The Barcelona Housing and Renovation Forum (FHAR) began on Tuesday 23 November with a round table on the challenges raised for urban planning and housing by the pandemic, describing the best experiences or initiatives led by various European cities to tackle the impacts and challenges of the pandemic which affect urban planning and housing policies. The participants were the Director of LSE Cities, Ricky Burdett; the Councillor for Urban Development of the Berlin City Council, Florian Schmidt; the Deputy Mayor of Paris, Ian Brossat; the Councillor for Housing and Renovation of the Barcelona City Council, Lucía Martín; and the member of the Executive Committee of the International Union of Tenants (IUT), Barbara Steenbergen. The discussion was moderated by the journalist of El Crític.cat, Laura Aznar.
Burdett opened the series of meetings speaking about how to create integrated communities in the cities of the 21st century. He said, “The cities we represent are very different in terms of their location, their growth dynamics and other matters related with the environmental sector and housing.” Burdett centred his speech on the case of London, a city which, despite Brexit, is growing considerably due to the migratory movements and also due to a high birth rate, which has a direct impact on housing. “London’s growth may be positive, but it has to remain within its limits. And housing has to respond to this condition,” he added.
Burdett said that land in the British capital has a very high price and there is a very high percentage of people who live in poverty, below an acceptable threshold, and with a lower life expectancy: in west London the average is 84 years, while in the eastern part it is 7 years shorter. “It is important to know where we provide this housing, how and where it is located, and how it is connected with public transport.” In order to face these issues, Burdett gave importance to the need to integrate public transport into the city, a key factor for London’s development. In this respect, the Director of LSE Cities defined areas of regeneration that are well connected with public transport and permit a density of uses and a higher percentage of social housing. “Thanks to good public transport, the levels of density and the highest levels of affordable housing are being tripled, in some cases reaching 50%,” he said. He added that some 80,000 affordable homes will be built in the city in the next 8 or 9 years, balancing out the deficit of previous years.
The Director of LSE Cities also spoke about Olympic London from the perspective of housing, saying that the city took inspiration from the model of Barcelona ’92 to reunite the city with the sea and endow it with a fabric of continuity. East London is one of the most depressed zones and the goal is, 20 years after the city’s Olympic Games, for the people living in that area to have the same social and economic opportunities as other residents. “We have to concentrate greatly on housing,” he said.
Berlin, Paris and Barcelona: success stories
This presentation was followed by a round table discussing the best experiences led by various European cities. The Councillor for Urban Development of Berlin, Florian Schmidt, spoke about the tendency of the rental market in Berlin, which currently represents 80% against the 20% of people who own their home. In this respect, Schmidt added that this is a problem that is becoming contagious in cities. To face it, Schmidt described a number of initiatives that are being carried out in the German capital: the freezing of rents in Berlin for five years (a measure currently halted by the Constitutional Court), the bylaw against incorrect use of homes, the neighbourhood protection areas, and the pre-emptive right and unrestricted purchase between public companies in gentrification areas are some of the measures which have been implemented. Schmidt also wanted to draw attention to the initiatives of civil society, such as the popular vote Deutsche Wohnen & Enteignen, and the ‘200 Häuser’ action against evictions, which was inspired by Barcelona’s Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH). Schmidt also spoke about long-term plans, saying that the model to be followed is that of Vienna. “At present the market of public and cooperative housing is 25%, but we want to reach 50%. It’s a long road, but it’s possible,” he said. For example, in his district, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, this figure is 28%.
The Councillor also wanted to talk about the impact of the pandemic on urban planning, which has given rise to initiatives in the public space, such as the increase of bike lanes, temporary play spaces, restaurant terraces, the so-called neighbourhood parklets, the transfer of activities outside the city, and the ‘super street blocks,’ inspired in the Barcelona innovation. “The movements that fight for the right to housing and for public spaces are uniting more and more and gaining strength,” he said. “The pandemic has been a laboratory for facilitating measures that previously were very complicated to set in motion,” he added.
The Deputy Mayor of Paris, Ian Brossat, spoke about the case of the French capital during the pandemic. He highlighted the difficulties faced by certain social sectors to live and work in the city. “The pandemic has led us to accelerate even further our policies for developing affordable housing,” he said. In this respect, Brossat said that Paris is a city that in early 2000 had 13% of public housing and now has twice that. “We have 24% of public housing and our goal is to reach 30% in 2030,” he said. “Today, one out of four Parisians lives in a public home. The rents are being unlinked from market prices. The important thing is the continuity of these policies, developing social housing and not limiting it, in order to accommodate all the social groups,” he added. Specifically, Brossat gave the example of an office block which has been converted to social housing. “In a city like ours there is very little available land, so this is one potential channel Paris has for developing social housing,” he explained.
Brossat also mentioned the role of the private sector, the regulation of rent prices and the implementation of strict policies for reducing short-term apartment rentals by AirBnB. He said that thanks to the pandemic the number of tourists has diminished considerably, and consequently the number of long-term home rentals has tripled. “This crisis we have experienced has to drive us to develop public policies for housing to be more affordable and to ensure that the people who make the city function can live there and not have to move an hour or two away from it.”
The Councillor for Housing and Renovation of the Barcelona City Council, Lucía Martín, then described the experience of this city, which since 2015 has been exercising very strong promotion of public housing. “For the city of Barcelona, having more than 2,000 homes under construction or about to be commenced, 80% of which will be rental homes, is historic,” she said. She also wanted to highlight the innovative actions the Council has carried out to brake speculation. One example is the purchasing policy to acquire housing blocks at market prices in central areas where the Council does not have land. Since 2015 the Council has purchased 1,000 homes with a municipal investment of 124 million euros. Another example is that of the various programmes for capturing private homes. “Because of the pandemic, many tourist-use homes were unoccupied. We issued an announcement to reach an agreement with their owners. Today we have reaccommodated some 130 families in situations of housing emergency in these homes,” Martín said. She also made a special mention of industrialised housing, which began with the APROP temporary accommodations, which have been valued very positively. “We have to make more efficient homes, but the construction process also has to be more efficient to reduce its environmental impact,” she added. Finally, she described as an example the agreement with the cooperatives and the recent implementation of public-private collaboration actions with the sector. In fact, a few days earlier the incorporation deed was signed of the first mixed company with the aim of creating 45,000 homes in Barcelona.
Finally, Martin emphasised the importance of working jointly at the European level. She said that all the referents have to be observed. “They have shown us that, apart from public development, we also needed to construct alliances and foster growth of all the sectors capable of producing and managing housing,” she said.
Housing, a social asset
Finally, the member of the Executive Committee of the International Union of Tenants, Barbara Steenbergen, made a global evaluation and shared all the impressions of each one of the speakers. Among them, she also shared the problems of municipal and state competences in implementing new laws.
“We already know that we do not have enough affordable housing: now is the time to decide what to do about it,” she said. She also pointed to the various initiatives set in motion in Berlin, Paris and Barcelona to promote affordable housing, control rental prices, tackle gentrification and stop evictions. “We cannot accept that housing has become a product and not a social asset,” she said. One of these positively-valued actions has been the public-private collaboration to establish new alliances to recuperate influence in cities and make them places where people can live in an affordable manner.