If you had to take a journey across Europe in winter, and could not afford a hotel, when the temperatures fall below zero, you might be tempted to squat in one of the millions of properties that lie empty across the continent.
In fact, travelling through Europe, you would find empty buildings everywhere: holiday resorts which were built in the housing boom before the 2008 crisis and have never been occupied, family homes, locked and left vacant because their owners were evicted, big apartment blocks and massive mansions that lie empty because investors are waiting for the housing market to pick up.
In total, 11 million homes in Europe are uninhabited, according to research carried out by The Guardian newspaper. Some 3.4 million of those empty properties are in Spain, another 1.8 million are in Germany and 2 million more are in France and Italy respectively. Several hundred thousand houses lie empty in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and the UK.
Meanwhile, in Europe an estimated 4.1 million people are homeless. This means there are enough vacant homes to shelter every homeless person twice over. Housing campaigners have called it a social scandal. The situation could, however, become an opportunity if countries were to find a way of turning those empty houses into homes for the millions of people who sleep rough and the millions more who face eviction.
Europe has a housing emergency, not because it lacks actual buildings, but because it lacks common policies to promote affordable and social housing.
Before the global financial crisis, governments pushed for home ownership by giving people tax incentives to buy a house or an apartment, while banks offered easy access to mortgages. As a result, demand for houses rose. Speculators entered the market, making profits through short-term buying and selling. More homes were built in a feverish housing boom, but when the real estate bubble burst, and the global crisis hit Europe, people found themselves unable to pay their mortgages and banks repossessed hundreds of thousands of properties. Since 2008, more than half a million families in Spain have lost their homes. Their houses are now lying vacant, as banks struggle to find new owners or wait for the property market to gain momentum once again so that they can sell with a profit.
Spain was one of the worst affected countries because of its extraordinarily high home ownership rate, which stood at around 78 per cent at its peak. That means that four out of five homes in Spain were privately owned. But such a high percentage of home ownership is unsustainable.
“We need to have a mix of tenures, so that property bubbles can’t arise and housing remains affordable for all social classes,” explains Sorcha Edwards, Secretary General of Housing Europe. “A complete reliance on the market to address housing should be avoided. We should all have learned a lesson about the dangers of reducing regulations and relying completely on the market. We know that alternatives are possible.”
The Austrian housing system is one of these alternatives. Austria has one of the largest affordable housing schemes in the world. The social housing stock currently represents about 23 per cent of the country’s total housing stock. In Vienna, 60 per cent of all households live in subsidised apartments. Financing of social housing has a long tradition in Austria. For almost one hundred years, the government has set aside a certain percentage of income tax, corporate tax and housing contributions for social housing programmes. In total, the country invests 2 per cent of its GDP in the housing sector. Other countries are following suit in setting frameworks to provide affordable housing. Scotland is promoting social landlords, independent housing associations and cooperatives that provide housing on a non-profit basis, all the while strengthening tenants’ rights.
“Scotland has a long tradition of putting the interests of tenants and potential tenants at the heart of policy and decision-making, and we are very proud of that tradition,” said Scottish Housing Minister Margaret Burgess at a European Responsible Housing conference in Brussels. Scottish tenants have a legal right to be consulted on housing and related matters that affect them. The aim is to create long-term, stable, participatory and affordable tenancies. So far, Scotland has been quite successful with its policies. Of a total 5 million inhabitants, 590,000 households already live in homes that are owned and managed by social landlords.
Eleven international organisations and initiatives gathered at the beginning of October to sign the first European Agreement on Responsible Housing between housing providers and tenants. The project was the result of an 18-month EU-funded project where social housing providers and tenants came together to establish a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Code of Conduct, to which affordable housing providers can subscribe. The International Union of Tenants, Housing Europe, Delphis (a French network of housing providers) and its members all agreed to seek out sustainable, responsible and long-term investment in construction and renovation, as well as to strengthen tenants’ rights and safeguard the environment through the adoption of energy efficient measures. Scotland’s Housing Minister Margaret Burgess and Vienna’s Housing Councillor Michael Ludwig have signed the agreement. The move marks another step towards social and affordable housing, but it will not resolve the emergency, says Sorcha Edwards.
“It’s an excellent opportunity that will help promote and share best practices. But it’s not enough. Almost all European capitals are growing,” she says. “There is a need for affordable rental housing and affordable housing for ownership all across Europe. And all cities are looking for ways to finance social housing.”
At the heart of Europe, in Brussels, the Community Land Trust takes land off the speculative market and places it in the hands of a regional non-profit corporation. These corporations then lease the land to a local not-for-profit housing provider. In this way, families who were pushed out of their former neighbourhoods can find long-term affordable housing without fear of falling victim to property speculators looking for a quick profit. The idea of Land Trusts comes from the US and is also being practised in the UK. However, this is still a small-scale project that will not be able to tackle the large-scale housing emergency.
That is why housing campaigners are lobbying member states of the European Union to regulate the financial sector. Finance Watch estimates that only 30 per cent of banking activity is serving the economy. As a result, it says, the banking industry needs strong incentives to work towards the economy, such as investing in social housing. So far, investing in social housing has simply not been sufficiently financially attractive for banks. Finance Watch and Housing Europe are currently working together to find solutions for making financing available for housing needs and exploring how ethical investment could become a valuable option for private investors. The two organisations are also seeking to make public authorities understand that there are high social, environmental and economic returns on investment in affordable housing.
“There is still a lot to be done to tackle the housing emergency in Europe,” says Edwards from Housing Europe. “There is a strong political support to the objective, but not enough political willingness to regulate the issues that make a difference.”
There are plenty of good ideas, measures and programmes to address the housing emergency in the long term. But what can be done to offer those 4.1 million homeless people a home right now?
The Housing First programme could be an answer. This is a relatively new approach to dealing with homelessness, and is based on the principle that housing is a human right. The idea behind it is to provide immediate long-term housing for homeless people, instead of moving them through different “levels” of housing, also known as the staircase approach, before they are deemed ready for their own apartment.
Housing First was developed in the US, where it proved highly successful, especially with people who were chronically homeless, had mental illnesses or were involved in abuse of alcohol or other substances. It is considered to be one of the cheapest homeless programmes. The US flagship programme, Pathways to Housing, claims that one night of accommodation with the Housing First project costs US$57 (€45), compared with $73 (€57) in a shelter, or $519 (€408) in hospital. Given that the approach has proved such a success in the US, the European Commission ran a Housing First experimentation project in five European cities between 2011 and 2013: Amsterdam, Budapest, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Lisbon. The results of the study were encouraging.
Most of the long-term homeless people who were moved from the street into permanent housing managed to build a stable life. More than 90 per cent of them stayed where they were in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Glasgow, and nearly 80 per cent in the case of Lisbon. These were extremely good results, considering that in Glasgow, many participants were addicted to heroin. A majority of drug and alcohol addicts managed to complete a successful rehab programme. In Amsterdam, for example, nearly 3 out of every 4 people reported a reduction in drug abuse.
This, however, was a small-scale study. In total, almost 500 homeless people were moved into a permanent apartment – a small number compared to the 4.1 million homeless people throughout Europe. But the model is spreading. Cities such as Dublin, Gent, Helsinki and Vienna are currently experimenting with the Housing First approach. This is one of the many small steps that Europe is taking to tackle the housing emergency and to make sure that millions of people find affordable and sustainable homes.
Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
This article was originally published in Effect the magazine of the European Foundation Centre.