23rd Sep 2021


The EU's social housing crisis

  • Affordable options are further melting away, by member states' intentions to privatise the existing social housing stock (Photo: dimnikolov)

Sky-rocketing house prices that outstrip incomes have been the tough reality for many, and Covid-19 is increasingly making the proportion of the population in dire need of affordable housing even larger.

The 2021 State of Housing in Europe report outlines that the share of Italian tenant households with arrears on rent payment in the private rental sector has jumped from less than 10 percent, to 24 percent, in just one year since the start of the pandemic.

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In the Czech Republic, one-in-four tenants fear they would have to leave their current home in the next 12 months. Social housing production decreased by 40 percent in Ile-de-France in 2020, while demand has increased by 30,000 applications - totalling 750,000.

At the same time, council housing waiting lists in England already count 1.1 million households, and could be set to nearly double to 2 million households next year.

Evidence shows unambiguously a link between overcrowding and mortality - and that as little as a five-percent increase of households living in poor housing conditions can result in 50-percent higher risk of incidence, and 42-percent chance of losing, the battle with the coronavirus. Tonight, 700,000 people in Europe will not have a roof over their head.

In the meantime, affordable options are further melting away by national intentions to privatise the existing social housing stock.

Privatising housing stock

In Hungary for instance a proposed amendment of the housing law insists municipalities sell their housing units to inhabitants at 10-30 percent of the market price, a decision that would "further deepen the current urban housing crisis and increase already existing housing inequalities", a petition to raise awareness by Habitat for Humanity in Hungary stresses.

The enormous appetite to maximise profit with housing benefits only a few. Leaving the housing market to regulate itself, simply increasing the supply of housing or short-term financial boosts have in a way led to where we are today.

If we would have to bet on a single winning approach to a working housing policy, that would certainly be a genuine, long-term, political commitment to improve housing in Europe.

To work seamlessly and effectively, the European Housing (Finance) Alliance will work on aligning better finance with better knowledge.

The alliance will allow the EU-27's local, regional and national leaders and the social, affordable housing sector to master the blending of available EU funding. And the available amounts are not negligible.

Big money available

The EU cohesion policy of €377bn will continue to invest in social infrastructure and providing basic and social services to citizens through the European Regional Development Funds and European Social Funds, and an increased amount in the new seven-year EU budget is available in investing in sustainable neighbourhoods.

The Just Transition Mechanism will assure that no one is left behind in the green transition with an overall of at least €100bn budget. The new InvestEU is going to support affordable social and student housing with €16.6bn.

Finally, the Recovery and Resilience Facility's €560bn budget gives the possibility to the EU-27 to invest more in the sector, making the link with national energy and climate plans, as well as fulfilling the recommendations of the European Semester.

While there are amounts that can be a quite large proportion of GDP in some member states, there are also significant gaps in investment.

In Flanders, the total amount for recovery for the entire region is not sufficient to renovate the social housing stock. Similarly, the Dutch recovery plan would be enough to improve only buildings in E, F or G class - but not B, C or D.

The European Housing (Finance) Alliance's second major asset will be the exchange of knowledge. There are hundreds of ideas, projects, ideas, energy coming from the affordable, community-led, social housing sector that build communities, improve livelihood and fight homelessness.

There is no excuse for policymakers not to step in and recognise these projects, without putting them in direct competition with big bidders.

One might think that there might be short-term loss of returns. Having affordable housing stock that remains accessible in the future, however, provides a significant payback in terms of people investing in the economy, living in a more-inclusive society and having a resilient youth and ageing population.

As the Portuguese minister for infrastructure & housing, Pedro Nuno Santos, concluded his country's EU presidency's housing conference with the words: "if we can assume, and we are assuming, that housing is the biggest challenge we have for the next decades, we have to be consequent and put the money where the mouth is at the moment. If we want Europeans to support the European project, they have to feel that it goes directly to their needs and concerns.

"So, if housing is a problem in all European countries, we also need a European answer. That's the time to go out from the papers & take concrete actions. Let's make real policy."

Author bio

Sorcha Edwards is secretary general of Housing Europe, the European Federation of public, cooperative, and social housing providers in Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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