Public, cooperative and social housing facing a global pandemic in collaboration
How doing an internship at Housing Europe during the COVID-19 lockdown turned into an inspiration for a master thesis ?Brussels, 27 November 2020 | Social, Covid-19
Marion Brunet graduated from the French engineering school of sustainable planning (ENTPE), with a master in Urban and territorial politics and strategies from the Lyon urban planning institute (IUL). Having started her internship with Housing Europe during the first COVID lockdown, she decided to dedicate her master thesis to the way public, cooperative and social housing providers in Europe have been weathering the storm collectively.
I started my internship at Housing Europe in April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit the EU. It took me a few weeks to understand the importance of affordable, social housing during this crisis, and the crucial role that Housing Europe was playing. The Federation brings public, cooperative, and social housing providers from 25 countries across Europe and gives an overview of different housing realities. The rich network made it the perfect place to study the COVID-19's impact on a broader scale. In a moment when Housing Europe was reaching out to its members to understand how they were coping with the pandemic and supporting tenants locally, one thing became clear: despite their differences, housing providers in the north, south, east and west were the safety net people needed. Indeed, they were often responding to health, socio-economic challenges in a similar manner and most importantly, they were relying on cooperation between each other. This is why I chose to write my master’s thesis about the cooperation inside the social housing sector facing this pandemic, and the role of Housing Europe being housing providers’ voice at European level. In this piece, I would like to take you through some of the main revelations of my research.
The starting point of this work was how could a sector regulated at national level face a crisis at European level? Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis is global and concerns all countries. All EU Member States needed support to recover from the financial shock, had to cooperate closely and minimise the consequences as much as they could. This is why the European Union put up a recovery plan engaging all economic sectors, including social housing. Meanwhile, housing, and social housing are not a direct competence of the EU, but rather a national one. Though the crisis is global, the answer can only be brought by national governments, according to the institutions. This paradox raised a first question - how is it possible to implement European cooperation in sectors that are not a European competence?
Another point was that the pandemic hit every country differently and had a different impact on each of them. Knowing that social housing is a heterogeneous sector across Europe, then, how can each member state's specificities in social housing, and the way they respond to the COVID-19 crisis be considered?
Also, the social housing sector is at a turning point, facing multiple crises at the same time. How to use this recovery plan to rethink the social housing sector, and bring it towards a more ecological transition?
To answer those questions, I chose to focus on Housing Europe’s role in the European social housing sector, facing those multiple crises. The Federation has a pilot role in implementing a stronger collaboration in the sector. But how can it support social housing actors during the COVID-19 crisis to give more importance to the sector?
The research problem of the thesis was how is Housing Europe promoting the social housing sector at an EU level to secure its place as a critical sector in the post-COVID-19 EU?
Before looking into the pandemic’s impact on the sector, it is interesting to understand how the social housing sector has been considered by the EU, since the end of the Second World War.
Since the beginning of the industrialised society, a societal consensus was reached in Europe over the fact that housing was a common good. The proof is, despite the heterogeneity of the housing sector, all those national systems share the common ambition to provide good quality housing for the families of waged workers. This role of social housing is still true today, even though the sector is sometimes perceived negatively. Housing Europe, however, broadcasts the societal role of social housing to a broader audience and the EU institutions. For 30 years, they have been representing the sector and also staying up to date with innovations and new challenges, such as the environmental crisis. The existence of an organisation such as Housing Europe is justified by the fact that housing was not a political priority in the EU. After a prosperous period, that laid the foundations of the sector as we know it today, the social housing sector faced the liberal wave of the 1980s. Social housing was no longer considered as a priority for the governments, even though it was still needed because of the economic crisis, the end of communism and the oncoming immigration.
At the same time, the EU and its values were defined during this period. The EU was based on a liberal principle, and the idea of a free market. As a consequence, social sectors were considered under the angle of the potential hindrance they could cause to the free market. The EU regulated the social housing sector through that lens. If the first reaction of the EU was austerity, the 2008’s global financial crisis has initiated a slow turn towards a more social approach.
The social housing sector is considered by the actors involved as central for many crises: especially the affordability crisis and the environmental one. Moreover, the characteristics of the sector (not-for-profit, large stocks, …) means that it can be used to test many innovations. But, despite many promises, it is still not a political priority.
The COVID-19 pandemic struck the EU in March 2020. As the confinement measures were implemented, it became clearer that the EU had been facing a housing crisis for a long time, although it had not been addressed. The main issue was, of course, to find a home for those who did not have one. But the quality and affordability of housing also appeared as essential issues. Several Housing Europe members were interviewed for this thesis, and they agreed that the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated the importance of the sector. They also pointed out that the crisis could be an opportunity for the sector to be empowered: “I think that the main challenge is to really take advantage of this opportunity of the empowerment of the social housing sector. […] Housing is the trending topic, the agenda of the policymakers.” [María Montes Miguel, AVS, 21/07/2020]. The COVID-19 crisis forced national governments as well as the EU institutions to look at the housing situation and to act in consequence, in order to protect the population. As more attention went to housing needs, public authorities and housing associations took measures that would not have been taken otherwise a few months ago when the focus on austerity was more important.
