow the building to fall into a state of disrepair, forcing the families to reconsider their future. It is only through continual resistance that communities can stand strong against the forces of neoliberalism. Companies like Blackstone are always looking for the next investment opportunity. Therefore, to ensure that our own neighbourhoods do not become the next target, we have to be ready to resist, ensuring we show the same strength and solidarity as people of Raval.
PS Glasgow already has experience of Blackstone as owner of the St. Enoch Centre. The “Paradise Papers” released in 2017 showed how Blackstone used trusts in the tax haven of Jersey and a complex structure of companies in Luxembourg for the purchase of St Enoch Centre, avoiding millions in tax. Read more here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-41899034