Homes for today and tomorrow
1st June 2021
Delivering homes and creating communities
1st June 2021

Affordable housing: Lessons from Europe

Secretary General for Housing Europe, Sorcha Edwards speaks to the Housing Magazine about the lessons Covid-19 has taught the affordable and social housing sector at European level.

Housing Europe has been the main voice of approved housing bodies and their equivalents such as public housing providers, corporate housing providers, and housing associations from across the European Union for over 30 years. It is the European federation of public, cooperative and social housing that brings together 43,000 housing providers in 25 countries. Together they manage around 25 million homes, roughly 11 per cent of existing dwellings in Europe.

“It’s quite a complex task because the systems are quite diverse, there are over 46,000 organisations at local level, and we have no such thing as a Department for Housing at EU level,” Edwards says. “The different legislations in different policy areas do have their risks and opportunities for our members so what we do is we have a constant relay of information about what is in the pipeline at European level in terms of financing, regulatory initiatives which might impact access to finance and also legislation linked to competition rules which may limit or expand their scope for activities and unexpected areas of impact, such as the services directive which impacts how short-term platforms are governed.”

In the Irish context, Housing Europe represents the Irish Council of Social Housing and Cooperative Housing Ireland. With social housing reform and potential investment to the fore in Irish discourse before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for safe, high quality and affordable housing became even more pressing during the health crisis. “We can clearly see that this is a real watershed moment for housing now and it is more important than ever to have a clear message at governmental, national and EU level,” Edwards says.

“We have yet to see the full impact of this terrible period on households and on the sector, so we are gathering the statistics on the impact on the construction sector, the impact on households – very often we have a high portion of households living in social housing who have been directly impacted employment wise – and what we are doing at the moment is preparing the launch of our next State of Housing report, which ­will try to give a clearer picture of what the impact has been on the sector. We want to give the message at the European level to expect the worst and prepare for the worst; a bit of a negative message but I think, even without the data, we can clearly see that there is going to be an increase in the need for affordable housing as many households take a really hard economic hit. Some of them have yet to see that hit really coming to the fore, so this is the clear message: prepare for the worst so that we can try to avoid more increased levels of housing exclusion.”

Yet in this crisis, Edwards sees hope in the way the sector has responded and how it has reaffirmed its importance: “We have really seen just how essential the work of the limited profit and non-profit partners are and how they can really be relied upon to help build the resilience of households and communities at local level at times of crisis. We have heard the message before that housing is healthcare but now that is even more clear than ever it has to be considered just as essential as having a functioning health system to have a functioning and inclusive housing system.”

Edwards argues that, regardless of a vaccine rollout, the shift in working patterns will now see people at home more of the time, with more need for connectivity but also more need for access to the outdoors and quality public spaces, along with quality indoor spaces that give access to fresh air, and she recounts calls from those especially in Italy and Spain, where people were prohibited from leaving their homes for a time, for a change around the basic requirements around space, balconies and access to outdoors. Another lesson to be learned is that of housing that allows people to age in place independently, with just 20 per cent of homes around Europe fit to do so presently.

With the approved housing bodies across Europe having been the first to renegotiate rents during the pandemic, Edwards sees the possibility for the kind of political turn needed as closer than it has ever been. “I have never seen this level of activity in Europe in my time here,” she says. “I have never seen the political recognition of the points I mentioned and their essential nature, but what we now have to really make sure of is that this is turned into not only short-term actions like renovation schemes, but longer-term actions that support resilient systems.

“This is what our task is at the moment. This is what the lesson has been, we need to support people, the local economy and the big picture economy. The task is not only to turn this into policy at the national level, but also at the European level. The issue of housing as the highest expenditure for Europeans has not gone away, the Eurostat is still showing that. The proportion of income being spent, particularly by lower-income groups, is really a drain on the economy and putting extra pressure on those households and is something that is becoming more and more recognised. At European level, what is estimated is that 40 per cent of people who are in poverty are suffering what is described as an overburden rate, which is classed as people spending over 40 per cent of their income on housing.

We have heard the message before that housing is healthcare but now that is even more clear than ever it has to be considered just as essential as having a functioning health system to have a functioning and inclusive housing system.”

“It is probably too soon to call on that one but what we do see is that one of the asks from our members because of these extremely high prices was to look at successful policies around land for the delivery of affordable not for profit and limited profit housing. This obviously is a big challenge, and a new land agency has been set up in Ireland so there is a very good opportunity to draw on experience in this around the EU. I know Housing Europe’s research department has been in contact with the Housing Agency around that. There are quite a number of lessons to draw from that from other member states.”

Concluding, Edwards says that the answers the social housing sector has offered during the pandemic, and the challenges to accepted wisdom, cannot be ignored: “When we have organisations like the OECD, which is really a reference point for governments for the regulation of markets, giving clear messages recognising how large non-profit social housing has withstood the crisis in a positive way and are in a better position to build back better, this is a message that no government can ignore. We are seeing this as a signal that this is a time for a renewal and a change to the stigma that has developed around social housing since the neoliberal turn across Europe and globally.

“I would really push back against the neoliberal accepted facts; it is an undeniable fact that the State has a responsibility to step in both for the individual but for the economic development as well. Affordable and social housing should not be a last resort, but part of the mainstream of a new framing of housing systems with social justice at the centre.”