The housing market is in crisis. Demand is increasing, rents are soaring, and even middle-income earners are struggling to afford to live in cities. What is the root of this housing affordability crisis, and how can we solve it? Barbara Steenbergen from the International Union of Tenants provided us with answers to these questions.
To understand the scale of the housing affordability crisis, let’s look at some facts first:
- 82 million Europeans are housing cost overburdened.
- In many countries, housing presents the single-highest household expense.
- Between 2010 and 2019, rent prices in the EU increased by 13%.
- In OECD countries, less than half the population finds there is enough good and affordable housing available.
As you might have guessed already, this situation did not evolve overnight and is influenced by multiple factors. Over recent decades, for instance, we have seen a massive sale of affordable and social housing. Due to budget constraints, cities had to sell public properties to private investors, causing the public housing stock to diminish and prices to rise. Additionally, big players like hedge funds and banks have been entering markets and are speculating with properties.
These and other phenomena, such as the global financial crisis in 2008, have led to a point where too high rent prices are not just a matter of concern to low-income groups. Even middle-income earners, like bus drivers, nurses, and teachers, can no longer afford to live in cities. We have reached a point where our cities cannot even provide affordable housing to those who run it.
To understand how we can solve the housing affordability crisis and provide affordable housing to all, we talked to CityChanger Barbara Steenbergen.
Two Decades Worth of Experience
Barbara has been fighting for tenants’ rights and an affordable housing market for an incredible 20 years. She is a member of the executive committee of the International Union of Tenants (IUT) and the Head of Liaison Office to the EU.
The IUT is an independent membership organisation for tenants’ unions worldwide. In fact, it numbers 72 members from 47 countries around the globe. When asked how she feels about her job, Barbara proudly says: “It’s one of the best jobs you can have. It’s great to work for tenants’ rights,” and then she adds, “and this together with all the people, and as part of an international, worldwide movement. This is great!”.
How to Tackle the Challenge
But what exactly does fighting for tenants’ rights entail, and how can we solve the housing affordability crisis we face? Barbara shares her 20 years of expertise with us and provides us with three key tips:
1. Take a Dual Approach
Barbara stresses that it is important to focus on both sides of the market: supply and demand. Concentrating on just one of them will improve parts of the housing market but won’t lead to long-term change.
The Supply Side
When looking at the supply side, one thing becomes evident: there is not enough social and affordable rental housing available to meet the demand for it. The solution? Build more.
As Barbara puts it: “The problem is, due to budget constraints, most of the cities sold their social and affordable housing. This is the problem that we have. So, what we are now dealing with is a new wave of building affordable and social rental housing again. And therefore, we need to redirect a lot of budgets that we already have in the cities.”
Meaning, we need to start massively reinvesting in and building up our social and affordable housing stock. However, simply building new homes will not solve the problem. This is where the demand side enters the game.
The Demand Side
Here, effective policies are needed. According to Barbara, such policies should include laws on rent transparency, better protection against evictions, and concrete rent control. A notable city implementing effective housing policies? Barcelona, Barbara says!
Barcelona’s housing market has been strained for many years. Touristification and gentrification have left their marks on the city’s rental market. However, Barbara notes that things are changing. For instance, with the help of the IUT, a rent level, also called rental prices index, has been introduced. This rent level allows residents to look up the average rent for flats in their area.
“And if the price that your landlord is asking you for this apartment in this building and this street is too high, you can start legal proceedings. You can come to our tenants’ union, and we will represent you in fighting for a lower rent according to the rent level,” Barbara explains.
2. Change the Mindset
However, before we even start thinking about transforming the supply and demand sides of the market, we need to address another fundamental issue raised by Barbara:
“The housing market is driven by profit. It is not driven by giving the people a roof over their head, giving the people security of tenure. The housing market is a profitable market, where we say there is the law of the strongest. So those who can pay the most will find housing. Those who do not have enough revenues are left behind, and they are forced out of the cities.”
So, before changing policies, we need to change mindsets. To solve the housing affordability crisis, it is crucial to move away from a profit-driven market. We need to be willing to make our cities open and accessible to everyone. That means that housing producers and managers, organisations, contractors, and other players involved in the housing market need to start working socially responsibly. And though that might sound a little naïve, ethics and values need to re-enter the discussion.
Making the above points happen certainly poses a challenge. However, together with other organisations, the IUT has developed an extensive roadmap on how to make the housing market more socially responsible. For a brief overview of their approach, check out the code of conduct they developed.
3. Guarantee the Right to Housing
Speaking of new approaches and bold transformations, Barbara highlights another important issue: the right to housing. For Barbara it is clear that “the fundamental right to housing must be achieved for everybody”.
It is a common misconception that this is a battle already won. In fact, the right to housing is only seldomly recognised as a legally justiciable right. And even if it is, that does not automatically mean that everyone is housed. Barbara mentions the issue France is facing. It has granted its citizens the right to housing but does not have enough housing available to enforce this right.
Yet, it is only by guaranteeing the right to housing that we can avoid people ending up on the streets after evictions.
The lesson we learn from Barbara’s three key tips: to tackle the housing affordability crisis, introducing one policy or law is not enough. We need a holistic and hands-on approach to put our big plans into action.
Where to Start?
You might now wonder how you would start developing such a holistic and hands-on approach. We do have to admit it’s not easy. If you want to make housing affordable in your city, you will have to overcome a lot of (bureaucratic) hurdles. Officials often regard existing housing policies and markets as set into stone. That makes them difficult to change. As Barbara puts it:
“If you want to change something, you’re not the darling. You’re never the darling because you have to push agendas.”
The key to making change happen, nonetheless? “Courage, strength, and cooperation”. Barbara recommends talking to the people in your building or your street and getting them involved. The more, the merrier. The next step is to reach out to your local tenants’ union (or start your own initiative!) and join the global movement. There, you will find backing: “We represent you legally, we fight for your rights. But we are also active in housing policy. So, we talk to the city councillors, we talk to the ministries, we talk to all the authorities in charge of housing”, Barbara underlines.
But tenants’ unions do something even more important than that. They bring faith. They show desperate renters as well as passionate activists “that they are not alone. That there is a network, and we can support each other” and that the housing affordability crisis, however big it seems, is solvable.
How to Solve the Housing Affordability Crisis in a Nutshell
To solve the housing affordability crisis, a holistic approach is needed. That means focussing on both the supply and the demand side of the market, bringing social responsibility into the discussion, and properly implementing the right to housing. But even more importantly, to solve this crisis, we need to stand together and have faith that things can and will change.