“Living in a bad neighbourhood and poor-quality housing makes progress very difficult”
Sorcha Edwards is the secretary general of Housing Europe, the European Federation of Public, Cooperative and Social Housing. The main mission of this grouping of social organisations is to work to ensure that all European citizens live in decent housing that enables them to reach their maximum potential, especially those who reside in more disadvantaged areas. As head of institutional relations of Housing Europe, she is the voice and the face in Brussels of a lobby that has been fighting for 30 years to promote inclusive housing policies and a fair energy transition in the EU and in the whole of Europe.
What is the main problem with housing in Europe today?
Is it a problem that affects all countries equally?
It affects the majority of European capitals. An increasingly wide gap exists between increases in income and increases in housing prices. But the big difficulty we are facing is the lack of affordable housing in those places where opportunities exist in education and jobs.
What do you mean?
That it is not just a case of having a roof over your head, but of having one in a place where you can access the services, training and employment that you need to achieve your maximum potential. That is where the biggest gap lies.
We are seeing how students have to reject university places that they have earned because there is no accommodation for them in the big cities, or they cannot afford its cost. The same thing is happening with teachers and health professionals, who have to pass up on employment opportunities because they cannot find affordable housing in the place where the position emerges. And this is costing the member states a lot of money.
What is the relationship between housing and social inclusion?
The link between inequalities that prevent social inclusion and housing is established from a very elementary level. They are two concepts that mutually reinforce each other: living in poor housing in a bad neighbourhood, it is much more difficult to gain access to a good education and a good job, and thus make progress. And this is transmitted from generation to generation. The most extreme manifestation of this are evictions.
Data exist that show that it costs more money to evict someone than to mediate with residents who have debts. So, to improve the situation the laws would also have to change.
What type of people are being excluded from the housing market?
Nowadays we no longer talk about evictions related with antisocial behaviour, or of people who are homeless due to addiction problems, but about a lack of housing due to economic reasons. This is a growing phenomenon and the human and social cost is very great, because it no longer affects disadvantaged social groups but also the population with average incomes.
An increasing number of people are vulnerable with regard to keeping their homes and this is a failure of the property market: it is not offering its product in the necessary quantities and at suitable prices for people. For this reason we need to do things a little differently.
How would you define adequate affordable housing?
Although there are no agreed standards to address this issue, we use the indicator developped by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office: “when people do not assign more than 40% of their income to housing”.
This 40%, of course, includes the cost of energy. Therefore, we need better legislation on a European level with regard to energy efficiency. In 2020, the construction of precarious housing should be non-existent. Highly energy-efficient housing should be built, with all its needs covered by renewable energies.
In your opinion, should the regulations be changed?
It is obvious that the regulatory environment must be improved. For example, more stable regulation is needed in the rental market, because if there is a lack of protection – for owners and tenants alike – rental will not be an affordable option in the long term.
However, although the change in regulations is important, it is also insufficient. It is just one small piece in the puzzle. There are many other actions necessary. For example, there needs to be intervention in the supply side, promoting more construction of affordable rental housing.
What can be done from the viewpoint of citizens?
Citizen mobilisation is a key point in this sense. The debate on access to decent housing is present all over Europe. In the United Kingdom, for years there has been talk about “Generation Rent”. It refers to a generation of people who, if we do not introduce radical changes, will never become homeowners.
We are seeing that in many countries there are people rebelling against this situation. Grass roots movements are emerging from the community, often led by young people, who are starting to act in their neighbourhoods against phenomena such as gentrification, or the rise in house prices. These citizens must be listened to and should be given support. In some European capitals, great progress is being made in alleviating the consequences of the appearance of platforms such as Airbnb. The next step is for EU regulators to intervene, in the same way that they acted on other issues that were spiralling out of control, such as roaming charges. I believe that this will come soon.
Moreover, in Europe there are many organisations that build good-quality and affordable housing on a non-profit basis. Housing Europe is working side by side with these groups, whether they are public construction companies, social organisations, citizens’ initiative cooperatives or community land trusts (community investment funds that provide affordable housing for ownership in places where land is maintained at a price below the market price).
Could you provide us with some figures that help understand the dimension of these types of initiatives?
Our association represents 43,000 housing providers in 24 countries. Together they manage over 26 million households, approximately 11% of the housing that exists in Europe. All European countries have these types of organisations, and in some of them they have a strong tradition, which dates back over 100 years.
These are organisations that really are building affordable and good-quality housing on a non-profit basis. Therefore, they have to form part of the puzzle that makes up the housing sector. Of course, within a regulated framework. For example, in Austria, non-profit building cooperatives built 18% of homes in the whole country last year. And in Sweden, the cooperatives and municipal housing companies represent 21% of homes.
Por ejemplo, en Austria, las cooperativas de construcción sin fines de lucro construyeron el 18% de las viviendas en todo el país el pasado año. Y en Suecia, las cooperativas o empresas municipales de vivienda representan el 21% de los hogares.
Do these types of organisation exist in Spain?
Yes. The majority are of a public nature. But in this environment of economic difficulties, public organisations suffer from funding problems: there are not sufficient subsidies, there are budget cuts… Moreover, the large part of protected housing in Spain is for sale purposes, so there are stock problems with protected rental housing.
Various initiatives exist, but they do not obtain sufficient support, either because they do not have access to land or alternatively because they do not achieve adequate funding during a prolonged period. Undoubtedly, this part of the offering has to grow in Spain and in the whole of Europe, but perhaps it is necessary to wait for a time, so that adequate conditions arise for more building more homes on a non-profit basis.
Is there evidence that shows that affordable and adequate housing is an attractive investment?
Yes, there is. We have recently collaborated on a study by an independent agency linked to the EU that evaluates how much inadequate housing is costing the European economy. The estimate is that the cost of not investing in housing stands at 194,000 million euros per year.
One of the most important parts is the cost related with healthcare. Having poor-quality housing has a tremendous impact on people’s health. Those who live in homes that are too hot, or too cold, end up becoming ill. And then the public healthcare systems have to bear the cost of caring for these patients.
Moreover, there are organisations that we collaborate with that calculate how much good-quality housing saves the economy. And they do so by paying attention to different criteria. For example, how much money citizens could direct to the local economy – and therefore, to promoting trade – if they did not have to spend the large part of their incomes on renting their homes.
Another example: how much could the public authorities save in the care system if elderly people could remain longer in their own homes? A lot of money. We can even think of such simple and everyday things such as the excess costs associated with nights of hospitalisation when somebody suffers an illness, an accident or an injury. Member states would save millions of euros for every night in a hospital bed if housing existed offering suitable conditions for caring for patients once discharged.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I would prefer to say I am hopeful. I daren’t use the word optimistic. The most important thing is to have a very clear vision of the future that we want for our cities: that they have the services necessary for people to develop all their potential, whether they be students, teachers, nurses, immigrant families or children; that they are inclusive; that they take into account sustainable development goals; that there is social justice; and that the environment is respected.
We must try and win as many people as possible over to this idea: non-profit housing providers, cooperatives, public housing companies, but also the cities and their citizens. And we have to express these ideas in economic terms, in order to persuade investors that, for their businesses, this is also the path to be followed.
Interview by Juan Manuel García Campos