Protect essential workers in housing crisis

28 September 2023

The housing crisis is worsening. Housing affordability is becoming an increasingly growing concern in urban areas throughout Europe where property costs are rising much faster than people’s incomes.

According to the European Commission’s 2023 report into the State of Housing in Europe, from 2010 until the end of 2022, average rents increased by 19% in the EU and house prices by 47%, with house price growth consistently outpacing growth in incomes.

For essential workers, such as healthcare professionals, teachers and social workers, the situation has become particularly challenging. In our cities, they often face unique economic difficulties when it comes to finding affordable and adequate housing.

Despite delivering essential face-to-face services, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, many receive relatively low wages. On top of their already busy and stressful work lives, this can place them under huge financial pressure when combined with the current rise in inflation, soaring food and energy costs, and the ever increasing rise in rents.

Housing for all: cities call for renewed EU ambition

These challenges for essential workers and those facing many other vulnerable people in European society were highlighted at an event in the European Parliament last week.

Organised by Lyon Metropole, Eurocities, the Urban Intergroup of the European Parliament, FEANTSA and Housing Europe, the Housing For All event brought together city representatives and MEPs who issued a fresh call for renewed ambition at the EU level to ensure that everyone in Europe has access to affordable and decent housing.

Political representatives from across Europe took part in the Housing For All meeting at the European Parliament. Photo © Housing Europe.

Ahead of next year’s European elections, mayors and deputy mayors from European cities focused on the difficulties faced by essential workers, stressing that local governments require greater political and financial support from the EU to tackle the ongoing crisis.

The meeting came after Eurocities and several NGOs last year presented a 10-point plan to a gathering of national housing ministers in Nice, which called for an end to housing exclusion.

Speaking at the Parliament event, Nathalie Guri, Projects and Knowledge and Sharing Director at Eurocities, stressed that the sharp increase in property prices has led to greater inequalities in European cities.

It is common for households to allocate 50% or more of their income to rent
— Nathalie Guri, Projects and Knowledge and Sharing Director at Eurocities

“Social housing options are often limited, and it is common for households to allocate 50% or more of their income to rent,” said Nathalie Guri. “To find more affordable housing, many people are forced to live far away from their workplace, essential services and social support networks, putting huge financial and social strain on them.”

A serial urban housing crisis

One of the cities where housing inequality has soared is Milan. In the past eight years house prices have almost doubled, while the average income of the city’s inhabitants has only grown by 5%. According to various studies, Milan is the Italian city with the highest inequality in income distribution, with about 40% of its neighbourhoods no longer affordable for a family with an average income.

Speaking at the Parliament event, Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan Deputy Mayor for Housing and Neighbourhood Planning, explained that there has been a major migration of young people and workers from southern Italy to Milan, due to a lack of job opportunities in the south.

Low salaries in Milan represent a major problem. People leave because they cannot afford to work and live in the city
— Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan Deputy Mayor for Housing and Neighbourhood Planning

“However, low salaries in Milan represent a major problem. People leave because they cannot afford to work and live in the city,” said Maran. He stressed that local authorities do not have access to the specific tools needed to slow down the increase in rental housing prices, while there are issues with over tourism pushing up housing prices.

The challenges faced by frontline workers were reiterated by Lenka Antalová Plavuchová, Bratislava Deputy Mayor in charge of City Public Housing and Social Policies. According to the 2023 Property Index Report of European Residential Markets, Bratislava is the second least affordable city in Europe, with a significant mismatch between income levels and housing prices.

“Bratislava should be a city accessible to everyone,” said Plavuchová. “But the public housing is only 1% and there are no affordable flats for residents, due to the massive privatisation of the housing stock.”

She stressed that there is a serial social crisis in the city, while there are no financial tools being provided by the EU or at the national level to support the development of public housing.

Speaking about the major increase in Irish prices over the past decade, Alison Gilliland, Dublin City Councillor, said that the current severe shortage of affordable rental stock in Dublin has left frontline workers and their families facing soaring rents and overcrowding.

“There are long waiting lists for social housing, and in Dublin, on average 50-60% of the salary goes on rent,” said Gilliland. She explained that the city’s local government is working on various strategies to tackle the situation, including working with developers and supporting the renovation of derelict buildings.

“Housing is a human right, not a luxury”

Despite the ongoing crisis, local administrations are working hard to improve the housing situation in their cities.

Sergej Kara, Bratislava Social Affairs Department Director, explained that “housing is a human right, not a luxury” and stressed that the city is working to increase the amount of social housing being built. He said that the city issued an open call for owners to rent flats to the city’s local government which can then be distributed to tenants in need.

We need to cooperate with the private sector to build more social housing units, more quickly
— Sergej Kara, Bratislava Social Affairs Department Director

“There is a vulnerable group of citizens, including frontline workers, who are in need of housing from the city,” said Kara. “We need to communicate to people that building social housing in front of their houses is not a problem, and we need to cooperate with the private sector to build more social housing units, more quickly.”

Pierfrancesco Maran, Milan Deputy-Mayor, said that the city is in the process of approving a new strategy for housing, which includes significant plans to improve the city’s social housing situation.

“During the last decade, the average duration for people to stay in public housing has been 42 years, while we have spent more on the renovation of flats than what we get from rents,” he said. “20% of publicly owned flats need to be renovated, which is why we are looking at the development of a project to retrofit these flats and allow people to rent them at affordable prices.”

Speaking to those in attendance, Alison Gilliland, Dublin City Councillor, made it clear that “housing is a common good for everybody” and is crucial for social and economic cohesion and building a prosperous European Union.

Highlighting the next meeting of housing ministers, taking place in Gijon in November, she stressed the need for a European Housing Fund, which can be accessed by subnational governments, including larger municipalities.

She concluded: “If people do not have a secure and affordable roof above their heads, how can they engage with a just and green transition? ”


Andrew Kennedy Eurocities Writer