Timely European Parliament initiative on housing for all

21 January 2021

On any given night 700,000 people are sleeping rough in Europe.

Meanwhile, over 80 million people in the EU are overburdened by housing costs, and some 10% of the EU population spend at least 40% of their income on housing.

The numbers are clear. Europe’s housing crisis is real.

That’s why a report passed today in the European Parliament on ‘Access to Decent and Affordable Housing for All’ is so timely. Led by Kim van Sparrentak MEP, the report outlines proposals to tackle the housing crisis in Europe alongside concrete policy and legislative measures Europe should take to transform the situation and ensure that housing is decent, affordable, and accessible for all.

It’s a timely report given the oncoming economic downturn, a consequence of the pandemic, that is putting more financial pressure on people dealing with job losses, household indebtedness and the risk of eviction.

It’s timely following news this week of migrants facing freezing conditions in shelters.

Moreover, it’s also timely because, as a recent Eurocities report on housing and homelessness has shown, even pre-pandemic, a lack of access to affordable and social housing was already putting new groups of Europeans at risk of poverty and social exclusion.

Of course, housing is an especially relevant issue to cities – in short because cities house the majority of people. However, there are myriad connected challenges that cities face.

As was highlighted by Kim van Sparrentak MEP in yesterday’s European Parliament plenary session, many cities, such as Vienna, are the forefront of debates on how the digital economy impacts housing. Consider short term holiday rentals available through the likes of AirBnB, for instance. While the platform economy brings obvious benefits – in this instance cheap holidays, income for the property owner – it can also come at a cost, for example by limiting the availability of housing stock and increasing rental values for local residents.

Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, who was invited to speak at the opening of the plenary, similarly recognised the role of cities in mitigating the housing crisis, by calling on EU member states to include building renovation in recovery plans, establish local public-private partnerships and put more efforts on Housing First approach

With the current national and EU focus on recovery plans, now is an opportunity to link initiatives: the promised renovation wave, for example, offers an opportunity to boost local jobs and benefit communities.

And there are many examples from cities that offer a great model for tackling homelessness, such as the Housing First approach. The idea behind Housing First puts the right to housing at the forefront of the city’s strategy to combat homelessness. It has been practices by many cities, such as Lyon, for several years. However, the recent experience of the pandemic shows that there may be even greater capacity to house many more people.

One of the greatest needs is around affordable and social housing. Barcelona provides a good example of how city councils can both shape and work with the private market to meet social housing needs. In 2018 the city mandated that 30% of new residential construction must be in the form of social housing, which not only shares responsibility for creating affordable housing with the private sector, but gives the city preferential acquisition and dampens the trend of housing speculation.

Bilbao has created a ‘Solidary Youngster Programme’ which targets postgraduate students from the three universities located in Bilbao. Students benefit from shared social housing with subsidised rent from the city. In exchange they play an active role in developing local initiatives and projects for improving the quality of housing, combating deprivation and social exclusion in the neighbourhood.

Utrecht is looking after some of its most vulnerable citizens: each year the city signs a performance agreement with the social housing organisations to provide houses for homeless and people living in shelter with mental issues.

In fact, being able to provide decent, accessible and affordable housing to all residents has become such a priority for European cities, which are trying to cope with years of under investment in social infrastructure, that it is the top issue represented in Eurocities current political initiative, ‘Inclusive Cities 4 All’ in which more than 40 major European cities have so far made financial commitments to improve social rights. Over one third of these commitments were made in the field of housing and homelessness, representing over €2.5bn of investments over the next five years, demonstrating a major issue facing Europe.

It can be done, with concerted action across all levels of government. Europe has the ingenuity, the financial means and building capacity to meet this urgent need.