Activists gathered on Wednesday in cities across the United States, Japan and Europe to protest the global buy-up of housing by private equity giant Blackstone, which they say systematically buys distressed mortgages and subsidized housing then forces homeowners and tenants out.
It's part of a ruthless strategy by the multinational to capitalize on the instability created by the world financial crisis at the expense of ordinary people, they say — pointing to comments made in 2010 by Blackstone's CEO Steve Schwarzman about the firm's strategy in Europe. "We're basically waiting to see how beaten up people's psyches get, and where they're willing to sell assets," he said, following the global crash. "You want to wait until there's really blood in the streets."
The focus of the coordinated demonstration was on Spain, where Blackstone has bought up almost 100,000 distressed mortgages from Catalunya Bank. The bank received a 12 billion euros ($15.4 billion) bail-out from Spanish taxpayers in the wake of the financial crash.
Protestors say that despite making promises to do so, Blackstone is not entering into negotiations with homeowners who need to restructure their mortgages and a wave of evictions that began last year is set to continue. During the first half of this year 18,739 evictions took place across Spain — an average of 116 per day.
The protest was coordinated between American housing justice network, the Right to the City Alliance, and the Spanish Platform Against Evictions, or PAH.
"The tactic of Blackstone is to evict families, or raise the rents once old leases expire or tenants leave due to their bullying," said PAH representative Carlos Macias.
Blackstone, along with investment bank Goldman Sachs, has also bought up large quantities of rent-controlled housing from cash-strapped local governments in Barcelona and Madrid.
"The main aim of the PAH is to denounce the dramatic situation faced by thousands of families who are unable to pay their mortgages and are facing foreclosure and evictions as a result of the financial fraud of 2008. We seek to make housing fair and accessible to all," said Macias.
"Blackstone, Blackstone Don't Take Away Homes," was chanted by protestors at the group's headquarters in Dublin, while banners in London read "Blackstone Evicts."
In Atlanta a letter was delivered to Blackstone's office demanding that the group "stop buying occupied, foreclosed, or subsidized homes, stop unjust evictions, make rent more affordable, improve conditions, and stop discrimination against people of color."
Across the campaigning cities, there was a drive to jam Blackstone's phone lines, and to speak to or email Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman directly with the message:
"Mr. Schwarzman, I stand with Blackstone tenants and community organizations around the world. Stop buying up our foreclosed homes and public housing, stop all your unjust evictions and make your rents affordable. I support this important struggle and will not let up until you meet the tenants' demands. Homes are NOT a commodity!"
Online, the campaign tweeted with the hashtag #stopblackstone. "Shame on you @blackstone! Evicting families from their homes!" tweeted one PAH activist. Another wrote "Our homes are not a commodity. Stop speculating with them."
VICE News spoke to Mick Byrne, part of the contingent at Blackstone's Dublin headquarters. The representative of Irish collective Housing Action Now said the turnout was a "symbolic show of solidarity". He said the coordinated action was designed to demonstrate that different social movements connected in their drive to raise awareness of the actions of Blackstone in the housing market.
Blackstone has not yet made inroads into the Irish housing market, looking instead at commercial real estate. But Byrne said there was concern over its longer-term motives in Ireland, referencing Schwarzman's 2010 comments on Blackstone's post crash plans for Europe.
After saying the firm was waiting until there was really "blood in the streets," the CEO referred to Ireland directly. "They just set up a massive RTC," he said, referring to the US government agency Resolution Trust Corporation, that liquidated mostly real estate assets seized during that country's savings and loan crisis. "They barely know what they own."
For Byrne, the purpose of the protest in Dublin was also to highlight the activities of so-called vulture funds in Ireland, which he said had bought up 10,000 distressed mortgages in the country as well as swathes of rental apartments. This is partly to blame for a housing crisis that has seen the number of homeless families in Dublin double each year since 2012.
Blackstone is not the only financial institution benefiting from the sell-off of assets by governments seeking to rid themselves of debt taken on in the wake of the crash. But it is the largest. It owns assets worth over $30 billion across its various interests, and its net profits last year were $1.5 billion.
At the time of writing, no representative of Blackstone had yet met the request to speak at any of the locations where protests took place.
Follow Cat McShane on Twitter: @CatMcShane
Cover photo by Keegan Stephan. Follow Keegan on Twitter at @KeeganNYC