Since the outbreak of COVID-19, ‘staying at home’ has become the main strategy to minimize the spread of the pandemic. Consequently, affordable housing with adequate living conditions has become a matter of life and death, which demonstrates why it is essential to prioritize the right to housing. What have cities done to secure adequate living conditions before and after COVID-19, and what should the EU do to help cities achieve a breakthrough in terms of affordable housing? Those were the questions guiding the Housing panel during the Municipalize Europe conference on November 05, 2020.

Lucia Martín, counselor at Barcelona City Hall and a previous housing activist, kicked off the session by sharing the observation that COVID-19 and the mandate to stay at home has turned houses into extremely important spaces. At the same time, however, rents in many European cities are rising to astronomical heights. Thus, there is a need to change the regulation of housing prices―Berlin, Paris and New York City have already attempted to do so.

Barcelona is joining the effort. The city owns a comparatively small stock of public housing but is working on increasing that, with 2000 housing units planned to be built next year alone. Furthermore, two regulations have been put into law: the first is the 30% rule, which mandates that 30% of all newly built homes and major renovation projects must become protected housing and have ceilings on rent prices. The second is a declaration designating the whole city as an area where the City Council has the right of first refusal, which gives the administration preferential purchase rights on plots of land and buildings.

A large problem Barcelona’s government has been fighting for five years are short-term tourist rentals through platforms such as Airbnb. Countering them is harder than one might think, since 9,000 of those renting out spaces to tourists have a license to do so that is in principle valid for a lifetime. It sometimes seems that the municipality is running out of tools to counter the misuse of living space, since most of the power to do so lies with the national  government―which is just one more case in favour of municipalism. But, as Lucia Martín ensured, Barcelona is far from giving up.

Michaela Kauer, director of the Brussels Liaison Office of the City of Vienna (‘Vienna House’), started her introductory intervention by sharing an observation of what the COVID-19 crisis and the 2008 financial crisis have in common: cities with a large share of social, public, cooperative or municipal housing and a strong regulation of the private sector seem to be coping better in both situations.  

Vienna is lucky in the regard that it never sold its public housing sector off like other cities did (or were forced to do). Sixty-four percent of the population of Vienna currently live in social, public, cooperative, or for-limited-profit housing, and, as Michaela Kauer noted, they are proud of that. To keep it that way, Vienna introduced a new zoning law in March 2019 that ensures that two-thirds of units of new urban development projects with a size of more than 5000 m2 have to be social housing, with a net rent of not more than €5 per square metre. She emphasized that a public housing stock―which hinges on publicly owned land―is the most important asset for a municipality to make effective housing policy. ‘Keep your land. Do not sell it off!’ she urged.

Lastly, she noted that taking housing seriously as a basic right means that ensuring participation from those affected is imperative. The best protection of tenants, apart from rent caps and regulations, is to create a level playing field between homeowners and tenants and support the latter in legal struggles. She further made a case for unlimited contracts, saying that in that case people will have a feeling of ownership of the place where they live.

Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, used her introductory intervention to build a strong case for a human rights-based approach to ensure adequate housing for people in cities across Europe and the world. ‘Cities didn’t get a choice in that the crisis happened, but they do have a choice on how to react,’ she declared. The pandemic has shown that even the richest cities have alarming rates of homelessness which increase proportionally with wealth, and the most vulnerable―migrants and refugees―are often hit the worst. That is a denial of human rights and shows that the current system is simply not working. It cries for a new, more sustainable approach.

Leilani Farha advocates for a human rights-based approach to housing because it focuses on people and households rather than on finance and markets. Cities do not usually want their population to be homeless, and from her own work in Canada she learned that there is a huge appetite for a human rights-based way forward. Cities can use the international human rights obligations framework as leverage to pressure national governments into more accountability.

In a final note on the EU, Leilani criticized that EU officials often claim that housing is outside their scope. This is wrong, she argued, because the issue of housing cannot be considered isolated from others. Topics such as migration, austerity politics or finances are all core EU issues that interfere with housing.

Kim van Sparrentak, European Parliament rapporteur on affordable housing in the EU and member of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, is the living example that housing and the EU belong together. She is responsible for the European Parliament’s Report on Access to decent and affordable housing for all. Agreeing with Leilani Farha’s criticism of the EU, she added that she can quote at least ten EU laws that prevent cities from providing their citizens with more affordable housing. Her report found that more than 700,000 people in Europe sleep rough every night while more than 80 million struggle to pay rent―and these are numbers from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

European policy is not helping: ‘The right to make a lot of profit with housing has a stronger fundament in European regulation than the right to have a roof over your head,’ she noted. The pandemic made the situation worse, but also drew more attention to the issue as the need to go into lockdown put a spotlight especially on homelessness, which is often neglected or, in some member states, even criminalised. Among other actions, her report is calling for setting a European goal to eradicate homelessness by 2030. This means that the EU commission would need to create an action plan and might also propose a framework for a national homelessness strategy which would mean that every member state has to propose a national plan for reaching that goal.

The second action the report calls for is increased effort to fight evictions and halt the rising financialisation of the housing sector, which is reflected in phenomena such as cities selling off their social housing to make their budget look better. Kim van Sparrentak also calls for more transparency on real estate owners, highlighting that many tenants do not even know who owns their accommodation. She further emphasized the need to prioritize the green deal with a special focus on social housing which has a lot of potential for renovation, but to also be careful not to take that as an excuse for gentrification.

Kim van Sparrentak closed her remarks by stating that although she is pro-European, she proposes to allocate more power to local authorities because they know best what their inhabitants need. She thus advocates for putting EU power back into the hands of the cities.

 After their interventions, the speakers engaged in discussions with each other and the audience. Part of the debate centred around the EU recovery fund that, unfortunately, does not foresee the possibility of member states setting aside part of its funding to go directly to cities and regions, as Kim van Sparrentak noted. Michaela Kauer criticized that cities, despite being highly affected, do not have a seat at the table when EU regulations are designed, do not have access to funding and are oftentimes not allowed to combine different sources of funding. In October, more than 50 cities signed a letter demanding direct access to the recovery fund to help them achieve climate neutrality. 

Leilani Farha called for a better integration of housing and migration policies in order to ensure that migrants do not end up in homelessness or migration policies fail due to a lack of adequate housing. Many refugees flee from human rights violations and are then met with renewed human rights violations when they are denied adequate housing in the cities where they seek asylum.

Finally, the discussion moved to the question of how to ensure public housing stock. Leilani Farha suggested that municipalities should buy assets quickly as soon as they come on the market before private companies can do so.

The need to discard market-based solutions and move to alternatives became crystal-clear during the sessions. Or, in Michaela Kauer’s words: ‘Housing is a right. The market does not deliver. Therefore, intervention in the market is necessary.’

The full video of this session of the Municipalise Europe! event can be found here.