The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing housing policy issues such as affordability and homelessness. Although European cities and countries have some measures in place to protect tenants, experts say it is time for Europe to develop long-term solutions.
House prices have been rising steadily since 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund, and things have only gotten worse during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has brought the housing crisis to light,” said Kim van Sparrentak, a Dutch lawmaker who last year wrote a report “on access to decent and affordable housing for all” on behalf of the group of Greens in the European Parliament.
“More and more people cannot afford decent accommodation from Warsaw to Athens, from Dublin to Lisbon. Across Europe, house prices rose 7% last year. In the Netherlands at 16, ”she told delegates at the 2021 European Housing Forum.
The problem is growing in the former communist countries of the EU which were once the leaders in social housing. A study by Deloitte recently showed that apartment costs in Visegrád countries – Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – reached 12 times the average annual salary.
The housing crisis is particularly acute in Prague, the Czech capital. “We have a great affordability crisis,” said Štepán Ripka from Prague City Hall. The reason is simple ; the city does not have enough apartments. Ripka pointed out that in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution, the city had more than 200,000 apartments. Today, he only has 30,000.
“We are trying to stop the privatization of the municipal real estate stock, but it is still not prohibited. There are municipalities which are still privatizing ”.
What the blockages have shown us
When the coronavirus pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, governments introduced measures to slow the spread of the virus, including stay-at-home orders.
For some this meant staying in overcrowded apartments unsuitable for accommodation while others simply had no accommodation at all.
“Anti-epidemic measures have led to one of the most dramatic scenes since the end of World War II, with even the most populous towns and squares emptied. At the same time, it was one of the most cynical situations when it was recommended that homeless people or people living in crowded places stay at home, ”said Doris Andoni, Chair of the Development Committee. of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). , Housing and Land Use Planning.
After the start of the pandemic, homelessness suddenly became a health problem that cities and governments had to tackle.
Many of them have opted for temporary shelters for the homeless. Some even used the free space in hotels. But as Andoni noted, these measures were only temporary. On the contrary, they pointed out that European companies had done little to address the problem before the pandemic.
In some cities, housing problems are also due to the widespread use of apartments as short-term accommodation for tourists.
Even before the pandemic, studies found that services like Airbnb had negative effects on house prices and rents. In Lisbon, for example, many neighborhoods were more than a third occupied by short-term housing. In some parts of the city, around 55% of the residential units have been converted into makeshift hostels and hotels.
Who is to blame
Cities are an essential actor in housing policy, yet it is the national ministries in charge of social affairs which are responsible for defining them.
In the Czech Republic, this is where the government has failed, says Ripka. To be fair, he said it was not just the fault of the current or previous government, but rather the constant neglect of the topic.
Dutch MEP Kim van Sparrentak adds that the European Union has long been absent from housing issues, although its policies have had an impact on the development of house prices.
“The Capital Markets Union serves as an accelerator for the financialization of the housing market,” she said, adding that “European budgetary rules limit the money the government can invest in social housing”.
With its Economic Policy Coordination Semester, the EU has “a powerful tool to guide the economic and social policies” of EU member states, said van Sparrentak. “Yet the Commission has recommended for years to reduce the Dutch housing program,” she added.
In addition, she says the authorities have limited impact because in contemporary Europe market forces prevail.
“Housing is a human right. This should be a starting point for housing policy, ”van Sparrentak continued. It is also the basis of its recent report “on access to decent and affordable housing for all”, adopted by the European Parliament in January.
According to the report’s suggestions, the Commission should prepare an integrated strategy on affordable and social housing, allow more public investment and make affordable housing a political objective in the framework of the European Semester.
In addition, the Commission must ensure that the next wave of renovation and the inclusion of the building sector in the EU emissions trading scheme does not lead to increased housing costs, according to The report.
Cities are also asking the Commission to help them with short-term rental platforms. In September 2020, the mayors of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Paris and others called on the Commission to better regulate digital platforms such as Airbnb.
The Commission, however, cannot solve the housing problem on its own as most of the responsibility still lies with the national government and local municipalities. Prague, for example, wants to buy office buildings and turn them into housing. Another option is to buy back old apartments, as the Slovak capital, Bratislava, has started to do so.
“I think the biggest gap is the recognition that housing can be regulated and that there is a national housing policy that can be put in place to influence the housing situation. There is no consensus on this issue, and it is lacking not only among politicians but also in public, ”said Ripka.
[Edited by Alice Taylor and Frédéric Simon]