18 February 2021
Housing for all: progressive ideas for the future

Housing for all: progressive ideas for the future

Interview with PES Group President Christophe Rouillon

What are the main challenges when it comes to affordable and decent housing in your city?

In Coulaines, a city of some 8000 inhabitants, social housing represents more than 50% of the total housing stock. For me, the challenge over the last mandate period was therefore to achieve the energetic renovation of all these buildings, notably in order to avoid energy poverty. Indeed, it is not sufficient to have accessible housing. If the energetic isolation is not correct, the price of housing is not any more affordable! This has also a big impact on the quality of life for people living there. When you are using an important part of your income to maintain a warm temperature and you are still cold, you cannot study well and you cannot rest well. This means less money to put food on your table, buy clothes or even access culture. This is what energy poverty means today for over 30 million people in Europe. Providing accessible and decent housing to everyone is the basis of a progressive social policy. It is the cornerstone policy to ensure solidarity in our society.

There is another big challenge for my city concerning affordable housing. As I said, more than 50% of our housing building are social housing in Coulaines. I am very proud of it. The problem is that some other cities in France prefer to pay fines instead of building new social housing. Indeed, in France, the law obliges cities to provide 20% of social housing of the total housing stock. Fines are foreseen for the cities which do not respect this objective. If we want to guarantee social mix and avoid ghettoization, every city must be part of the effort. Building social housing everywhere, as Vienna’s example shows, is also a good way in order to control the prices of the rent in an area. This can help provide affordable and decent housing outside the social housing stock by a positive spill-over effect.

Which measures in the area of housing have been implemented by you?
As I said in my previous response, in Coulaines, we have renovated 100% of the social housing in the city. It was not only about the energy efficiency but also the comfort, the general exterior aspect, the accessibility for handicapped people, without forgetting improving the overall security for the inhabitants and the neighbourhood. It is only by developing this comprehensive approach that you can really improve the attractiveness of social housing. If your building looks like an old rabbit cage, for sure, you will not want to live in it. For this reason, I am very interested by the Bauhaus initiative proposed by Ms. Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. The beauty, the good design, the sustainability is also important besides the social policy, the affordability and the comfort of a place.

The renovation policy we put in place lasted 20 years. Of course, it was integrated in a larger policy framework financed by a national fund dedicated to urban renovation. In order to increase social mix and avoid ghettoization, we had also to renovate the outdoor areas around the buildings. It was really important to reinforce security in these areas. One other major action in terms of urban planning was to build a new school in the heart of the social housing neighbourhood. It was paramount in order to brace different populations and reinforce attractiveness.

Finally, we also develop a programme to help people to own their own housing. One hundred houses were built in the city. The possibility to buy it was given to the inhabitants of Coulaines’ social housing.

What kind of support mayors would need from the EU to be able to increase investments in affordable, decent and energy-efficient housing?

A significant bottleneck at the European level is the accounting rules in the European Union. They are reducing our margin of manoeuver. They prevent us to develop ambitious programmes to build affordable and decent housing. The premise of these rules are indeed fundamentally wrong. They consider every investment, in this case building new housing for instance, as a cost to be included in the calculation of the annual deficit only the year of the realization of the investment. This is wrong! In our cities, we invest for the future. A social housing will deliver affordable and decent housing for our citizens for several decades. It is the absence of public investments that constitutes a hidden debt!

On State Aid, housing should be considered as a Service of General Economic Interest. It would allow securing the investments made by regions and cities for social housing and sometimes challenged by the European level, in the name of the free and fair competition.

Of course, at the level of the Stability and Growth Pact, the European Union could also do better. Some investments of public interest should be excluded from the calculation of the deficit and the debt, particularly those co-financed by European funds. I also consider that within the European Semester, there should be more recommendations to encourage Member States to address the lack of affordable and decent housing.

Finally, I would not be complete if I forget to mention that governance is important. The European Union has proposed in December the most ambitious recovery plan in its history. Let’s make no mistake: without a tangible involvement of regions and cities, we will miss the opportunity to make these investments useful for a fair, green and digital transition. Housing is clearly a part of it.

As President of the PES Group in the European Committee of the Regions you have started the petition: Make the right to housing a reality for all! What are your main demands on the EU Commission?

Our demands are organised around three strands: an ambitious European legal framework, investments, and strategies based on regional and local know-how.

On the legal framework, it is important to remind that, even if the EU has no direct competences in housing matters, it can and should legislate in the following areas to improve the investment environment for housing: energy, social exclusion, state aid, and cohesion.

For instance, we must keep in mind that the green transition has no chance of succeeding if the most vulnerable citizens are left behind. The European Union and its Member States should therefore fully implement the “Renovation Wave strategy” not only to make our buildings more efficient and climate-neutral but also to trigger a large-scale transformation of our cities, neighbourhoods and villages, inspired by the design and new technologies promoted by the new European Bauhaus initiative, but keeping in mind the social dimension and prevent that people are kicked out of their homes because of the cost of these renovations.

The EU could also set up a European strategy with binding objectives for Member States in order to eradicate homelessness in Europe by 2030.

On investments, I think we have already tackled the subject in the previous question.

On the involvement of regions and cities, I would like to underline that it is not a caprice from a local mayor. As I said before, regions and cities are the best placed to develop a cohesive and sustainable urban and territorial planning. Moreover, lessons learnt at local level should be reminded! Social housing must be built everywhere in the cities in order to avoid social clusters. I advocate strong regulation of public land and of rents through legislation including rent caps.

Finally, cities, villages, and regions are the best-placed to negotiate alliances between urban, intermediate and rural areas on the field of housing. This is what a European Deal for Housing would mean and it is important to foster a balanced spatial planning on our continent, based on multi-level governance and participation.

If you support our ideas, you can sign our petition to make the right to housing a reality for all.

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This interview was originally published by Housing4Europe.Org. 

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