Guide Understanding Housing Finance: Meeting Needs and Making Choices

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The housing is as valuable whether it is vacant or occupied, lived in or devoid of life. Homes sit empty while homeless populations burgeon. Financialized housing markets respond to preferences of global investors rather than to the needs of communities. The average income of households in the community or the kinds of housing they would like to inhabit is of little concern to financial investors, who cater to the needs or desires of speculative markets and are likely to replace affordable housing that is needed with luxury housing that sits vacant because that is how best to turn a profit quickly.

Financialized housing thus precipitates what has been referred to as "residential alienation", the loss of the critical relationship to housing as a dwelling and the diverse set of social relationships that give it meaning. In financialized housing markets, those making decisions about housing - its use, its cost, where it will be built or whether it will be demolished - do so from remote board rooms with no engagement with or accountability to the communities in which their "assets" are located.

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Many corporate owners of housing are nameless. More than 36, properties in London are held by shell companies registered in offshore havens such as Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man and Jersey. Many residential rental properties are now owned by bondholders or holders of public stock with no direct connection to properties. It is difficult to know who is accountable for human rights when the owner of housing is a multibillion dollar fund, bondholders, public stockholders or a nameless corporate shell.

Tenants living in housing owned by absentee corporate landlords have complained of sharp increases in rent, inadequate maintenance and conditions as a result of substandard renovations that have been undertaken quickly to flip the home into rentals, and an inability to hold anyone accountable for those conditions.

Increased prices of housing and real estate assets have become key drivers in the creation of greater wealth inequality. Those who own property in prime urban locations have become richer, while lower-income households confronting the escalating costs of housing become poorer. Surveys of ultra-high-net-worth individuals show that more than half have increased the proportion of their investments allocated to residential properties, with the most common reasons being in order to sell at a later date and to provide a safe haven for wealth.

The "economics of inequality", in fact, may be explained in large part by the inequalities of wealth generated by housing and real estate investments. Buying a home with a mortgage becomes a speculative investment depending on volatile financial markets, which may generate considerable wealth on leveraged equity or, alternatively, deprive households of a lifetime of savings. The dominant impact of wealth and private investment has also created and perpetuated spatial segregation and inequality in cities.

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In South Africa, for example, the impact of private investment in the urban core of cities has sustained the discriminatory patterns of the apartheid area, with wealthier, predominantly white households occupying areas close to the centre and poorer black South Africans living on the peripheries of cities. That "spatial mismatch", relegating poor black households to homeownership in peri-urban areas where employment opportunities are scarce, rather than rentals in the urban core, for example, has entrenched their poverty and cemented inequality.

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Similar patterns of racial displacement from urban centres and segregation in evidence in large cities in the United States have led to more severe impacts of financialization and the mortgage crisis being experienced by African-American households. Financialization also creates gender segregation. In Australia, analysis has shown that average-income single female workers can afford to live in only one suburb of Melbourne and cannot afford to live anywhere in Sydney.

In contemporary Chile, the appropriation of land by large scale investors and speculators, accumulating land and luxury properties, has meant that inner-city redevelopment has displaced many traditional residents, exemplifying "the intertwined roles of the state and assorted holders of economic capital in the production, distribution and representation of urban exclusion and segregation". Financialized housing markets create and thrive on gentrification and the appropriation of public value for private wealth.

Improved services, schools or parks in an impoverished neighbourhood attract investment, which then drives residents out. The transformation of an old railway line in West Chelsea in Manhattan into a public walkway and park has attracted wealthy investors to a mixed income neighbourhood, radically transforming it with luxury housing units costing in the multimillions, and displacing longer term residents. In Vancouver, the opening of new public transport facilities in Burnaby, one of the few remaining areas of affordable rental housing, has quickly led to the development of expensive condominium towers, displacing residents who have not only lived there for decades, but also invested in developing their community.

Patterns of inequality are often starkest in developing countries.

Understanding housing finance: meeting needs and making choices

In Africa, if current trends continue, the number of households living in informal settlements will continue to increase while the number of ultra-high-net-worth individuals is predicted to rise by almost 50 per cent in the next decade. The financialization of housing has dramatically altered the relationship of States to the housing sector and to those to whom they have human rights obligations. Rather than being held accountable to residents and their need for housing, States' housing policies have often become accountable to financial institutions and seem to pander to the confidence of global credit markets and the preferences of wealthy private investors.

Given the predominance of housing-related credit in many economies, domestic housing policy becomes intertwined with the priorities and strategies of central banks and international financial institutions, which are themselves rarely held accountable to States' human rights obligations to ensure access to adequate housing and do not meaningfully engage with rights-holders.

Accountability to global finance rather than to human rights has been rigorously imposed by the International Monetary Fund and other creditors when Governments have faced foreign debt crises. Decisions made by central banks and finance ministers in consultation with international financial institutions are rarely informed by input from stakeholders or those involved with housing policy and programmes. Processes put in place to address the debt crisis in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe through the "Vienna Initiative" for example, brought together "key stakeholders", identified as national central banks and Western European parent banks along with multiple regional and international financial institutions.

Absent were civil society groups and anyone representing the interests of borrowing households, the people most affected by any decisions taken. In circumstances where Governments should be relying on positive measures and resource allocation to provide housing to households affected by economic downturns and widespread unemployment, many have been held accountable to austerity measures imposed by creditors. They have agreed to dramatically reduce or eliminate housing programmes, privatize social housing and sell off massive amounts of housing and real estate assets to private equity funds.

