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Tackling youth housing exclusion: houses in return for community involvement

Italy, 12 October 2022 | Social, The future of the EU & Housing

As a recent report by Fondation Abbé Pierre and FEANTSA showed, young people in Europe are increasingly at risk of housing exclusion. The lack of adequate and affordable housing undermines their chances of attending university far from home and grabbing job opportunities where they arise, particularly in large urban areas. For many young people, social housing is often out of reach because of long wait lists and allocation criteria that prioritise the most vulnerable households, given the lack of sufficiency of social and affordable homes. Igor Costarelli who is a research fellow at the University of Milan Bicocca and coordinator of the ENHR working group Housing and Young People, provides examples of how the social and affordable housing sector is addressing the issue.

Against this backdrop, several social and public housing organisations across Europe, often in partnerships with city councils, volunteering associations, and universities, are rethinking the allocation criteria and tenancy conditions to provide more affordable housing opportunities for young people.

In a growing number of housing projects, including Milano 2035 - The Youth Housing Coalition in Italy, Les Colocations à Projets Solidaires Kaps (home-sharing solidarity projects) in France, Startblok Riekerhaven in the Netherlands, Launchpad Bristol in England, SällBo in Helsingborg, Sweden, youth between 18 and 35 years can benefit from below-market rent in return for their commitment to spend a certain amount of time, usually 10 to 16 hours per month, in community-oriented activities.

By joining these projects, youth come to live closer to residents who are in a condition of social, economic, or health vulnerability, such as care leavers, lonely elderly, status-holders, or people who have experienced homelessness, and agree to engage in help tasks, organise convivial moments or take part in the collective management of housing services, becoming in this way vectors of social mix and integration.

Activities may span beyond the single building block to include the wider neighbourhood. Young residents may in fact volunteer in the local organisation or get involved in different initiatives to promote practices of civic engagement and sustainability, from recycling projects to vegetable urban gardens, or support housing practitioners to develop social programmes in synergy with neighbourhood stakeholders.

Despite contextual differences, a key requirement to access all these solutions is a strong social motivation and willingness to help others. Youth are in fact selected upon their interest in the social aims of the project, their values and attitudes, relational skills and experiences to share, reframing affordable housing provision as a site of civic engagement.

These solutions identify a potential change-making role of youth within residential communities that require additional investments and dynamism to thrive, but how do they work in practice and what are the effects of this allocation approach?

A recent study suggests that along with individual human capital, several contextual conditions must be taken into account, including available spatial and temporal resources and the role of housing practitioners in sustaining and mediating social interaction processes.

As for spatial conditions, projects may adopt different allocation strategies resulting in diverse configurations of the social mix which in turn influence the type and nature of social interaction. Some strategies seek to maximise the chances of casual encounters by mixing residents at a door-to-door level within each single building block.

In other projects, a ‘pepper-potting’ mixing approach results in youth being scattered in different estates in the neighbourhood, giving rise to a spatial configuration that requires residents a specific purpose to come together. The same is true for other approaches that provide socially motivated youth with a purpose-built accommodation building that configures itself as an ‘island’ within the neighbourhood target of intervention.

Besides spatial resources, temporal conditions are also important. Establishing regular patterns of activity requires constant engagement and visible everyday presence in the buildings, neighbourhoods or, when available, common spaces. However, this may come into tension with the short-term duration of tenancy contracts, which in some cases may last from six months to up to two years.

Studies found that the use of short-term tenancies may have a twofold effect. While they can undermine the continuity of established activities, a high rate of tenant turnover may help bring in fresh energy to sustain social activities and compensate for possible decreases in tenants’ motivation as a result of personal circumstances.

Even when motivation remains high, community involvement can be a long and demanding process. When the outcomes of actions are not immediately visible or satisfactory, this risks leading to frustration or abandonment. In these cases, the role of practitioners is fundamental.

Housing managers may step in to provide encouragement, introduce flexibility to accommodate the rhythm of youth life, or accompany youth along the various stages of planning and implementation of activities.

In addition, as young residents come and go frequently, practitioners also play a key role in connecting different cohorts of tenants and safeguarding the legacy of the project by exchanging relevant knowledge and experience.

While providing new housing opportunities for socially motivated youth, the small scale of these interventions and time constraints warn against the risk of overemphasising their capacity to counteract current dynamics of youth housing exclusion and reduce socio-spatial gaps.

Combining these solutions with more structural interventions in housing policy, on a universalistic and longer-term basis, could improve access to secure housing and guarantee equality of opportunities for a wider target of the young population.

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