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European cities, if united, can create affordable housing

Viewing property as a commodity creates a housing crisis; seeing it as a human right balances social stability

Ireland’s housing crisis is urgent but we are not alone. Photograph: Reuters/ Cathal McNaughton

The Icelandic word for stupid is heimskur; the one who has never left home. In Ireland many of our social problems, like housing and health, can seem entrenched, bogged down in history, unique to ourselves. We look within to blame and our actions are often reactions to failures. And we get snared in the nets of short-term fixes that, once again, create new crises.

In Vienna they talk of public housing with pride. “No one’s address tells you how much they earn,” Karin Ramser, director of the city of Vienna’s community housing, Wiener Wohnen, says. There are no ghettos, little graffiti and the housing blocks are branded with the year they were built, the architect’s name, and the legend “Built with public taxes.”

Vienna is a global model for a city facing up to its needs. Over half a million people (30 per cent of the population) live in one of the housing complexes under Ramser’s wing. Some 60 per cent live in subsidised or municipal housing.

In 2020 the city celebrates 100 years of municipal building and with Vienna one of the fastest growing cities in the world, Wiener Wohnen is adding 4,000 new units a year. But Ramser also gets 10,000 units a year back as everyone rents rather than buys.

Public housing

Vienna’s public housing stock remains its property and, as the primary landowner, it sets housing policy. In fact, the Mayor of Vienna, Michael Ludwig, has recently reinforced this by requiring private real estate projects to build more subsidised housing than privately financed flats – a whopping 70 per cent requirement.

For Ludwig, public land must deliver public housing. Two-thirds of Europeans live in cities and cities need workers. A city depending on firefighters and nurses who cannot afford to live in that city has failed, he says.

The Vienna housing model was at the heart of a global gathering in the city last week with several cities, notably Barcelona and Lisbon, sharing how a market view of property as a commodity, fuelled by speculation and investor funds, has created a housing crisis where people living and working in the cities cannot afford somewhere to live. The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, herself a former housing activist, wants European cities to unite on housing. “We’re not alone,” she says.

In Ireland our housing crisis can seem personal but in a European context we’re part of a trend where real estate in cities forms a global monopoly board game making housing increasingly unaffordable for residents. While housing is not an EU mandate, Kieran McCarthy, a Cork city councillor and a member of the EU Committee of the Regions, has called for a European Summit of Housing in 2019 to prioritise it.

Human right

Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, asserts the critical change is to frame housing as a human right, something we are all signed up to under UN and EU social declarations. Ireland and other countries, she says, should codify that right in national legislation as they have signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals that commit governments to provide adequate and affordable housing for all by 2030.

Farha has now launched a global movement called The Shift to “reclaim the fundamental human right to housing and to move away from housing as a place to park excess capital”. She wants housing on the G20 agenda as she sees the housing crisis as the outcome of a global economic system; a neo-liberal view of residential property as a commodity rather than the basis of social stability.

In Vienna, a city known for its prosperity, the commitment to social and affordable housing, and to the city controlling it, is broadly supported across the political lines. During the conference, the vista of Paris burning, with young people in the often socially marginalised banlieus being arrested, was a reminder to the Viennese of the social cost of not investing. For Vienna the benefit is social peace. It uses many different ways of providing housing including co-operative schemes and financing for innovative approaches. The big difference is its affordable housing means middle class families also benefit. Most people rent so the very Irish obsession with ownership is not there because rent is both affordable, stable and secure.

Economic and social cost

The economic cost of cities, where workers commute in and out for hours, of social unrest fuelled by inequality, and the social cost of families where children are living in temporary accommodation, losing education is increasingly being quantified as the price of a neo-liberal, market approach to residential property and land.

Claudio Acioly of UN Habitat says cities need to take back their power and, if need be, stand up to national governments who remain wedded to tax breaks for vulture funds and seeing residential property as a commodity.

With both local government and European parliament elections coming up in 2019, the opportunity is there for us to put affordable housing and sustainable cities on the agenda. Our housing crisis is urgent but, as Mayor Colau says, “we’re not alone” and the combined voices of European cities, seeing housing as a social good, may be needed to balance the power of the market view that housing is a cash cow for profits. Vienna is not the answer to our problems but it inspires us to think differently. Sometimes we have to leave home to find it.

Helen Shaw is a documentary-maker with Athena Media currently recording a podcast series about housing and cities –