As noted by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, global financial institutions with representations from central bank governors and ministers of finance, "seem generally remote from stakeholder engagement. These institutions are independent self-governing bodies with their own rules of procedure and are not directly accountable to the public. They are more likely to be urged to cut housing programmes and social protection programmes to comply with the demands and economic theories of financial corporations and credit agencies.

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Research into the financialization of housing has focused on Australia, Europe and North America, where access to credit extends to a large portion of the population and where the majority of the "global cities" attracting capital in unprecedented quantity are located. Caution is needed, therefore, when examining the diverse experiences of financialization, in order to avoid generalizations about global patterns based on the particular circumstances in those cities.

The housing sector in the global South has not been subject to extensive financing of homeownership. Only about 17 per cent of the population in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia and Zambia, for example, would be eligible for mortgage finance based on existing criteria. Low-income, informal and indigenous communities have nevertheless experienced, first-hand, the power of financial corporations to appropriate land and real estate and to generate vast disparities in wealth by treating housing and land as commodities. Many local and national governments looking for capital investment have opted to sell land to major developers at the expense of indigenous and impoverished communities and those living in precarious housing.

Informal settlements in Southern cities are regularly demolished for luxury housing and commercial development such as shopping malls and other high-end services intended for those with expendable incomes. In Lagos, Nigeria, for example, 30, residents of the Otodo Gbame community were forcibly removed after their waterfront homes were set alight, allegedly related to luxury developments.

Many were left homeless. Elsewhere, when informal settlements are upgraded with infrastructure development and the granting of formal title and credit, they become subject to speculation and rising costs that force existing residents, particularly informal renters, out of the community. The real estate market in Mumbai, India, is now actively engaged in promoting speculative investment in informal settlements, where upgraded housing is attracting real estate speculation and price increases. Experiences of financialization in emerging economies demonstrate many commonalities with experiences in global cities.

In Malaysia, for example, the national mortgage corporation, Cagamas, originally established to promote access to affordable housing as a social policy, has been transformed into the single largest issuer of asset-backed securities in Malaysia, with more than 50 per cent of the market share, and with the goal to establish itself as a "leading securitization house in the region".

It has been at the centre of a significant expansion of homeownership modelled on the United States institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Republic of Korea experienced a fairly rapid transition to a financialized economy after the Asian financial crisis, when the International Monetary Fund bailout of Korean banks was made conditional on a restructuring programme of deregulation and privatization. While expanded access to mortgages has increased the rate of homeownership, the Republic of Korea now experiences greater inequality between rich and poor and has the highest level of household debt for any emerging country.

Extension of credit for housing has been largely restricted to higher income households in Cairo and Giza, and approximately 3 million homes have been left empty or unfinished by their owners in urban areas. Poverty continues to increase and more than 12 million people live in informal housing. In Mexico, mortgage securitization and other aspects of financialization have been adopted, beginning in , with the active involvement of the World Bank. However, the benefits of the housing boom and securitized mortgages have not extended to the households that are most in need.

Measures taken by the Government to stabilize the financial sector proved attractive to financial corporations, pension funds and private equity firms, which have become more significant actors in the Mexican housing market. In many developing and emerging economies, the World Bank and other international and regional financial institutions continue to actively promote the financialization of housing as the dominant strategy for addressing the critical need for housing, despite evidence that such strategies fail to provide housing options to the households that are most in need, and lead to greater socioeconomic inequality.

World Bank development programmes concentrate on what they consider to be the building blocks of housing finance such as title registration, foreclosure procedures, lending regulations, long-term funding instruments, and improving the liquidity of mortgage assets in order to reduce the costs of credit-risk underwriting for investors.

Those policies, combined in many cases with austerity measures that reduce social protection and housing programmes, have meant that development programmes frequently support the emergence of a financialized housing system that may be at odds with States' obligations to prioritize the needs of those in the most desperate circumstances. Financialization is made possible through the legal enforcement of agreements between lenders and borrowers.

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It relies on legal systems governing property rights, zoning laws and contracts and also on an increasingly complex system of international and regional treaties governing the terms and conditions of investments and government actions that may have an impact on profitability. The excessive financialization of housing is directly related to systemic patterns of inequality in investment treaties and in domestic law that fail to recognize the paramountcy of human rights over investor interests and deny access to justice for those whose right to housing is at stake. Ensuring meaningful accountability of financial institutions and private actors to the right to housing will require a significant transformation of current systems of law and accountability and new avenues of access to justice at the local, national and international levels.

There are currently almost 2, bilateral investment treaties in force and almost treaties with investment provisions. Provisions in investment treaties generally provide protection for investors from actions by States without imposing obligations on them to uphold human rights. Investors are guaranteed fair and equitable treatment, protection from direct or indirect expropriation and other protections and have access to an investor-State dispute settlement procedure to seek damages for breaches of those provisions. The effect of those protections is that investment in housing and real estate for the purposes of speculation and the accumulation of wealth becomes a protected "right", while government measures to regulate investment to protect the right to housing may be the basis for claims against States by private investors for massive damage awards.

Claims have recently been brought against the Dominican Republic and Panama, for example, on the basis that government decisions to cancel planned luxury developments in order to protect indigenous territories or environmental resources violated investors' rights under bilateral investment treaties.