Europe’s cities have many social outsiders. Lessons are emerging on how ‘housing first’ can include them.
Homelessness is not only about housing, but it is always about housing. And ‘housing first’ has been identified as best practice in dealing with it.
What makes ‘housing first’ different is that individuals are offered a home, first, and then provided support to gain access to services or treatment as needed, for example with addictions or other mental-health issues. Tenants sign their own contracts, with the same rights and responsibilities as others, and any support provided is not linked to the housing itself.
Experience and research have also shown that temporary housing is insufficient. FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the homeless, has been working through partnerships—Housing Solutions Platform and Housing First Hub Europe—to identify a long-term approach, through diversion of government funding towards more permanent housing or regulations to bring vacant housing into use.
Good practices identified
It is difficult to obtain a clear overview of vacancies across Europe because data are not necessarily comparable, with no harmonised definition. In some cities a dwelling is considered vacant after six months, while in others it is two years. The nature of vacancies also varies—whether commercial or residential, affecting primary or secondary residences, a product of hoarding by investors or the movement of residents. But 2020 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development give some indications. For instance, Malta, Cyprus and Hungary have the largest shares of vacant dwellings in the EU, all over 12 per cent.
Mobilising vacant buildings in response is a local action but it often requires a regional, national or European trigger or support framework. FEANTSA has identified good practices in transforming vacant buildings into affordable housing and examined how the political context determines the ability of cities to achieve this.
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While the European Union has no direct housing competence, there is growing policy space for housing within social rights, macroeconomic governance and urban policy. Key initiatives include the European Platform on Combating Homelessness, a forum for member states to exchange knowledge, and the European Green Deal, generating a new impulse for energy efficiency in buildings with the 2020 ‘renovation wave’ strategy and revision of the directive on the energy performance of buildings. The New European Bauhaus complements these, bringing aesthetic coherence to the renovation wave and providing a hub to foster inclusive, climate-friendly architecture.
These developments present significant opportunities for cities to leverage the European political agenda, in response to the crisis of housing affordability, through concrete local action to mobilise vacant housing. FEANTSA’s identification of city-level actions shows there is no universal solution. Every response however relies upon local political will, backed by regional or national financial and legal instruments.
Understanding the nature of vacancies is the first step for municipalities in knowing how to respond. Many tools have been developed to do so. In Thessaloniki, housing prices have increased by nearly a third in four years, a key contributor being vacancy, according to a 2022 report on social and affordable housing by the municipality. Using data from the Greek electricity network operator, the study cross-checked vacancies with disconnections.
Similarly, in 2021 France set up a pilot to help identify vacant housing, using a digital tool (Zéro Logement Vacant) which relies on national data drawn from tax and property databases. In the Wallonia region of Belgium, a 2022 decree authorises municipalities to identify vacant buildings by allowing sharing of information on water and electricity consumption.
In Strasbourg, the city set up a partnership to understand why properties were vacant. Owner interviews helped identify negative rental experiences (unpaid rent or damage), difficulties managing the property (moving into sheltered accommodation, death or fear of administrative procedures), the challenges of planning and delivering renovation work, and social prejudices. Many owners were elderly small landlords, often lacking access to additional finance. The metropole developed a programme responding to their needs.
Incentives and regulation
Innovative solutions emerging from cities in Europe to transform vacant properties into affordable homes use a range of tools, from financial incentives to regulatory requirements. One approach to incentivise owners is ‘social rental intermediation’. An intermediary comes between the owner and the tenant to guarantee the rent and often offers support for renovation (access to subsidies, help with managing the work or tax breaks). In exchange, for a defined period, the dwelling will be rented below market price and the owner will have no say in who will rent it.
This model is particularly developed in Belgium and it has many variations. In the ‘Yes we rent!’ project in Spain, the municipality of Mataró is the intermediary, although it plans to set-up a housing co-operative to take over the role.
The regulatory approach includes empty-home registration schemes and taxes. Amsterdam’s new regulation states that a rental property fit for habitation cannot remain vacant for more than two months (previously six). Owners are obliged to report vacancies and the fine for failure to report has increased for both professional and small property owners. Last December, Leuven in Belgium increased from €2,865 to €3,750 its tax on empty houses (and from €575 to €1,000 that on empty single rooms).
In Catalonia, it is possible for a city to seize properties unoccupied for more than two years. Barcelona’s housing department contacted companies to enforce this right by warning them that they had to rent out their apartments or the city would take them over. Reportedly, it is working to change the Catalonian legislation, so that such a right to buy could apply to properties left vacant after six months.
Transfer and refurbishment
Transferring ownership of buildings and refurbishing as necessary is a direct route to ‘housing first’ provision, in which non-governmental organisations and social enterprises can be important partners. In Ireland, the Peter McVerry Trust, the national housing and homeless charity, has just converted to social housing a former school in Cork, closed since 1972 and in disrepair, with the support of Cork County Council. It provides nine apartments and a communal garden. The old building had an energy-efficiency rating of G, but all apartments are now A or B, above the minimum standard for social housing.
In Scotland the Simon Community acquired and refurbished 19 one-bedroom homes at an average price of approximately £150,000 (€170,000). The locations were carefully assessed to avoid areas with already high concentration of housing-first residents, to prevent ghettoisation. The rental agreements had no fixed expiry and were not conditional on the tenant remaining with a support service. In Glasgow meanwhile, Homes for Good buys empty, low-cost properties in deprived areas to refurbish and rent to people locked out of the housing market, locating vacancies by contacting owners or via the city council.
Across Spain, Provivienda aims to improve access to adequate housing and stable tenancy, with a person-centred approach. The association specialises in obtaining stock from the private-rented sector and using it for social projects. Provivienda provides not only the housing but also the wide range of specialised services which must accompany ‘housing first’, such as support in managing a home, mediation with neighbours and community integration, as well as resources for landlords in terms of housing management and legal and tax advice.
Temporary housing is not enough to address homelessness and long-term solutions such as ‘housing first’ are crucial. But supply is a bottleneck and mobilising vacant housing represents an opportunity for local authorities to respond to the affordability crisis.
The emergence of a European housing agenda provides opportunities for cities to exploit this political context. Key to unlocking housing is shifting public funding towards such permanent housing solutions.
This is part of a series on Global Cities supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Clotilde Clark-Foulquier is project manager at FEANTSA, the European federation of national homelessness organisations. She co-ordinates the Housing Solutions Platform to promote innovative solutions for affordable housing in Europe, a joint initiative of FEANTSA, the Fondation Abbé Pierre, Housing Europe and Habitat for Humanity.