This contribution by Michaela Kauer, director at the Brussels Office of the City of Vienna, is part of our #SocialEurope campaign, which showcases how progressive cities and regions are championing social progress, both through their inspiring vision and concrete action.
In June 2024, the citizens of the EU will decide on the course that Europe will take in the coming years - including in housing policy. So when the parties start their campaigns in the spring, the topic of housing cannot be left out for several reasons.
Housing, a pressing challenge all over Europe
2024 is the year in which the course will once again be set at European level, deciding the direction in which the European Union will take, not least for affordable housing for all. The European Parliament will be elected in June and the new European Commission will be constituted in autumn/winter. Before that, in March, the ministers for housing will meet in Liège under the Belgian EU Council Presidency, and in April 2024, the European Committee of the Regions will adopt a new opinion on housing.
Spring is therefore the perfect time to send out a strong signal in favour of affordable housing in Europe and a housing policy that serves the common good. This is the only way to ensure that, in the new mandate period, the EU puts up a strong protective shield against speculation in the European housing markets and launches an offensive for more public investment in affordable housing for its population.
Safe, healthy, adequate housing has often become unaffordable for many people in cities and regions across Europe in recent decades; the issue is now increasingly becoming a deciding factor in elections.
Trained Eurocrats know that housing is not a competence of the European Union, but that the organisation of housing policy lies with the Member States in the spirit of subsidiarity. However, the young employee in Barcelona who still lives with her parents because she can't find an affordable flat in the face of a flood of Airbnb is completely indifferent to this, as is the family from Bratislava who moves with their children across the border to an Austrian village because it is too expensive in the Slovakian capital. They want and need local solutions, where their families, friends and jobs are.
In recent years, citizens have therefore increasingly articulated the housing shortage, often side by side with tenant organisations, through citizens' initiatives, referendums, protest actions and even squats.
Equally, a number of initiatives highlighted solutions on European and Member State level, some of which led to action by the European Commission. It was often about protection against gentrification and speculative vacancies, often about the uncontrolled level of rents and the sell-off of public or social housing stock. And because the financialisation of housing markets has made ownership structures so opaque that tenants no longer know who owns the flat they live in, they seek help and advice from their mayors.
City leaders did what they could, as we saw during the coronavirus pandemic and later during the inflation and energy crisis, with a lot of courage for tough interventions, but even more by utilising their social budgets. However, it once again became clear that the limits of cities' and regions' ability to act are defined by national governance, but that the EU's regulatory framework also plays a significant role when it comes to the scope for cities and regions to shape housing policy.
The progressives fight to ensure #HousingForAll
WE ASK TO:
- improve the Recovery & Resilience Facility for housing, following 🇵🇹
- recognise social & affordable housing for all as service of general economic interest
- combat speculation with EU real estate transparency registry pic.twitter.com/iRFUcbidSr
— PES Group | European Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) October 7, 2023
The Europe-wide, even global alliance of citizens, cities and regions, social and affordable housing stakeholders, tenant organisations, the non-profit housing sector, science and academia has certainly led to the fact that for some years now - finally! - more attention has been paid to the issue of housing by the EU institutions.
The European Commission has just as certainly heard the voice of the other EU institutions, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Parliament, which are calling for action to tackle the housing crisis. And the realisation that the climate targets cannot be achieved without the cities and regions, particularly in the area of renovating building stock, has certainly helped to get things moving.
Making housing a priority at EU level
Parties would therefore do well to address all levels of responsibility for housing policy in their election manifestos, and even more so in their government programmes, if they are interested in finding real solutions for the many and want to be credible to their voters and citizens. In the debate on the future course of the European Union, it will be important to show who people believe when it comes to improving their living conditions, ensuring a good quality of life for future generations and social cohesion so that everyone has a good life.
The issue of housing is one that clearly shows where the EU can go. After all, securing housing as a human right means not just tweaking individual small screws, doing a little something for disabled people or single parents here, setting up a few programmes for the homeless and refugees there, while at the same time "forgetting" the protection and rights of tenants during the major wave of renovations to existing buildings.
Instead, a fundamental change in mind-set is required: Housing must serve the common good, i.e. be embedded in the context of inclusive, sustainable and productive urban development in line with the New Leipzig Charter from 2020. Under this premise, competition law, as recently called for by the EU housing ministers, must be designed to promote housing for broad sections of the population, the EU's economic governance must facilitate long-term public investment and EU funds and EIB financing must be channelled directly and more specifically to cities and regions.
The young employee in Barcelona, who still has to live in her old children's room, should hear a clear message for the EP elections in the coming months, just like the Slovakian family in the Austrian border village: Making housing affordable, safe and healthy for everyone can only be done by those political forces that ensure that they and their children can continue to live near their families in the future.
Progressives leading the way
Only those parties that are clearly pushing for a broad diversity in affordable forms of housing, that are in favour of socially, environmentally and economically sustainable investment in new construction and renovation, that have the courage to intervene at all levels of government in a distorted market can do this.
🏠 It is time for public investment in social housing. We need to make sure that affordable homes are available to all those in need.
As the short-term rental market booms, we need to strike the right balance between tourism and the needs of local communities. pic.twitter.com/tsgy3v0FqY
— PES 🌹🇪🇺 (@PES_PSE) August 23, 2023
Those political forces that are against more transparency in short-term tourist lettings, in real estate transactions, in criminal money laundering, that continue to open the door wide for institutional investors to ruthlessly seek ever more profit in our housing markets, should also be clearly named.
Because these are also the forces that continue to play the poorest of the poor off against each other when it comes to housing, that hand out social housing as a pity gift to those who "really deserve it", that stigmatise people when they make use of help, while profits continue to be made and extracted merrily on the housing markets, not least with public funds.
Housing for the common good is the project of the future for cities and regions, for states and for the European Union. It brings us social, environmental and economic sustainability by providing good, healthy and secure housing for all citizens, protecting the environment and keeping public investment in the system.
At the beginning of June, the young woman from Barcelona and the Slovakian family, like many others, should know who stands for making Europe a safe home for all.
Michaela Kauer, director at the Brussels Office of the City of Vienna, is a reknown expert on EU urban policy, social, public and affordable housing and public services with a strong gender equality focus. From 2015-2018, she was one of two coordinators of the EU Urban Agenda Partnership on Housing. She served as jury member for the European Responsible Housing Awards and as a member of the steering group of the Europe Housing Forum organised by Habitat for Humanity. Her academic background is with international public management, she regularly publishes on urban, housing and gender policy and teaches in academia.
© Photo credits: Sebastian Philipp