Concerning those measures, Housing Europe surveyed its members to understand how they were facing the crisis. Even though the social housing sector is very different throughout the EU, similar national measures were implemented, mainly on three different themes: keeping the maintenance of buildings, dealing with rent arrears and evictions, and providing services and care for tenants. This shows the universality of the idea of social housing: providing shelter for those in need. This survey highlights Housing Europe’s crucial role during the crisis by continuously exchanging with its members.
Even if meeting in person was not possible, the number of exchanges increased significantly, leading to more cooperation inside the sector. By asking their members to exchange, to participate in webinars, Housing Europe made them think about their role in a broader way, at a time when every country retreated into its shell. These exchanges allowed Housing Europe to gather information about the different reactions to the crisis across Europe. This allowed the sector to learn how to face such a crisis, but also to realise even better what the social housing sector is capable of doing to protect its tenants. This made me wonder why these measures were not implemented in a “normal” situation.
Another challenge for Housing Europe, and the social housing sector, was and still is to put social housing on the agenda, once the extraordinary measures are ended. It is crucial for the sector to take that chance, taking into consideration the fact that the ongoing economic crisis will give it an even bigger role in protecting vulnerable households. To be able to face this increasing need for social housing, the sector needs to be recognised by the EU in terms of funding, but also with adequate regulation. The housing associations interviewed for this work expected the EU to change the way it considers the social housing sector. The EU has to rethink the social housing sector, not as a sector separated from the economy, but as a crucial piece of its recovery.
Before the pandemic, social housing was a core sector in several crises, such as the affordability and housing crisis, but also the environmental crisis. The COVID-19 crisis can be seen as an opportunity to accelerate change in front of those challenges. Three main challenges can be distinguished: affordability, availability, and sustainability.
The affordability crisis mainly comes from the financialisation of the housing market, and the fact that housing is considered as any good that can be exchanged on the free market. This is reflected in the EU legislation, as housing is submitted to the “3% law”. However, for several persons interviewed, such as Dara Turnbull (Housing Europe), housing is a need before being a good to exchange on the market: “So, housing shouldn’t be thought primarily as an industry, for-profit, it should be thought as a need, the same as healthcare, and education, and security and so on. They are all needs, they are not wants.” [Dara Turnbull, Housing Europe, 25/06/2020]. Even though housing is a Human right and should be considered as a basic need, it is still viewed as a good by the free market, and by the EU. This is why actors of the social housing sector are calling for more social policies from the EU. This call had started before the COVID-crisis but is even stronger now. The European institutions are changing, slowly but surely, and this pandemic could be a nudge to this change. In order to keep this trend going, the social housing sector should be united to carry its claims to the EU level. What the sector seems to be asking, more than a new European competence is for the EU to change its paradigm in favour of the social sector.
The second challenge is the availability of social dwellings. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the following economic crisis add up to an already saturated social housing market. It is highly probable that the demand for social housing will increase in the upcoming months. However, the construction sector was one of the sectors that were the most hit by the crisis, as the majority of construction sites had to close for a short period during lockdown. Further than the construction sector, this will have a direct impact on the housing shortage, and therefore on the affordability crisis on the housing market. This is where the countercyclicality of the social housing sector has a role to play: “And we believe that the social housing sector, because it is non-profit, it’s not profits driven, we can do a lot by continuing to build in times of economic crisis.” [Robin van Leijen, Aedes, 17/07/2020]. If the social housing sector can be a solution to restart constructions in Europe, it is also an opportunity to think differently about the construction of dwellings, and to start an actual shift towards sustainable buildings.
Finally, the environmental crisis is one of the biggest challenges the EU has to face since its creation and social housing is a crucial element for this transition to succeed. This is a claim that Housing Europe has been making for years before the EU Green Deal was on the political agenda. The European Green
Deal is presented as an ambitious plan aiming at making Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. Housing is targeted as a key sector to achieve this objective. This answers the expectations of the social housing sector that has been calling for the EU to take such an initiative for a long time. However, the sector has not been waiting to take actions towards energy sobriety. For instance, Housing Europe is involved in several projects across the EU every year for its expertise in the social housing sector and its network of actors. The projects are usually at the forefront of innovation in the social housing sector and have a sustainable dimension for the majority. This approach by project is another way to push the sector to be greener, outside of the EU incentives.
Social housing federations and Housing Europe took this pandemic as an opportunity to empower and promote the sector. Their main goal is for the EU to recognise the need for a strong European social housing sector, and to allow it to fulfil its social mission. This could lead to a more global change and challenge the actual conception of the economy. Indeed, the role of a non-profit sector as a way to recover from an economic crisis cannot be denied.