Accommodating ‘generation rent’: Unsettling dominant discourses on rental housing reform in Catalonia and Spain

5 Mar 2024, 9:22 a.m.
Lorenzo Vidal, Javier Gil, and Miguel A Martínez

In contemporary urban areas, a growing 'generation rent' is finding shelter in expensive and precarious private rental housing. Tenant organisations and legislative initiatives have been pushing to improve housing conditions for renters, yet have been met with strong resistance. Intense policy and academic debates have ensued. Such discussions have acquired particular salience in Catalonia and Spain, where in recent years tenant rights and protections have expanded in uneven and limited ways, yet have faced significant legal reversals and political backlash.

Our paper delves into the discourses used by dominant actors involved in legislative changes affecting the private rental sector in Catalonia and Spain. Through a critical discourse analysis of the positions of governments, opposition parties and landlord organisations, we identify three main arguments employed to limit or contest “post-neoliberal” measures favouring tenants: “the vulnerable landlord”, “the counterproductive effects” and “the violation of property rights”. By placing these arguments under theoretical and empirical scrutiny, we aim to demystify and problematize their unstated assumptions and limited empirical basis.

The first argument, the “vulnerable landlord”, portrays the majority of landlords as ordinary persons whose livelihood depends on rental income. Pro-tenant measures thus pose a distributive problem, as benefiting tenants harms landlords in similar measure. This is largely an empirical claim that has been constructed on the back of a paucity of data. We draw from the available databases to show that landlords are actually a relatively affluent social minority and that those at risk of poverty represent only 0.6% of Spanish households. The results suggest that the vast majority of landlords can afford a reduction (due to rent controls) or suspension (due to emergency eviction moratoriums) of their rental income. More so considering their wealth in asset ownership.

The second argument, the “counter-productive effects”, claims that pro-tenant measures ultimately harm tenants by disincentivising rental housing maintenance and supply. This assertion is based on a theoretically-informed interpretation of the workings of the housing market influenced by popularised orthodox economics 101 formulations. We contend that such discourses overlook the monopolistic nature of landownership, which justifies public intervention. Furthermore, empirical evidence is weak and does not sustain the argument in the blanket terms in which it is presented. Instead, the impact of pro-tenant measures should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The notion that an unregulated rental housing market can resolve the housing affordability crisis lacks both theoretical and empirical backing.

The third argument, the “violation of property rights”, argues that public restrictions placed upon the uses and prices of rental properties infringe landlord’s property rights. This a normative argument that reflects an absolutist perspective on private property. This view neglects the historical interventions in housing markets by liberal democratic regimes and is misaligned with social constitutionalism and welfare traditions. Remembering and reclaiming this legacy after decades of neoliberal marketisation is a strategy for reactualising it today.

Our discussion on private rental housing reform in Catalonia and Spain resonates with similar debates across different geographies. Our characterisation of the main arguments contesting pro-tenant measures contributes to clarifying the terms of the debates as they circulate in local and global housing policy and academic circles. By unsettling dominant discourses and highlighting their theoretical and empirical shortcomings, we suggest that the “burden of proof” against pro-tenant measures continues to lie on them. Concurrently, we have outlined the coordinates of a counter-discourse that recognises the monopolistic nature of landownership and is grounded in the tradition of social constitutionalism and the history of public interventionism in housing.


Read the full open access paper on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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