In search of affordable housing: a European challenge

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In search of affordable housing: a European challenge

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For the last few decades, we have been experiencing globalisation, the polarising effects of which can now be seen: the polarisation of jobs – those created today are often either highly qualified or on the contrary relatively basic and poorly paid – and also income, skills and territories. This polarisation creates divides between people and highlights inequalities. It contributes to the gradual atrophy of the middle class and also affects housing. In several European countries, there is a striking contrast between deserted municipalities and town centres with an abundance of vacant (and affordable) housing and expanding major cities, dense and attractive, in which housing is becoming each day less accessible to low- and medium-income households. The once achievable dream of becoming a homeowner in a city is now slipping away from the middle classes, as land and construction prices continue to rise.

Ten years ago, the financial crisis revealed the key importance of housing in households’ financial security, a consequence of the property purchase incentive policies of the 1970s which, in the USA as in Europe, detracted housing from its original function as a shelter to make it the primary means of building wealth. It is specifically because housing is the key element in many households’ financial strategy that the middle classes are now anxious when facing the prospect of being downgraded on account of globalisation. Yet while it is a key concern for city-dwellers, housing is the main urban resilience challenge for cities, affecting the ability of individuals, communities and urban systems to survive, adapt and grow in spite of this situation of chronic strain. The vitality and economic functioning of our cities are not solely dependent on the presence of innovative ecosystems, promising economic sectors and top-ranking universities, they also depend on low- and medium-income households.

While the production of housing in European cities is hindered by restrictions that are physical, topographical, regulatory or political, and while affordable housing is becoming so scarce that low- and even medium-income households are at risk of no longer being able to live in cities, the dynamism of urban economies is now at stake with regard to affordable housing. And with good reason, a city will not remain very attractive for long if it cannot provide housing… One example is the city of Stockholm, where the job market is suffering from saturation and disproportionate prices in residential stock. Across the Atlantic, the same crisis has been ongoing for a long time in Silicon Valley, where an increasing number of employees are forced to sleep in their cars, and in New York which has transformed from a city into a luxury object where many households cannot even afford to rent a studio apartment.

For major cities, refusing to act to curb the soaring property prices and letting low- and medium-income households move further away from their centres resulting in increasingly long and expensive commutes is not an advisable or sustainable solution. They need to understand the causes of the current shortage, be they the consequence of their attractiveness and economic dynamism, or the repercussions of their specific political, economic or historical characteristics… This is the purpose of this report which aims to provide cities with an analysis of the difficulties currently facing major European cities in resolving the housing crisis. This is a genuine social issue, as European cities’ responses to the housing issue will also clarify the way in which we wish to shape our societies in the decades to come.

This report, written following interviews conducted with around thirty experts in seven European cities (Paris, Bordeaux, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Munich and Warsaw), highlights the need for public authorities to step up their involvement in the housing sector. It is on the scale of major cities, which have a magnifying effect on globalisation in which inequality, spatial fractures and social and economic segmentations are on the rise, that this intervention must be rolled out, because the housing crisis is not and never was a national crisis. The observed territorial ultra-polarisation of housing and spatial mismatch between supply and demand must incite cities to revise their approach as of today. The difficulties facing the major cities studied in this report illustrate the shortcomings related to inaction. The solutions that they are currently striving to implement also indicate that there is still hope and that the urban crisis of our century must above all be resolved through political willpower.

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La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.

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