15 May 2020
Affordable housing for all: our common answer to COVID-19

Affordable housing for all: our common answer to COVID-19

During these last few months, lives have been impacted to various degrees all around the world. The halt in the economy has triggered unprecedented layoffs, leaving many citizens in a very difficult situation to afford their basic needs (such as housing) and worsening the situation of those who were already vulnerable before the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a considerable economic and social impact on many sectors in our society amongst which the sector of housing. In a way, this pandemic has exposed the already visible limitations of the housing systems in Europe. During the first phase of the lockdown period, when the population was asked to ‟stay at home” in order to prevent the virus from spreading, a position paper by Housing Europe rightly pointed out that ‟#StayAtHome is easier said than done” for a very large part of the EU's population.

On 18 March, Ms. Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, said that ‟Housing has become the front line defense against the coronavirus”. She was particularly worried about two vulnerable groups: “those living in emergency shelters, homelessness and informal settlements, and those facing job loss and economic hardship which could result in mortgage and rental arrears and evictions.”

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on homelessness is still unsettling, knowing that homeless people are ‟20 times more likely to be infected than the general population”. Living outside or in overcrowded shelters is not only a housing issue - it is also a health issue that we urgently need to address.

Overcrowded homes also subject many people to the risk of being evicted from their homes if they are not able to pay their rent or their mortgage. According to a study published by Eurostat in 2017, 26.5% of the EU’s population lives in an ‟owner-occupied home with a mortgage or loan” and ‟69.3% of the EU’s population lives in owner-occupied dwellings”.

By the end of 2020, many people will lose their jobs and many families – not only the currently already vulnerable ones – will suffer from the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. Housing will be among the main problems people will have to face across Europe. At the same time, adequate housing is a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to every citizen in the EU. Concrete solutions to guarantee that right must therefore be put into place.

 

Solidarity starts at home

To fight the negative impact of the virus in the housing sector, many EU Member States have adopted temporary measures to help the most vulnerable. Establishing these initiatives was of course extremely important. Many local and regional authorities have showed that solidarity often starts locally, where citizens live. In this regard, many progressive municipalities and regions have highlighted ambitious short-term solutions for the housing problem.

On 20 March, the Socialist-led Portuguese Government decided that evictions were to be suspended until further notice.

In Lisbon, all social housing rent payments are suspended until 30 June 2020. This measure benefits 24,000 families and 70,000 people and the amount that has not been charged can be repaid over a period of 18 months, free of interests and of charges.

In Belgium, the progressive cities of Charleroi and Liège applied for the federal subsidy granted to open places where sick homeless people can be safely sheltered and isolated. In the Brussels-Capital Region, two hotels with a combined capacity of 220 spaces have been hosting migrants who do not have access to official or associative housing services. In France, Johanna Rolland, Mayor of Nantes, has established a housing solidarity fund of more than €1 million to help people pay their housing rents.

Finally, the City of Vienna (Austria) has prohibited evictions in the private rental market sector during the coronavirus crisis. Those having difficulties paying their rent between April and June have until December 2020 to repay it, and eviction executions are postponed for three months on request of the tenant (to find new housing).

This is only a sample of some of the measures that progressive cities and regions have been implementing to overcome the impact of the COVID-19 in the housing sector in order to help citizens who need it the most.

These measures are vital and welcome but, unfortunately, cities and regions can only do so much. In many European countries, rent law is still a national competence, thus preventing cities and regions to act accordingly. Consequently, some cities and tenants are still under pressure, and many citizens risk being evicted when no solidarity measures are in place.

Even if housing is not an explicit EU competence, several EU initiatives or pieces of EU legislation are closely linked to the housing topic: the European Green Deal, State Aid rules, the Housing Partnership in the future EU Urban Agenda, the Digital Services Act, the EU Homelessness Strategy, measures in relation to energy poverty, the Funds under Cohesion policy and the InvestEU programme.  

For all these reasons, an EU Action Plan for affordable housing (enhanced with enough financial resources) is absolutely and urgently needed.

 

The key for a sustainable recovery for all: An EU Action Plan for Affordable Housing

If this crisis has proven anything – after almost three months of confinement – it is that affordable and adequate housing is an essential right that should help everyone. It is a human right and a key political priority for the PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions.

Already before the crisis, the lack of affordable housing affected around 82 million people in Europe and our population was overburdened with housing costs. Housing is a precondition for integration and for social participation, as it is by essence indispensable for our common well-being.

Unfortunately, the EU has not been ambitious enough in providing the necessary resources to overcome these challenges. According to the original Commission MFF proposal (2018), only €4 billion are foreseen for social infrastructure (which is not only reserved for housing) in the next InvestEU programme. The gap to correctly finance housing in Europe is estimated at €57 billion a year.

Therefore, we must take this opportunity to strengthen our housing sector and to implement a strong social component in order to attend to the needs of the vulnerable groups. This is not only important to recover efficiently from this crisis, but also to support inclusive and sustainable growth. Our housing system must become a key component of the European Green Deal and a major element in our fight for a more social and just Europe. More resources are needed. Likewise, the EU must put in practice a European Anti-Poverty Strategy and focus investments on ‟social infrastructure” in order to provide for decent and affordable housing, a European-wide programme to end homelessness, and a scheme to protect tenants from eviction in case of an economic shock or crisis.

Furthermore, it is also important to address other important issues such as domestic violence, namely the cases that occurred during the lockdown ‟due to social isolation, financial stress breakdown of community structures and to the lack of information or access to social support”.

As outlined above, progressive cities and regions have already showed their capacity to adapt and provide solutions. Cities such as Vienna have become a model of best practices for social housing in Europe and have taken a stance for more social justice at national level. Recently, its mayor and PES Group member, Michael Ludwig, has appealed to the national government to also protect tenants in the private rental sector, as this is a national competence.

Together with our sister Group in the European Parliament, our political family will continue to call for an EU Action plan for Affordable Housing, built on a strong future cohesion policy and part of the European Green Deal. Important steps have been taken already in the European Parliament with the launch of an own-initiative report on ‟Access to decent and affordable housing for all” (Estrella Durá Ferrandis/ES – Shadow rapporteur).

 

The next MFF must support actions and investments in line with this objective. Under a common EU roof, our answer must consist of offering affordable and sustainable housing for all and provide citizens across generations with one of the most basic and necessary needs for the years to come. And we are committed to fight for it.

 

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Photo by Adrian Dascal on Unsplash

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