Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, has piloted social housing to improve social inclusion in the Moravian-Silesian region. The project 'A place to call home' has renovated 105 apartments for families who would otherwise live in sub-standard housing, with five set aside as emergency homes. It has also developed processes to access housing, a framework to cooperate with city districts, and social support for tenants.
This social housing pilot project in Ostrava secured the city a Regiostar Award- the European Commission competition that identifies good practices in regional development and highlight original and innovative projects that are attractive and inspiring to other regions. We have asked Dr. Marek Mikulec, Methodologist of social housing of the City of Ostrava to tell us how they did it. What does it take to create a housing system from scratch? What is the role of housing for social inclusion? Is there a magic recipe to get community acceptance and involvement? And finally, is this the time of cities for affordable housing rather than countries? Here's the Ostrava take on the above points and much more...
- Can you give us an idea of how severe the housing needs in Ostrava are? What mobilized the City to take action in housing?
Ostrava is the third largest Czech city, with a population of around 290 000. In the past it was a centre of heavy industry, which went into steep decline in the 1990s after the fall of the communist regime. As a result of this decline, the entire region underwent wide-ranging changes, and it had to cope with the impacts in the form of unemployment and the privatization of housing stock.
We have identified approx. 10 000 people in Ostrava who are in housing need – i.e. they live in substandard housing in socially excluded localities, commercially-run hostels, insecure housing or otherwise inadequate conditions.
For many years Ostrava has worked to address the social problems in the city. There is a functioning network of social services, and the City also works with non-profit organizations. However, the impacts of these activities are only partial; essentially they are dealing with the manifestations of problems rather than addressing their root causes.
If comprehensive, systemic solutions are to be found for people in housing need, it is essential for the City to play the pivotal role in these solutions. Through the project, the City has risen to this challenge, creating a local system of social housing which is currently being piloted. There is still some way to go before we have a fully functioning and sufficiently robust social housing system, but we have started out on the right path.
One impetus behind the project was also the lack of social housing legislation (act) at national level.
The long-term goal of our local concept is to create an integrated system of social housing which addresses the requirements of those members of the community who have been identified in housing need.
- Based on your experience what are the main pieces of the puzzle a city administration has to put together when setting up a social housing scheme/system?
In view of the city’s size, the number of relevant stakeholders and the number of people in housing need, a carefully conceived systematic approach is an essential precondition for success. The key aspects of our project are the following:
Systematic solutions – we consulted the project partners (municipal districts, Labour office, non-profit organizations, an energy company and the university) already during the planning phase. This was very important; many of the partners were playing this role for the first time, and it was essential that they supported the project and felt that they were an integral part of it.
Cooperation and participation – the local conception of social housing is the result of the activities of working groups which involved actors from both the local and national levels (at the national level the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic). We also involved people who are currently experiencing housing need or have past experience of such situations, because the emic perspective played an important role in creating our conception.
Willingness to embrace change/paradigm shifts – creating a local system of social housing is a long-term task which requires a large amount of work and brings many changes. We have created a mechanism for assessment of housing situation of households, and we have defined the parameters for the system and for the assistance provided by social workers to households that have already get social flat within our project. Social housing in the Czech Republic was dominantly based on a Housing Ready system; in the project we incorporate elements of Housing First, and social workers help households to establish themselves in their new homes and set up intensity of support depending on individual needs and requirements.
Working with data/evaluation – we work systematically with data, and we evaluate the changes taking place in affected households in order to assess where the piloted system needs improvement and determine how to implement the necessary changes. The evaluation focuses on two areas – cooperation of stakeholders (ensuring the functionality of the system and cooperation-based activities) and the situation in households that get social flat (cooperation with social workers, evaluation of changes in the households after rehousing).
Political will – because our project is a local systemic change, it is essential that local political representatives fully acknowledge housing-related issues and the provision of assistance to vulnerable groups (people in housing need – low-income families, single parents, disabled people, ethnic minorities) as a priority.
- How long did the process take? What were the main challenges you had to address?
The project implementation period is from October 2016 to September 2019, so more than two years of the implementation are already behind us. The implementation was preceded by around 9 months of preparation and negotiations. So, in total, we have been working on the local social housing system since the end of 2015.
There were quite a few challenges during the individual phases of the project. It was important for us to ensure that all key actors got involved. For example, one of the most severe problems for people in housing need is energy poverty – so one of the stakeholders involved in the project is an energy company, which is now viewing this target group from a new perspective.
Within the City of Ostrava, we are setting up a system for cooperation between the City Authority and the individual municipal districts which make up the City – not only when identifying target households and fulfilling their housing needs, but also in data collection and evaluation, setting up systems for preventing housing loss, and other areas. One challenge was the need to provide a sufficient number of social apartments for the project – a challenge that has been successfully met. However, another major challenge is providing an adequate number of apartments in the medium- and long-term in order to ensure that the social housing system will become fully functional in the future.
Another important area is cooperation with non-profit organizations; this helps to ensure that assistance to people in housing need is provided in collaboration with them rather than in an uncoordinated manner, with different organizations offering parallel services. Non-profit organizations are important stakeholders and can offer a wealth of experience.
One major challenge in social housing is to ensure that households can benefit from adequate support provided by social workers, who will help the household stabilize its housing situation and prevent housing loss. Key issues here are the household’s social networks, the stabilization of their financial situation, support in key areas, solutions for any conflicts with neighbors, etc.
