Several housing experts, researchers and association representatives officially opened Barcelona City Council’s Housing Conference today. They highlighted the importance of making the most of the crisis to launch new affordable-housing policies that play a social role and at the same time create shared wealth at a community level within cities.
The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, emphasised the need for local authorities to be able to regulate the rented market and thereby put an end to the uncontrolled rise in prices and ensure people with few resources are guaranteed access to housing.
“Renting must not be a means for owners to enrich themselves but rather a way of providing access to stable and affordable housing, as established under all the UN’s human rights standards”, reminded the Mayor, before adding that: “Housing is our investment in the city’s future”.
For his part, the Councillor for Housing, Josep Maria Montaner, called for traditional housing models to be put to one side, making way for the promotion of more social rented accommodation and embracing new forms of housing, such as co-habitation and rental cooperatives, in order to champion these rights.
Housing: between speculation and decent living
The effects of the property bubble and mortgage crisis are still with us, according to data gathered in Residential Exclusion in the Local World (2013-2016), a report compiled by the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (DESC) Observatory and the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) which analysed and followed up 957 cases of families or households affected by the crisis.
The study compares the districts of Barcelona worst hit by the housing crisis – 55% of all those unable to pay for their housing are concentrated in two districts: Nou Barris and Sant Martí – and analyses the origins of this situation. It also proposes a series of measures for preventing the number of such cases from rising: increasing the stock of public rented housing, giving support to small-property owners, intervening and redeveloping housing in a poor state of repair.
Raquel Rodríguez, an architect and lecturer at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, drew attention to the 1950s origins of the current housing model and the fact that some of today’s problems date back to that period: for example, that fact that housing legislation always associates this right with the need to obtain some kind of benefit or impetus to the economy.
“They did something ominous, turning every owner into a small-time speculator”, he claimed, as he then explained how it was now more expensive in Spain to rent a flat than buy one. Which explained why 80% of young people in Spain under the age of 30 are unable to move out of their parents’ home.
New technologies for promoting collaborative policies
Desiree Fields, an urban geographer from the University of Sheffield, also reflected on the role of banks and financial powers in the current context: on the one hand, through their promotion of sales over rentals, but also as owners of a large part of the housing in urban centres.
As she pointed out, Madrid and Barcelona have problems reversing the situation of empty flats and properties owned by banks and investors, because the laws are incapable of managing it. She therefore called for the role of new technologies and digital platforms to be reclaimed for intervening in current policies and reinventing the urban-planning context: raising the profile of collaborative initiatives, enabling tenants to organise, sharing and exchanging experiences, etc.
Cooperative housing systems: a source of inspiration
The Secretary-General of Housing Europe, Sorcha Edwards, reclaimed the concept of social business and its application to cooperative housing: this is about promoters who invest in building housing and who are committed to ensuring the profits are kept in the community afterwards. Housing Europe represents over 26 million households in Europe, 11% of overall housing on the continent.
According to Edwards, the housing emergency that is increasingly being experienced all around Europe must be used to promote change at a political level, fostering the exchange of ideas between authorities and associations and applying new approaches. “This may be a historic time for changing the housing-policy paradigm”, she remarked.
For his part, Ismael Irigoy, a researcher at the University of the Balearic Islands, dealt with the phenomenon of tourism as an element hindering access to housing. According to Irigoy, tourist accommodation has always been around, though it is now combined with the publicising power of digital platforms, which exploit this model to the point of making the standard of living unsustainable for residents.
“Thanks to tourism, housing has been understood as an asset for exchange rather than use”, he concluded.
New forms of regulation from Europe
The conference’s final seminar saw Max Gigling, a researcher in social-housing policies, present a comparison of rental markets in Barcelona, Paris and Berlin. Specific governing regulations were introduced for the German and French capitals in 2015: these are a series of “exceptional” measures, aimed at ensuring that housing remains accessible to all their residents.
Rental contracts in Barcelona differ from those in Paris and Berlin by failing to include social clauses that protect tenants at risk of exclusion. Gigling emphasised the vulnerability that arises when a contract ends: these are the so-called “invisible evictions”, which do not appear in the statistics and cannot be avoided through financial aid as that would go against the private interests of owners.
He then expressed his view that Barcelona had to follow the Paris model and create an index of tenants to enable prices to be controlled over the long term.
The first day of the Conference ended with an exhibition from Magnus Hammar, an International Union of Tenants representative, who presented several models of associated tenants’ organisations and unions (some founded at the start of the 20th century) to collectively champion housing users’ rights.