Cities in Action for Social Housing: Residents form central link in creating sustainable social housing

The Salford Energy House by University of Stalford on Flickr


By URBACT, on January 10th, 2014

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Many European cities are currently dealing with the question of how to make social housing more energy efficient and sustainable, without leading to skyrocketing costs. Cities in Action for Social housing (CASH) was an URBACT-network consisting of 11 European cities and regions, which focused on this important and complex challenge. It did not only look at financial Solutions, but also considered the technical side of energy efficiency, legal frameworks, forms of successful project management, local energy production and – very importantly – resident participation.

Utrecht aims to reach considerable energy savings in social housing

The Dutch city of Utrecht is very ambitious when it comes to energy savings in the built environment. In 2013, the city wants to be climate neutral. In order to reach that ambitious goal, 26 million Euros were reserved for energy- and sustainability projects in the period between 2010-2014. However, energy efficiency in social housing remains a complicated issue, in which many different interests and ideas play a role. “Before 2010, we had already set up and implemented several projects focusing on behaviour change in tenants in the social housing sector,” Inge van de Klundert –  advisor at the department of Environment and Mobility of Utrecht Municipality – says. “We have for example worked with female energy ambassadors in migrant communities. This was a very inspiring project. Unfortunately it is very hard to bring about large-scale and structural change with these kinds of small initiatives. By becoming part of the URBACT CASH-project in 2009, we hoped to be able to exchange ideas with other cities, and jointly discover how the large-scale change we desired could be reached after all.”

Inspiration from URBACT-partners

In th following years, Utrecht was indeed introduced to a world of inspiring projects from other European countries and cities. “In Germany we saw how investments in energy are financed by low interest subsidies. We also learned that social housing tenants in Denmark commonly contribute to a national maintenance fund, which is used to pay for investments in energy efficiency. This fund is managed by tenant representatives, supported by professional advisors, putting tenants in charge of spending public funds.” Unfortunately these kinds of programmes were not always directly applicable to the local context of Utrecht. “Every country, and every city is characterised by its own set of rules and regulations, which means you cannot simply copy paste these kinds of projects or programmes.”However, this does not mean that Utrecht has not been able to learn anything useful from the partners of the CASH project. “In the English city of Bridgend, the municipality worked with local residents who have a certain status in the area or community.  These people were contacted in order to encourage others of the benefits of investing in energy efficiency. They told tenants about the possibility of having their homes renovated, which could for example result in lower energy bills. In the French city of Les Mureaux, the municipality worked with a professional interior designer. If tenants agreed to have their homes renovated, they would be offered a free re-styling of their living rooms. This made energy efficiency renovations – quite drastic interventions – much more attractive to many tenants.”

On the road to a structurally energy efficient social housing sector

The CASH-project ended last year, in November 2012. In the 4 years the project was running, the Municipality of Utrecht made important performance agreements with housing corporations, stating that social housing would have to become more energy efficient by 2015. These agreements were an important step in the process of creating a structurally energy efficient social housing sector. “Meanwhile, the targets set in the performance agreements have been met. Unfortunately, the construction and renovation of social housing has now largely come to a standstill because of the economic crisis. That means we will have to search for new methods,” Inge van de Klundert explains. She believes the future lies in making small investments in energy efficiency attractive to large investors, such as pension funds. In addition, subsidies for owners and tenants will remain crucial as well.
“Actually, we are more or less back at where we started,” van de Klundert says jokingly. “It is difficult to finance structural energy-saving adjustments in the social housing sector. The investments required have a long payback time, and because of the tenants’ generally low incomes, rents cannot be significantly increased either. At the same time, new technologies may also not form the ultimate solution. Of course, we can develop all kinds of new technologies, but in the end, local residents need to apply them. If they do not feel like doing so, nothing will change. That is why we have to keep on searching for innovative financial constructions for energy efficient renovations. However, the near future might very well lie in relatively small, local initiatives once again!”

By the URBACT Contact Point in the Netherlands

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