All in all, it is crucial to ensure that the project implementation and outcomes represent a solid basis enabling us to create a strong pillar of local inclusion policy.
- Housing is now part of the city’s inclusion strategy? Can you give us a brief overview of the overall strategy and the place of housing in it?
As part of the project we have created a local concept of social housing that has been approved by the City Assembly – so it is now one of the City’s key systemic documents.
The City of Ostrava has a Strategic Development Plan for the period 2017–2023, which sets out three extensive priority areas:
- A vibrant regional capital – here the focus is on investment, international cooperation, economic restructuring and the revitalization of the city centre;
- Wealth in people – support for education and enterprise, emphasis on community life and civic initiatives;
- A healthy city – functional public space, urban planning, green areas, smart city.
The strategic development plan covers a very broad range of areas. As part of our project we aim to anchor issues of social housing not only within social policy, but also at the strategic level of policy.
- How can Ostrava now move from the pilot phase to a permanent social housing scheme?
This step will be challenging. Our systematic work on creating an action plan (which will then be regularly updated) will enable us to unfold this process over a longer period, focusing on short-, medium- and long-term tasks.
Currently, the City of Ostrava has approved its concept of social housing, and we are now working on an action plan, which will be ready in the first half of 2019. The plan is being piloted in 105 flats, but many more flats will be needed in order to create a fully functional and sufficiently robust system of social housing, and much work still awaits us in this area.
This transition from a project to a stable system of social housing will also be driven by data. As of 1 September 2018 a total of 85 households had been placed in adequate housing, i.e. 215 people (122 adults and 93 children).
The project ends in September 2019, so at present we have only collected interim data – though the data is already very interesting. We view housing as a crucial precondition for social inclusion. For households, proper housing (in a flat) is a key factor representing a major qualitative shift up from unsuitable housing. Households speak of feeling secure and safe in a social flat, as well as of improvements in both physical health and mental well-being. Current relationships within the family and with partners and other people improve, and new relationships are started.
Based on the interim data that we already have at our disposal, we can already state that social housing brings “more space for less money” to households that get social flat. After establishing themselves in proper housing, households pay on average 14% less than before, and have 57% more space (quadrat meters). They leave behind cramped, high-cost spaces and move into more spacious and cheaper flats. This brings substantial savings both for households themselves and for public finances (social benefit system).
Each household placed in new social flat is assisted by social workers depending on individual needs; the social workers help households to become established in their new homes and to deal with subsequent issues as they arise.
It is very easy to fall into a social exclusion spiral, and extremely difficult to escape from it. The project aims to help people leave this spiral behind – and our interim results show us that it is achieving the desired results. Success requires the efforts of the household and the support of social workers, but the project data indicates that it is working.
- You say in the project fiche that ‘Cooperation between the different stakeholders has been central to its success’. How did you make this happen? And how did you secure the acceptance by the Ostrava community and in particular in the neighbourhoods where the apartments are located?
Ostrava is a very complex environment, and if we are to create a local system of social housing, it is essential to harness the synergic potential of activities rather than relying on isolated projects each involving different actors. For this reason we view cooperation among stakeholders as a key aspect of the project. The project brings together a range of stakeholders, all sharing the same goal: representatives of the city authority and municipal district authorities, non-profit organizations, Labour office, an energy company, a dominant private owner of flats, a university, and (at the national level) the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic. People in housing need have also been directly involved as stakeholders.
Public perceptions of social housing vary widely, and the issue has both positive and negative connotations. Our work in the general public sphere includes providing systematic information (including facts and data), as well as discussing any failures and attempting to learn from them.
The issue of good neighborliness is very important, and it is a central part of the project. Social housing should not, as an unintended consequence, cause problems and discomfort to existing inhabitants of buildings or neighborhoods. If complaints are received, social workers help to solve the problem and play a mediating role.
Another key principle in our project is non-segregation; we are keen to locate social housing in various parts of the city and various buildings, and social workers offer assistance according to individual needs.
- You used ESF means to support your project. How would the ideal financing mechanism look like in your opinion and based on your needs?
Yes, the project is funded by the ESF (Operational Programme Employment). EU funding is very important for financing inclusion projects.
The format for the project application and preparation met our requirements. An important issue in the future will be how best to set the parameters of future calls – whether for financing social work or for investments to create social housing stock. Here an important role will be played by the national ministries which announce the calls. In order to create and maintain a functioning social housing system in the future, funding will be necessary both for social work and for housing stock.
- Your project came to life in a country that does not have national social housing law. Do you think it’s the time that cities should take the initiative when it comes to affordable housing?
In our view, a national social housing law is very necessary. In the Czech Republic there are around 200 000 people in housing need, and (especially in the large cities) housing costs are growing; access to housing is becoming more difficult, and the situation of already at-risk households continues to deteriorate.
For this reason it is necessary for municipalities to actively address the issue of social housing. Housing is an absolutely fundamental need of every household, and in a situation when no national-level legislation (act) exists, municipal-level activities are of crucial importance. However, any such activities are necessarily restricted to a certain territory. Even the systematic creation of social housing solutions in Ostrava and other cities/municipalities cannot solve housing needs in other parts of the country where the problem is deliberately neglected.
An umbrella project run by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs exists, working with municipalities and supporting them in creating local social housing systems. The project involves Ostrava and other large Czech cities (Brno, Plzeň, Pardubice), as well as some very small municipalities. These activities make a valuable contribution to helping people in housing need, and they could represent a stimulus for the creation of a national-level law on social housing.