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Social housing providers in Belgium at the first line of defence during floods

The aftermath of SWL after the deadly flooding and how social mobilisation in times of crisis can play a major role

25 November 2021

The heavy rainfalls that hit Belgium mid-July shocked everyone. People who had a stable housing situation suddenly found themselves with nowhere to go. In a heroic and well-coordinated effort, local authorities along with social housing companies took urgent action to help households from more than 200 affected communes in Walonia. Keep reading this piece written by Daniel Pollain, the spokesperson for the Walloon Housing Company (SWL) to find out how they have been weathering the storm.

As of 13 July 2021, unprecedented flooding occurred in Belgium, particularly in the provinces of Hainaut, Namur, Liège, Luxembourg, Walloon Brabant, Limburg and the Brussels-Capital Region.

For more than 72 hours, almost continuously, a depression over Western Europe, blocked by two powerful anticyclones, caused such intense and heavy rainfall that many rivers, such as the Meuse, the Vesdre, the Ourthe, the Amblève, the Wamme and the Lhomme, quickly burst their banks.

On 24 and 25 July, new floods hit some municipalities in the province of Namur and Walloon Brabant, but not to the same extent as the floods that hit some municipalities in the provinces of Liege and Luxembourg ten days earlier.

In the affected provinces - and particularly in the province of Liège - the gas and electricity networks are seriously disrupted in the most affected communes. The water supply is unfit for consumption in many communes. Many roads, bridges and railways have been damaged or destroyed, making rescue efforts difficult. Internet and mobile communication networks are literally cut off in several communes, further isolating the affected inhabitants.

While the summer season is favourable to a slowdown in general activity, for those who are not on holiday, some more concerned than others still dazed by the scale of an unparalleled disaster, it is undoubtedly stupor and chaos that prevail above all else; while for others, who are not in the disaster-stricken communes, the scale of the disaster is probably taking hold more slowly.

But quickly, the images broadcast by the media or social networks, the testimonies of relatives or friends directly or indirectly affected by the disaster undoubtedly shook people's consciences, leading to a wave of solidarity throughout the country towards the inhabitants of the affected communes.

In the first days following these disasters, the extent of the damage is not yet measurable as it is so considerable.  In the end, these disasters caused 38 deaths and one missing person; 80,000 to 100,000 people affected; 45,000 to 50,000 damaged homes; more than 10,000 households to be rehoused, including more than 500 occupying social housing; 11,000 vehicles destroyed; 100 km² of flooded areas; 160,000 tonnes of waste carried by the waters, numerous damaged or destroyed roads, etc.

For Wallonia, rehousing becomes a major issue

On 19 July, given the seriousness of the situation, the Walloon Government launched an emergency plan providing for the release of financial aid of 2 billion euros to help the affected population. Among the most urgent challenges, the rehousing of disaster victims is undoubtedly a major priority.

From the very first days after the disaster, all The Walloon Housing Company (SWL) departments were mobilised, as were the other regional and local authorities responsible for housing.  On 16 July, the SWL was asked by the Cabinet of the Minister of Housing to work on a draft decree that would allow the allocation criteria for social housing to be waived so that disaster victims who were not "social tenants" could be rehoused indefinitely in social housing.

Very quickly, solidarity spread among the 63 social housing companies in Wallonia. 10 social housing companies saw their assets particularly affected by the floods, mainly located in the provinces of Liege and Luxembourg. 

On 20 and 27 July, the Walloon Government explains in more detail the aids and measures taken to deal with this terrible meteorological crisis and to enable reconstruction.

In particular, it approved the principle of granting emergency aid of 50 million euros for rehousing disaster victims via the municipalities and Public Social Action Centres (CPAS).

In addition, the Minister of Housing has asked the SWL to draw up a framework agreement aimed at facilitating the supply of emergency modular housing, such as maritime containers or wooden modules, to be made available to the victims of the floods of mid-July, a marketplace that is accessible both to social housing companies and to the municipalities and CPAS that wish to do so, depending on their needs. The first modular units will be installed at the very beginning of December in the affected municipalities in the province of Liège.

In view of the scale of the "work site" and the challenges to be met, the Walloon Government decided to create a special reconstruction commission. Its aim is to strengthen and coordinate the regional response to the reconstruction and to ensure cross-sectoral management of the consequences of flooding. It will ensure coordination with the various levels of government involved.

Without waiting for the conclusion of the claims reports by the insurance companies, on 26 July, the Walloon Government decided on an emergency aid of 25 million euros intended for social housing companies in order to ensure the rehousing of social tenants affected by the floods and/or for any other urgent action (rental of dehumidifiers, rental of containers for emptying damaged dwellings, rental or acquisition of any type of equipment to secure flood-affected dwellings, to clean them up or to restore them quickly to occupancy, etc. ). It also grants a credit line of 40 million euros for "rapid" rental repair work.

On 27 July, based on meteorological data provided by the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, the Walloon Government recognised the floods of 14, 15 and 16 July as a public natural calamity and thus defined the geographical extent and the communes in which the floods met the criteria set out in the Calamity Fund. The Walloon Government recognises this status of calamity for 202 out of 262 communes in Wallonia.

Only two weeks after the tragic events, most of the affected social housing companies have found alternative accommodation for their tenants. Some of them have also been able to find individual solutions.

On 12 August, the Walloon Government instructed the SWL and the social housing companies to acquire housing on the private market to make it available to households affected by the July floods. 40 million euros is being made available by the Walloon Government for this purpose. The first housing acquisitions within this framework were made in mid-September. Through this measure, the Walloon Government expects to acquire around 150 dwellings.  The role of the SWL is to coordinate the action in support of the social housing companies, in consultation with the municipalities.

Some benefits:

  • Speed of execution → property acquired by the social housing companies (in consultation with the municipalities) via validation of the acquisition of the property by the SWL given the urgency (and not the acquisition committee as in traditional procedures of this type).
  • The SWL gathers the housing proposals, analyses them, and proposes the property(ies) to the social housing company
  • Possibility of allowing occupation of the property at the signing of the preliminary sale agreement
  • Favours the acquisition of groups of dwellings to achieve an economy of scale in the overall acquisition cost
  • VAT rate reduced to 6%.

To date, in addition to the families who occupied social housing affected by the floods, social housing in Wallonia has made it possible to rehouse 378 private households. 195 private households are still waiting for a rehousing solution and have contacted a social housing company.

In addition to the problem of rehousing or restoring the homes of those affected, it should be emphasised that both the Walloon government and the government of the Walloon-Brussels Community have taken other aid measures to support citizens, schools, the self-employed, businesses and municipalities affected by the floods, including especially direct aid for affected citizens (interest-free loans of €2,500 per affected household to cover basic needs); aid to the municipalities and provinces, such as €35 million for basic necessities; measures to support the hiring of staff in the affected municipalities to strengthen the teams and carry out crisis management tasks: cleaning and repairing roads and buildings, assisting citizens with administrative procedures, etc.; aid for businesses and self-employed people affected by the disaster, such as loans of up to €50,000 for self-employed people and small businesses under a zero-interest advance mechanism for up to 75% of the amount of the interventions requested from the insurance company and/or the Calamity Fund that are related to the damages.

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