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What do we mean when we talk about affordability?

Announcing #Housing2030 Affordability Study

London, 27 February 2020 | Economy

The issue of housing ‘affordability’ is a key part of the public discourse in most European countries today. For example, in the recent election in Ireland, 26 per cent of voters stated that housing and homelessness was their top priority when they decided how to vote, second only to healthcare. Furthermore, the Eurobarometer surveys show that concerns about housing remain elevated in many countries.

However, the words ‘affordable’ and ‘affordability’ in relation to housing can mean different things to different people. What might be considered to be an affordable rent for one household, may not be so affordable for another. Of course, such ambiguities are to be expected, given the broad spectrum of incomes, family situations, special needs and other variables which make up households right across Europe today.

While this creates the temptation to simply leave matters related to defining affordability to local and national governments, it also works to confuse the discussion of affordability and allow space for those who do not see that the current housing system in many European countries as being problematic to seize the narrative and sow doubt in the minds of policymakers.

Therefore, we must be pragmatic and act to change the narrative.

This will require a concerted effort to see where ideas around affordability overlap; providing a solid foundation upon which to build up an argument in favour of public intervention to address market failures. We must then understand the factors which impact on affordability; at least generally speaking. Once these pieces are in place, we must highlight ‘best practice’ in terms of improving affordability.

To that end, we at Housing Europe are delighted to announce that, in partnership with the United Nations Economic Committee for Europe (UNECE) and our members, we are launching a new initiative called #Housing2030.

The two core aims of the study are:

  1. To identify key tried and tested policy instruments for improving affordability and sustainability of housing in the UNECE countries
  2. To identify and facilitate exchange of ‘good practices’ in relation to the abovementioned policy instruments and to support their dissemination

In order to achieve this, the #Housing2030 study will investigate four key issues related to both current and future affordability issues. Namely,

  1. Housing governance and regulation, including measuring housing affordability
  2. Access to finance and funding
  3. Access and availability of land for housing construction, integration of planning of housing with planning of jobs and services; and
  4. Climate-neutral housing construction and renovation, including role of architecture, use of sustainable building materials, innovation in construction

Key issues which are often overlooked when discussing affordability are adequacy and community. That is why the ‘Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing in the UNECE’ will guide all of the work of the #Housing2030 study. This will ensure that building affordable homes goes hand in hand with building vibrant communities.

In order to facilitate the study, two independent Chairs have been appointed to coordinate and guide the research. Elena Szolgayová is an experienced Slovakian civil servant, having been the Director General of the Ministry of Transport and Construction there until recently. She is also a former Chair of the UNECE Committee on Housing and Land Management. Meantime, David Orr is a former Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation in England.

Speaking at the project's steering committee, Mr Orr stated that “there are those who don’t see much of a role for social and affordable housing in rebalancing the housing sector, but they also effectively say ‘the private sector hasn’t been able to adequately deliver in recent decades, so let’s have a bit more of the private sector’. Clearly, we need to have a bit of a rethink of that. Having had the opportunity to work with people from all over the world, it seems clear to me that there is a much greater appetite now for a new dialogue on housing and, more specifically, how it impacts on countries in terms of various social outcomes and their long-term success”.

Speaking specifically about the #Housing2030 study he stated that “I know that when you look around the UNECE countries that you can find some really good ideas that, for whatever reason, have failed to become mainstream, even in the countries in which they are being used. They have not become part of the narrative about what is possible when we talk about delivering on the promise of affordable housing. This project must shine a light on them. It is, of course, almost never possible for a country to pick up a policy from another and implement it unchanged, but you can always find the elements which might work for you and adapt best practice from elsewhere so that it can be delivered in your country and for the benefit of your people”.

Elena Szolgayová, also speaking to Housing Europe staff, added that “the free-market solutions promoted in my country and others brought speculation rather than the promised prosperity and improved living circumstances. We need a new approach and a new way of thinking about housing. At present, housing policy is based off of four- or five-year elections cycles – we need to find a way of promoting the long-term perspective”.

The next meeting of the steering committee will take place on June 3rd in Glasgow with the first thematic workshop with the focus on land policy as a vital factor in delivering affordable housing is scheduled for May 20 – 23 hosted by Maltese ministry for xxx

Follow- up blogs on what we talk about when we talk about affordability will cover:

  • Context-driven Affordability Criteria in Scotland based on the intervention by Sara Jackson (SFHA)
  • Measuring the Impact of Social Housing Providers in Wales based on the intervention by Clarissa Corbisiero (CHC)
  • The Impact of eligibility Criteria on Access to Affordable Housing in the Netherlands based on the intervention by Robin van Leijen (Aedes)
  • Assessing Affordability as a Spectrum: The French Approach based on the intervention by  Virginie Toussain (USH)
  • Affordability vs Accessibility in Flanders based on the intervention by  Virginie Toussain Björn Mallants (VMSW)
  • Housing Affordability in the English context based on the intervention by   James Prestwich

For more information please do not hesitate to contact Housing Europe Research Coordinator Dara Turnbull

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