Only two weeks after embarking on a new journey - to communicate about the need of affordable, sustainable homes as part of Housing Europe’s team - I hopped on a train to Antwerp together with our Secretary General, Sorcha Edwards and colleague Clara Mafé, responsible for our OurHomesOurDeal initiative to meet our member in Flanders.
Going just 100 km outside Brussels during a pandemic and the opportunity to learn more about the sector was already an adventure. The way to the office of VVH, the Association of Flemish Housing Companies, was a real insight into the work on the ground for me as they are based in the heart of a district with a high proportion of to social housing buildings and the families that live there.
About 5,000 deep renovations a year and building new stock to secure living and not only housing
I started by getting to know the basics. For the size of Flanders and with residents of just above 6 million, VVH invests €1.5 billion in building and renovation of social housing, and also takes care of 99.5% of the publicly-owned social rental stock in the region. In numbers, that would be 158,000 homes for social renting or 6% of the total housing market in Belgium. Today, thousands of families with lower income are being helped and can spend more of what they earn on education and activities that can open new doors for them by paying only one-fifth of their income to rent their social home. Yet, 135,000 people are on the waiting list which showed me in practice why building more affordable homes should be a way forward. The VVH team explained concretely how the COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that low-income groups in social housing were much better off than those without access. VVH members ensured that services were continued despite the circumstances and added extra outreach and support services to the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
What touched me the most?
What we call social housing in Flanders has been called just a ‘home’ for many local actors, singers and politicians and for five years, VVH has been telling the stories of local celebrities in the section ‘Proud of my roots’. “I mainly remember the conviviality of the social housing district. How we polished our bikes with friends from the neighbourhood. And when the weather was nice, we jumped on our bikes and drove to the centre,’’ Walter Grootaers, a popular singer and television host says in the latest edition of FUNDAMENTEN. If you go a few editions back, you can read the incredible story of the 100-year-old Irène who still lives independently in her social home after 45 years. These very human stories are a must-read if you are a Dutch speaker.
The near future - communicating about solutions to energy poverty in Flanders
Every communication specialist dreams of telling stories that offer a solution to big problems and at Housing Europe, I will be doing exactly that every single day. Low-income groups in Flanders, for instance, are more likely to experience energy poverty than other income groups and face the highest risk of eviction and homelessness. To act on this problem, VVH is working on the ASTER project and will place 20,000 solar panels with a total capacity of 40 megawatts on existing social housing. Through an innovative financial mechanism, our Belgian member aims to develop a sector-based approach to tackling poverty by retrofitting social homes with solar panels and socialising the returns on investment to ensure that tenants benefit through lower energy bills.
A couple of hours after leaving Antwerp, I was scrolling down the Housing Evolutions Hub and could see that ASTER is only one of the many inspiring examples of affordable housing that is also energy-efficient and sustainable. These successful projects are worth to be told and over the summer, you will hear more about them on our Twitter channel. As we hope for an agreement on an EU recovery package which commits to supporting social housing providers in their tasks of delivering future-proofed homes for those who need it most. Let’s keep the conversation going and remember, it is #OurHomesOurDeal.