How to accomplish the “right to housing”?

Laura Colini

By Laura Colini, on April 25th, 2019

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Laura Colini, URBACT Programme Expert, PhD in Urban and Territorial Studies at the University of Florence (IT), specialising in post-socialist German cities, explains what cities can do to improve access to the “right to housing”, using examples from Berlin (DE) and Barcelona (ES).

“The right to housing does not mean that everyone is entitled to a government provided home immediately. It means governments must ensure that everyone – particularly the most disadvantaged groups – should have access to housing that is adequate.” #MakeTheShift

The UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing #MakeTheShift campaign, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and international laws (including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are all committed to the “right to housing”. Despite that, this right is violated, denied and its implementation hindered by the fact that housing is seen as an extremely valuable commodity by banks and financial sector.

Housing now functions as an investment of over-accumulated capital not used up in the production process. Finance and housing are interdependent, and according to Forbes, “If housing (sector) gets a cold, banks and the financial sector get pneumonia”. This interdependency and the profitability in the housing sector are also possible because governments provide the backbones for these investments. City administrations are not excluded: through their policies, they choose where to stand, either fuelling or hindering financialised economies.

How cities engage in the “right to housing”

The answers of most progressive city administrations fighting against speculation follow three main strategies:

  1. Designing, reinforcing (wherever existing), diversifying local strategies, tools, policies and programmes that could implement in practice the “right to housing” eg. re-municipalisation of land and housing, supporting alternative dwelling models, creating anti-speculation campaigns, preventing evictions etc.
  2. Raising the visibility of local issues and practices to a worldwide stage, through international organisations and institutions. Some cities appear more and more on the international arena, promoting the #MakeTheShift campaign, SDG actions, lobbying through organisations such EUROCITIES, and other initiatives such as the EU URBAN agenda affordable housing partnership.
  3. Fostering peer-to-peer exchanges and alliances among cities, campaigning and raising common concerns. Barcelona has been on the front row in establishing new cities-alliances around the municipalist fearless cities and in promoting the Declaration “Cities for Adequate Housing” among a group of major global cities, with the support of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

This Declaration is a pragmatic frame for cities to engage with a wide range of actors, at different levels, to design strategies in line with the right to housing.

The declaration is structured around 5 demands:

  1. More powers to better regulate the real estate market
  2. More funds to improve public housing stocks
  3. More tools to co-produce public-private community driven alternative housing
  4. Urban planning combining adequate housing with quality, inclusive and sustainable neighbourhoods
  5. Municipalist cooperation in residential strategies.

Although these demands imply that cities are not solely responsible for adequate housing, in the last years some progressive city administrations became more prominent than others. While cities like Vienna (AT) represent a unique example of long-standing housing policies for all, other cities such as Berlin and Barcelona are newly regarded as examples.

Berlin and Barcelona

Berlin and Barcelona are large cities, both ruled by governments for whom the topic of housing is at the core of their mandate.

Barcelona is run by a leftist coalition where Barcelona en Comù (activists-based municipalist platform) occupies the most seats in the city council with Mayor Colau active in the PAH (the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages) that came about as response to the housing crisis in 2010.

Berlin is run by a coalition rot-rot-grün, a traditional party-coalition (SPD, Die Linke, The Greens) open to dialogue with social movements and citizens’ initiatives. In Berlin there is a strong civic sense of right to the city and “right to housing”, but there is not a city-wide activist platform similar to the one in Barcelona. Instead there are different arenas and various forms of collaboration between active civil society and the public administration, depending also on the political commitment at district level. Mayor Müller (center/leftist SPD) supports the agenda on housing, by backing the residential building sector in the demographically budding city.

Both cities are affected by booming economies, a growing demographic and tourist pressures on the housing market, so there is a lack of affordable housing and skyrocketing rental rates (+8.7% in Barcelona and +7.32% in Berlin in one year for a one-bedroom apartment).

One major difference is the ownership structure: although Berlin went through dramatic waves of privatisation of its housing stocks, and stopped its social housing subsidies in 2001, the social housing sector in the two cities is divergent.

After the reunification, Berlin sold 220 000 formerly state-owned housing units, including 64 000 in 2004 alone. Barcelona in 2017 had circa 1.5% of social rental housing, against circa 30% in Berlin. Their public administrations are engaged in providing more public social and adequate housing to their citizens and when looking through the lenses of the municipalist declaration of the “right to housing,” then both offer inspiring insights.

