For decades urban development has followed the impulses of capital. The right to a home and the right to the city must be won by the citizens.
Housing is a fundamental right: it is essential to live safely and with dignity, as well as to be able freely to develop one’s personality. Its violation puts at hazard physical and mental integrity. Lack of decent housing affects health and the environment, for individuals and collectively, while impairing the right to proper education, professional evolution and even involvement in public life. So it’s no surprise that a guaranteed right to housing appears to be linked to an inclusive, sustainable and democratically managed urban environment—or, to put it another way, to ‘the right to the city’.
That term first appeared in 1968, when Henri Lefebvre published his book of the same name. In it, he observed the negative impact suffered by cities in capitalist countries, commodified at the service of financial interests. Lefebvre proposed a political alternative, putting the citizenry back in charge.
Cities put up a mirror to the society in which we live. A monolithic, granite-like city, such as central Bucharest under Nicolae Ceaușescu, is the projection of a totalitarian society. A city such as Paris in 1968, however, with its bohemian neighbourhoods such as the Latin district yet also aristocratic ones such as those surrounding the Champs Elysées, reflects a society which gives its vote to Charles De Gaulle but, at the same time, prepares itself for the explosion of May.
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A city such as Vienna, still nowadays one of the best in which to live, reflects a more democratically managed society, which prioritises wellness and the environment. Several social factors converge to frame Vienna: excellent transport routes, electricity and water supply, sanitation and quality education, as well as efforts to constrain vehicular traffic and so improve air quality. All these policies seem though to be ramifications of a long-lived social policy, dating back to 1920 and representing the backbone of the city—its social-housing policy.
We have assumed that health and educational rights are an integral part of our public-policy system, yet we treat housing as if it were mere merchandise. We treat the city as a commercial object, only useful as a tourism resource, while privatising urban spaces and accepting that 700,000 people across Europe sleep on the streets each night.
The upshot is, on one side, a socially, economically and psychologically shattered city, suffering for years the effects of gentrification and unsustainable tourism. On the other side are urban societies whose social escalators are paralysed: from the circumstance of birth in a poor background and infancy in an overpopulated house, it will require 4.5 generations on average for an average income to be attained.
Online temporary rental platforms are meanwhile inflating house prices as well as changing the composition of urban neighbourhoods, while eliminating affordable housing and other benefits for locals. They should be subject to strict control to protect the right to housing.
Crisis in housing
The European Union is facing a crisis in housing. More than 15 per cent of the EU population live in overcrowded dwellings. Excessive cost no longer affects only the most disadvantaged but a growing part of the population: more than a third of European citizens spend more than 40 per cent of their income on housing, rising to more than two-fifths in Spain. And a total of 11 million European ‘households’—families, couples and individuals, that is—live on the streets, in social shelters or in others’ homes: since 2008 there have been more than a million evictions in Spain alone.
With this as a backdrop, the European Commission has a duty to speak with a unified voice and to act. It is necessary to look at different national examples and to adopt best practices. Those cities which better regulate the housing market are those which can offer more in terms of social housing.
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In the EU, France is the biggest investor in social housing (500,000 households accommodated per year), while the Netherlands has the highest proportion of the population residing in social households (33 per cent). Sweden does not need social housing as such, since rents are managed by local government and properties are owned by municipalities or social enterprises whose aim is to guarantee everyone’s access to housing, regardless of age, gender or income.
Spain, by contrast, offers one of the most horrifying situations in the EU in terms of affordable housing, mainly due to the poor management of the Popular Party in power and the devastating effects of the financial crisis which crippled the property sector in 2008. Between 1997 and 2007, house prices increased by a massive 232 per cent, even though 727,893 construction licences were given out in 2006, according to the Ministry of Development. There remain many empty houses, most belonging to banks, while Spain is still in desperate need of social housing (which comprises just 2 per cent of the total).
No single answer
There is not a single answer to the lack of affordable housing and a mix of policies is needed. The Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament have inserted specific propositions in the report which the Employment and Social Affairs Committee is drafting on Decent and Affordable Housing:
- increase social housing and promote its accessibility to all, not only disadvantaged groups;
- firmly support at a European level the Housing First approach to tackling homelessness;
- exclude social expenditures from taxation;
- improve the social indicators of housing in the European Semester;
- enhance information at a local level about access to European housing funds;
- support a ‘circular economy’ in the construction sector, and
- introduce effective measures to stop evictions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proved how relevant housing is for health and wellbeing. The commission must keep in mind that housing is a fundamental right and should not therefore be an instrument for speculation. Public agencies should be able to offer real alternatives in the creation of the ‘smart’ cities of the future. It should be the citizens themselves who decide how to transform their cities and, from there, how to transform society as a whole.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, by 2100 85 per cent of the 11 billion inhabitants of the planet will live in cities. We thus have a big challenge ahead. We can keep relying with blind faith on the age-old idea that economic prosperity, taken as the benchmark of progress, will slowly but surely reach the poorest strata of the population and make our cities fit to live in. Or cities can put real effort into achieving social development, linked to the values of equality, sustainability, efficiency, participation, pluralism and integration.
Science and technology will mark the future of smart cities—creating better infrastructures and equipping cities with appropriate environmental and economic frameworks—but these are social processes. Let’s hope that the digital city of the future will not only be the reflection of artificial intelligence but also of a true human intelligence, able to enhance its social qualities above all.
An earlier version of this article in Spanish appeared in El Diario