The Barcelona City Councillor for Housing, Josep Maria Montaner, took part in the presentation of Qüestions d’habitatge: Polítiques comparades d’habitatge [Housing Issues: Comparatives of Housing Policies], where he asserted housing was a cultural hallmark and a social “empowerment tool”.
“Each culture is becoming increasingly known for its housing policies. When we know how people live, where they live – in private houses, in cooperatives, in open or closed cities – all that tells us a lot more about that society” he said during an event held at the head office of the Barcelona Quantity Surveyors, Technical Architects and Building Engineers Association (CAATEEB).
Issue Nº 20 of Qüestions d’Habitatge offers a comparative study of housing policies in various European and American cities: Amsterdam, Paris, London, Berlin, New York and Bogota. The study takes sociological and demographic indicators, the types of public grants and subsidies, and the bodies created by public authorities and civil society for managing housing-related issues as its points of reference.
Montaner stressed the importance of studying the models of other cities with much more developed housing policies, in order to learn more about successful experiences and assess measures and instruments that could be extrapolated to Barcelona.
At the same time he maintained that housing policies have to aim at “the greatest possible diversification” and bring together various local authority lines of action, for example, carrying out a study of vacant flats and taking advantage of that to educate owners so they include their properties in the Rented Housing Pool.
Better management, funding and housing associations
The Barcelona School of Architecture (ESTAB-UPC) professor and director of the study, Pilar García-Almirall, highlighted its interdisciplinary approach and summarised the main lessons drawn from the examples studied which could be applied to Barcelona to boost its housing policies.
Firstly, she stressed the importance of housing associations, which are widespread in some European countries and make it possible to diversify affordable-housing providers and public-private entities, while broadening housing options and expanding the available stock.
These non-profit organisations offer a local service and professional advice. They also supplement the work of public authorities in providing, managing and maintaining social housing.
The director of the study also insisted there was a need to strengthen the systems for obtaining funding, giving France as an example because it has a public bank with funds solely for building and managing public housing. There is also a legal entity, the inter-professional workers’ committees (CIL), which donate part of their income to building social housing and can manage the award of that housing.
In Amsterdam, the existence of a computerised system that controls rent prices (by means of the Annual Housing Survey) enables a relatively stable threshold to be maintained and allows the associations to intervene when they consider it is appropriate.
In García-Almirall’s opinion, citizen participation is a key element, not only in defining planning or government initiatives, but also in helping those government bodies to implement their housing policies and monitor them, to ensure they are effective.
The problem of non-existent public spending
For her part, Carme Trilla, the director of the Hàbitat 3 Foundation, criticised the fact that the percentage of GDP which the Spanish government allocates to housing policies is practically nil. In the most advanced countries, public spending on housing hovers between 1.5% and 3% of GDP. In Europe, it has gone down from 1.1% to 0.8% following the crisis but Spain only allocates 0.08%.
Trilla expressed her “deepest concern” and regret that, in the end, it is families that have to make up for the lack of public investment in a vital aspect of social welfare. “That is the dilemma: the inability of people to gain access to housing and keep their home faced with the rise in prices”, said the Catalan government’s former Housing Secretary.
Trilla also asserted that the public housing stock’s “great virtue” is being able to control the price of housing, that public authorities can set prices below market trends to ensure the most vulnerable sectors of society have access to a decent home.