Making a house a home

Too many people with nowhere to live, and too many empty houses – if you had to choose two problems to have, these might seem like good candidates for a pair that would solve each other. However, as local newspapers are often quick to point out, cities all over Europe are beset by both of these problems, and the seemingly obvious solution proves to be difficult to bring into being.

Evidence, not speculation

The city of Strasbourg has spent a lot of time working on this problem, and it may have hit upon a solution. But why does the problem exist in the first place? Genevieve Brun, the project director of Strasbourg’s housing department made it her mission to find out. “The Ministry of Economy and Finance produces a list of vacant homes. We sent letters to the owners who appeared on the list and arranged to interview them.” Genevieve explained. Through these meetings, she and her team identified the main reasons that owners were leaving their properties vacant, rather than putting them on the rental market.

Confusion reigns

Previously, the dominant view was that such homes were owned by groups of people that couldn’t agree on use, or that ownership of these properties was in dispute, but neither of these turned out to be the case in most instances. Paule Pflieger, project manager at the Strasbourg Eurométropole explains: “most of the people concerned are small landlords, aged around 60.” By ‘small landlords’ Paule means people owning only one or two properties.

These people are leaving their properties empty because “they fear issues with unpaid rent, degradation of the rental property” and having to engage with “heavy administrative procedures.” The city has systems in place to deal with all of these issues, but for most people, especially the elderly, these systems are just too complex. There is “a lack of readability for the existing systems,” Paule says. In some cases, the owners had initially been renting the property, but had then run into difficulties. Sometimes issues with tenants had been difficult to resolve; sometimes problems with the building had required work which the owners could not afford.

Once the city understood the issue, it moved to the solution. The local administration created a ‘toolbox’ a set of easy-to-understand documents and easy-to-access financial assistance to help people figure out and act on their options. The city now offers free advice on figuring out the value of a property, its heritage significance, and what kind of grants owners could be eligible for. If landlords are having trouble connecting with new tenants, the National Habitat Agency will help to find some, and if landlords are having trouble with current tenants, that same agency will act as an intermediary.

Paid to make money

The eurometropole provides grants of up to €3,000 to incentivise owners to put their homes on the market. It does this on a ‘half now, half later’ basis, paying out up to €1,500 when owners take their property out of vacancy and offer it as social housing, and an additional €1,500 if the tenancy lasts for at least two years. As it is each municipality within Strasbourg Eurometropole that is responsible for paying this money, different municipalities have elected to go with different systems. The municipality of Vendenheim, for example, allocates the entire grant, while Schiltigheim has opted to cap its grant at €200 to allow landlords to pay for rental risk insurance.

The city has also helped to negotiate special rates with banks, some of which are now offering zero-interest loans to owners specifically for the purpose of carrying out work to improve their buildings and make them suitable for tenants. For those owners who are having difficulty finding people to carry out such work, the city has compiled a list of companies, classified by the types of services they offer and the areas they operate in.

Keeping it in the community

To make sure that potential landlords understand all of the information, services and grants that are on offer, each municipality hold a regular Saturday morning event where owners can meet each other and service providers and talk about any issues or confusion they have.

“This experiment has enlightened us on the importance of leading the process at the community level,” Paule says. “There is often a strong proximity between the vacant housing and the main residence of the owner. The capacity of action of the municipality is therefore stronger than that of the metropolis in the sense that it knows the owner. Personal accompaniment is the key, as well as adapting our services.”

A basic right

Unlike the owners, tenants do not have the laws of supply and demand on their side. The city is dealing with over 22,000 applicants for social housing, and it has to find a way to make sure that each of the people behind these applications receive that basic right. Genevieve gave one example of the many people whose lives have been transformed by this project. “Recently we worked with an owner whose building was vacant for several years. We advised him to rent it with a social real estate agency. After a year and a half in the asylum system, a family was able to access this accommodation. This first home has allowed them to find stability in a quiet and welcoming residential area of Strasbourg, and the mother has found a job in the local supermarket. It was a great experience for the owner, and now he is about to put more of his property back on the market.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer