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Why housing policy in Finland is a success story

Helsinki has inspiring work to share but also some emerging challenges to cope with

Helsinki, 3 November 2017 | Published in Research
Alice presents the key findings of 'The State of Housing in the EU'
Alice presents the key findings of 'The State of Housing in the EU'

On October 24th Housing Europe was invited to speak at a conference organised by ARA- the so-called "shipseminar"-, the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland. ARA plays a key role in funding social housing in Finland by offering grants and guarantees on long-term loans financing the provision of affordable rental housing. In addition, ARA monitors costs and quality standards, promotes innovation and excellence in housing and produces information services for the industry. Its annual 3-day seminar is a key event for professionals in the housing sector in Finland. Alice Pittini from Housing Europe Observatory was invited to present the findings of the 2017 State of Housing in the EU report and share international good practice with the audience. Furthermore, on the following day she had the chance to visit some of the most significant social housing projects in Helsinki thanks to KOVA – the Association for Advocating Affordable Rental Housing, the newest Housing Europe member. Alice shares her experience below.

Housing policy in Finland is a success story, but one that is still relatively undocumented or at least less well known than it deserves to be. Finland is the champion in tackling homelessness- according to FEANTSA it’s the only country in the EU which managed to decrease the number of homeless people, by applying housing first and preventive policies-, applying social mix and implementing sensible land policy. But to see it with one’s own eyes and to hear about it from Finnish colleagues is something different.

KOVA executive director Jouni Parkkonen explained how the association was set up in 2013 and, although, still relatively small, has tripled its membership since and now comprises 33 member companies, both municipally owned and private not for profit companies. We visited a new housing development in a former industrial area near the Helsinki harbour where the massive 'Fish Harbour' project will provide with 10,000 new dwellings to around 20,000 new inhabitants who will benefit from access to public transport and facilities. The project will include owner-occupied, private rental and municipal rental housing as well as "tenant ownership"- the Finnish equivalent to cooperative housing-, all the homes are of excellent architectural high-quality standards and I dare anyone to tell the difference between the different tenures just by looking at the buildings.

Jaana Närö, CEO of Helsinki City Housing Company, proudly showed me some other sites as well as existing projects. Two of them, winners of a number of architectural prizes, were particularly striking in terms of design: the ‘Gaudi house’ and a building called ‘the ski slope’ which beautifully stands out at the top of a green hill overlooking Helsinki. Also typical of the ‘Finnish way’, housing complexes usually include buildings dedicated to different users: social rental housing, students accommodation, supported housing for elderly.

She also drove us to see some of the examples that are considered to be less successful, in neighbourhoods with a high concentration of municipal rental housing which pre-date the introduction of social mix policy. However, these areas are being revitalized through a series of measures which includes renovation, in some cases demolitions, and introduction of better transport connections and schools.

Of course, the picture is not entirely rosy. Finland is experiencing the consequences of a dramatic increase in unemployment since the global financial crisis. Furthermore, the rapid migration towards the major cities is leaving a number of regions with a shrinking population. Housing costs especially in the capital Helsinki are increasing, also due to high construction costs. However, despite the freezing 1-degree temperature on a late October day, I left the country with the feeling that anyone looking for inspiration in terms of good and sustainable housing policy should pay a visit to Finland.