Instruments to regulate the real estate market

Barcelona has launched a Right to Housing Plan 2016-2025 with a broad and promising agenda.

Its two main lines of action in the field of anti-speculation include the acquisition of housing units from the private housing market by the city and a mechanism to facilitate bilateral agreements with homeowners.

The first measure means the acquisition of private properties accompanied by the homes rehabilitation under the management of the Municipal Institute of Housing and Rehabilitation (IMHAB).

The second measure enables bilateral agreements established through the Rental Housing Pool directly with the city, allowing the use of the property with affordable rent, in exchange of incentives to the private owners (such as guarantees of rental payment, renovation subsidies), as well as support and advice to go through the procedures. It also allows for a cession programme where the landlord temporarily transfers the right to use their property to a third party like Habitat 3 which is a foundation of the third social sector of the Catalan region dedicated to social housing, in exchange to incentives for the private owner.

These steps allow using public subsidies for rehabilitation and public guarantees in exchange for temporary affordability.

Berlin also counts on a series of instruments active both at national and local level to regulate the real estate market, such as the rental caps known as the Mietpreisbremse (Housing rental price mitigation) and the Milieuschutzgebiet (‘protected area’: a regulation to protect from expulsion). This includes restrictions on what property owners are allowed to do (e.g. upgrades and modernisations) to increase the value of their buildings in designated areas under pressure of gentrification. The law requires that owners submit an application for official approval for the work they intend to carry out, which can be refused if the authorities determine that the improvements will have a negative socio-economic impact in the area under protection.

Have they succeeded in actually breaking the gentrification spiral? The Mietpreisbremse specifically is under much discussion, considering the average rent increase continues to grow.

Milieuschutzsatzung: interventionism and other tools

The Milieuschutsatzung is a contested tool. The Institute of German Business Cologne recently claimed that “the instrument of the Milieuschutzsatzung represents a massive intervention in property rights. This benefits tenants who have an apartment with low housing costs. However, all apartment seekers who are unable to find adequate housing due to the excess demand are disadvantaged. The resulting insider-outsider constellation raises enormous social issues“.

One powerful tool, which can be used nationwide, but seldom used by cities, is the Vorkaufsrecht, the right of first purchase. It has its roots in the ancient Greek and Roman “Ius protimiseos” (also “pactum praelationis”) agreements for selling/purchasing goods. Simplifying, historically if land in a village was to be sold, the first offer was to the members of the village community.
In contemporary Germany the Vorkaufsrecht is the community’s right to buy up residential property about to be sold to preserve the social mix of a protected neighbourhood deemed worthy of Milieuschutz by law. Today, if a homeowner in a protected area sold his/her property, the district has two months to make an offer and enter into a contract. From 2015 to September 2018, Berlin’s districts exercised the right of first purchase for 664 apartments in favour of a third party, generally a state-owned housing associations.

These measures, however, are not yet curbing the predatory real estate market, and this is why in 2018 an activists’ initiative Initiative Mietenvolkentscheid was launched to collect 20 000 signatures needed to ask for a public referendum to ban landowners from selling to large real estate groups. This would enable forced expropriations of properties to be used for public housing. The scope is to bar companies, such as Deutsche Wohnen, owning more than 3 000 apartments in Berlin alone. Estimates forecast the recovery of some 200 000 housing units.

Is it all enough?

Instruments to regulate speculative rental markets are never sufficient, if not accompanied by structural changes. To achieve a real shift requires radical forms of collaboration with the social movements and citizens’ initiatives, committed authorities and agencies all working to vindicate the “right to housing”.

With diversified strategies (as promoted by the Declaration “Cities for Adequate Housing”) Berlin and Barcelona demonstrate the will to experiment in this sense. These cities can also count on significant investments from the EU, including a EUR 125 million loan to the Barcelona Municipal Housing Board from the European Investment Bank (EIB) with which it aims to build 2 198 homes for public rental to low-income households and support the construction of 1 300 new social and affordable homes in Berlin.

How and whether these investments will bring more equitable and adequate housing impacting the real estate market in these cities is another chapter in the story.


Read more on housing on URBACT website

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