Housing is one of the policy areas where people tend to say that the European Union has no power to intervene. However, last October, when the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, presented the Commission's new strategy for the renovation of buildings for the first time, it became obvious that housing not only could, but must, be at the core of Europe’s recovery and a key element for delivering a climate-neutral Europe that leaves no one behind:
The Renovation Wave strategy can be considered one of the most ambitious pillars of the European Green Deal. Built on six key measures that range from strengthening regulations to creating green jobs, from ensuring funding to developing affordable housing, and from expanding sustainable construction to carrying out new architectural projects, the strategy aims to at least double renovation rates in the next ten years and make sure renovations lead to higher energy and resource efficiency.
As Europe finds itself in the midst of battling the pandemic, the Renovation Wave is of course becoming a crucial part of building back better cities and regions, focusing also on affordable, decent and sustainable housing.
As more than 100 local, regional, national, and European leaders stated in an article published in October by the PES Group, “the housing issue interconnects with three other major crises that need to be tackled simultaneously: the social crisis, the climate crisis and the economic crisis" . The Renovation Wave gives an opportunity to provide answers to these three crises, but how?
Social, climate and economic crises: what can the Renovation Wave do?
The Renovation Wave strategy has the potential to tackle social inequalities, the climate crisis and the economic recovery at the same time. A few key figures give a clear picture of the scale of the challenge Europe that is facing and in which the Renovation Wave can play a key role.
The social dimension
85 million Europeans are overburdened by housing costs. This means that they spend 40% of their disposable income to pay for their home. According to a study by FEANTSA, “inequality between poor and non-poor households regarding the proportion of their budget spent on housing has increased significantly over the last five years in Ireland, Estonia, Portugal, Germany, Denmark, and Greece. (...) Such an overburden threatens the security and wellbeing of the household. This is what is meant by ‘housing cost overburden rate’".
The Renovation Wave must address the social dimensions of housing policy: tackling energy poverty and rising living costs, improving living conditions and well-being for all, and empowering local communities to play an active role in renovations.
The climate dimension
It is estimated that 40% of the EU’s energy consumption is accounted for by buildings, which also cause 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. If one third of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the energy our buildings consume, it is clear that to achieve the objective of climate neutrality by 2050, as the European Union has set as a goal, the building sector has a major role to play.
However, only 1% of buildings are renovated each year. At this rate, a climate-neutral Europe would seem an unrealistic scenario.
The Renovation Wave must support the objectives of the European Green Deal and contribute to the EU’s ambitious climate targets by cutting buildings emissions and promoting clean, smart and cost-efficient buildings to meet Europe’s 2050 climate neutrality target.
The economic dimension
The construction sector employs approximately 18 million workers, 95% of whom work in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the construction sector hard; it was already under strain with the environmental transition.
The EU Green Deal will be at the centre of Europe’s economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. With the Renovation Wave’s objective to double the rate of renovation, upgrading 35 million buildings by 2030, Europe has the opportunity to create up to 160,000 additional green jobs in the construction sector.
The Renovation Wave can also help provide green and digital training opportunities for the workforce, with targeted measures to support skills and employment strategies, both for current students and the professional workforce.
Progressive regions and cities very much want a social, inclusive and sustainable Renovation Wave
The PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions had the opportunity to lead the debate within the Committee on the Renovation Wave, thanks to the work of Enrico Rossi, local councillor from Signa (Italy) and former President of the Tuscany Region.
In the opinion entitled “A Renovation Wave for Europe - greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives”, Rossi highlighted several key aspects of this strategy, from the urban dimension to the environmental and social ones. His opinion, adopted by the assembly unanimously, calls for:
giving local and regional authorities a key role in the Renovation Wave, by guaranteeing that building renovation meets land-use and town planning requirements, promotes policies to counter depopulation and is in line with social equity and green criteria;
ensuring a greater role for the Renovation Wave in the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF), at the heart of the Recovery Plan, and in the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), adding that coordination is essential for avoiding separate and inefficient measures;
making sure cities and regions are at the centre of the strategy, as its success will depend on sustainability and feasibility at local and regional level, proposing a flexible framework that takes into account, for example, the differences between rural areas and large cities, but also gives local and regional authorities technical assistance, with a strengthened and decentralised model of the European Local ENergy Assistance, the ELENA facility;
strengthening local energy communities and making sure people are allowed to become “prosumers”, so they are able to not only consume but also produce energy, thus tackling energy poverty in Europe through decentralised energy production and incentives;
creating measures to avoid “renovictions” (evictions by renovation), as they are called by the International Union of Tenants. “As renovation costs can be passed on to the tenants in most European Member States, renovation often contributes to the displacement of residents and the gentrification of entire quarters. Affordability in renovation means that rent increases are fully balanced by energy-savings. The model of housing cost neutrality thus combines social and climate goals in an ideal way and prevents renovictions”, warns the IUT.
fostering circular economy processes in the building sector, paying attention to the reuse and recycling of materials;
paying greater attention to the linking the strategy with a conceptual, aesthetics-oriented and design-oriented framework, therefore welcoming the New European Bauhaus initiative as an opportunity to harness the creative potential of regions and cities and renew neighbourhoods;
focusing on social housing renovation as a key target for the Renovation Wave and local and regional authorities, also welcoming the launch of the European initiative for affordable housing by funding 100 innovative and participatory flagship projects;
providing more support for the construction sector, severely affected by the crisis and often involving small businesses, which are not always well equipped to offer the required products and services. The construction sector should be helped to overcome gaps in knowledge, skills and technology, protecting employment and ensuring a gradual restructuring of the workforce.
In a debate with European Commissioner Kadri Simson at the European Committee of the Regions’ plenary session in March, Rossi said:
He also recalled the difficult aspect of finance, because the resources needed to make the Renovation Wave a success were there, but needed to be used in a coordinated, strategic manner:
Our member, Juan Espadas, Mayor of Seville and Chair of the Committee’s Commission for Environment and the Green Deal Working Group, added:
The Renovation Wave is a great opportunity for cities and regions to improve people’s well-being, implement the right of everyone to have affordable, accessible and healthy housing, in accordance with Principle 19 of the European Pillar of Social Rights and in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 on “Sustainable cities and communities”, fight the climate crisis, tackle energy poverty, create new green jobs and foster the recovery. It is an opportunity that cannot be missed and that, as progressives we must shape in a social, inclusive and sustainable way.