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Social Housing in Europe


Brussels, 28 February 2010 | Published in Research

Overview of the social, co-operative and public housing system in the country

Social housing provision in Belgium is meant to offer adequate housing, i.e. qualitatively suitable to ensure hygienic standards and sound living conditions, but still affordable and with a certain security of tenure for households on a low income. Since 1980, social housing has been decentralised and is now the competence of three Regions: the Flemish Region, the Walloon Region and the Brussels Region.

A variety of providers are involved in the social housing sector: municipalities, public companies, foundations, co-operatives and non- for profit organizations. Different providers operate in different parts of the country. This can be explained by the historical origin of the providers: each of them is entitled to provide housing in certain municipalities.

Most of the time, those municipalities are also shareholders of the provider. More specifically, "public housing" is a generic definition including all dwellings managed and let either by a public or by a private body, and financed by public authorities. Within this category there are dwellings managed and let by public service housing societies, which include social and intermediate housing. "Social" dwellings are for people in difficult social and financial conditions, while "intermediate" dwellings are for people whose situation is less precarious. Allocation of social dwellings is based on a combination of income ceilings and priority target groups. The system varies according to the different regions: in the Brussels region it is based on a computerized waiting list with a further special emergency system; in the Flemish region applicants have to register with local providers on the basis of income, and then they are selected on the basis of chronological registration and availability; finally, in the Walloon region applicants must register with the local authorities on the basis of criteria such as income, household's size, and lack of property of a home.

Social housing in Belgium is provided both for rent (7% of the total housing stock) and for sale, but tenures vary across the three regions. Sale of social housing is forbidden in the Brussels region but not in the other two regions. Flanders has the biggest proportion of social housing for sale. In the Flemish region there is sitting tenant's right to buy, following certain specific conditions.

Market trends

One important development in recent years has been the accelerating increase in the square meter prices of new building plots, from the mid-’90s onwards. The rising costs and shortages of new residential land have been the main reason for the fall in housing developments, especially in Flanders, and rising house prices. Belgium has experienced a prolonged price boom since the mid-’80s: prices have been rising averaging around 4-5% in real terms each year.

Overall prices by 2005 were around 115% higher in real terms than when the price upturn began, which puts Belgium as one of the higher long-term price increase EU countries. Housing expenditures accounted for 25.9% of total households’ expenditures in 2004. Real rents in the private sector overall rose by 18% between 1990 and 2000, far less than the increases in capital values of dwellings over the same period. Nevertheless rents have recently started to increase, especially in the lowest quality dwellings, affecting low income people the most. With regard to tenure distribution, an improved economic environment and low mortgage interest rates have helped to boost consumer confidence in house purchase over the past two years.

Furthermore, the tax system is highly favourable to property ownership. Today, 68% of households are homeowners: the expansion of home-ownership has been at the expense of private renting at 23%, while the production of social housing has remained stable since 2001.

Policy developments

Since 1980 the Regions are fully responsible for their own housing policies and for the allocation of funds from the regional budgets. Nevertheless, some aspects are still a competence of the Federal State, such as guaranteeing the right to a decent housing, setting interest rates and general fiscal policy, and regulating the lease of primary residence. Currently the main housing policy priorities in Belgium are as follows: construction of social housing by the public sector within the budgetary limits imposed by the Regions; priority to improving the existing housing stock; increasing dwellings for rent or sale at ‘social’ price; public policies targeting vulnerable people; fostering private initiative; integrating housing policy into urban renewal and social cohesion programmes; strengthening the role of local authorities; monitoring and evaluation.