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Dimitra Siatitsa: “Social housing remains a contested term”

Social housing does not have a common meaning in all European states. It is a contextually defined term that encompasses different forms and practices. Social housing also bears different political and cultural connotations in different contexts; and although it seems that there is a broad acknowledgement of the enduring and deepening housing crisis affecting large parts of the population all over Europe, there is no consensus on the way to address it.

I come from Greece, a country that did not develop any form of social rental housing sector -public or non-profit – and that has limited administrative mechanisms for designing and implementing housing policies, although the obligation of the state to provide housing for all has been constitutionally enshrined since the 70s. Following the Southern European pattern to its extreme, homeownership has been the prevailing and preferred tenure, and access to housing is achieved individually -with family support, if available- through the market. It is also the country with the highest rates of housing cost overburden (28,8% of total population, 34.2% in urban areas, and 74,6% for tenants) and of housing related arrears (36,4%), while the issue of household overindebtedness is pending since the beginning of the sovereign debt crisis, threatening thousands of households with first residence and property loss.

Although at various historical moments the Greek state developed mechanisms and policies to provide housing for vulnerable populations, social housing has not been considered a priority for welfare policy. On the contrary, until the abolition of the Workers Housing Organisation in 2012 (the only public body responsible for housing policy) as part of the austerity adjustment programmes, social housing was rather stigmatised, associated with the modernist failures of mass housing, slums and segregated peripheries. It was considered a marginal state provision for the really deprived, while loan and rent subsidies were preferred over direct state housing provision. This was possible in a housing market that was protected from financialised and large-scale capital, where family and small-scale actors ruled, admittedly producing positive social outcomes in the post-war decades.

Southern European housing systems have undergone significant structural transformations, already since the 90s with the rapid expansion of mortgage lending and neoliberalisation of their economy and public policies; but most evidently after the global financial crisis and the more recent aggressive turn of globalised capital to real-estate and tourism. Disconnection of housing costs and incomes; inability to access homeownership and credit, particularly for younger generations; dependence on the rental sector; increasing inequality in terms of resources to access adequate and secure housing; increase in commercialised buy-to-let investments; internationalisation and financialisation of the housing markets, are common trends despite regional variations. This is the setting which the urgently needed -but so debilitated- public intervention in housing has to confront.

In Greece, the recent social housing government programme “My Home”, consisting of five funding schemes, channels significant public funds, including the use of public land, in the private housing market -mainly for homeownership support- through financialised and corporate actors, with no public control over the process, fueling an already heated housing market. Almost two months after the launch of the main intervention measure: state-subsidised housing loans for youth 25-29 years old, and despite the obvious demand from young people, the programme stumbles on a significant factor: skyrocketing prices in an uncontrolled housing market. Young people have to compete for overpriced, aged and low-quality housing, taking a forced decision to bind their future in an insecure situation of indebtedness.

Other, more decentralised and community linked efforts for alternative housing solutions are also facing important difficulties given the lack of a broader institutional framing for the protection and support of non-profit, social and cooperative housing. For example, attempts by municipalities to develop social rental housing mechanisms for the activation of vacant, dilapidated or underused properties, or collective initiatives to develop cooperative affordable housing stumble upon the lack of adequate, long-hauled financing and guarantee mechanisms, fiscal incentives and preferential access to resources for local administrations and SSI actors, suffocated by increasing housing and construction prices.

The recent reappearance of housing policy in the political agenda, with most political parties including -fuzzily specified- social housing measures in their pre-electoral programmes, is a positive step. However, commitment towards a long-term and integrated social housing policy is still weak. Key crucial questions remain unanswered: do we want a strong public intervention in housing? Is it possible to provide affordable, inclusive and sustainable housing in an uncontrolled speculative and increasingly financialised real-estate market? What should be the role of local and community actors?

Unfortunately, the ongoing EU-level debates regarding the negative social impact that building renovation investments can have on housing affordability did not lead to binding regulations towards member states. A massive public investment programme for the energy and green transition of the housing sector has been weakly binded to social justice and social cohesion goals, depending on the political priorities of national governments and the availability and readiness of existing plans for social and affordable housing. For countries with weak social housing traditions, such as Greece, this might prove another missed opportunity.

Imposing controls in the rental and housing market, regulating short-term lettings, putting constraints to speculative and predatory real-estate investment practices, raise heated and confrontational debates, as such measures oppose the deeply rooted free-market doctrine and generate concerns about the economic implications they might have in already fragile economies that have become increasingly dependent on global financial capital, particularly when the real-estate and touristic sectors produce an important share of the national income. At the same time, not doing so jeopardises and annuls any effort to implement fair housing policies with predictable social consequences.

Besides the recent common acknowledgement of housing problems in the public debate, drastic policy turns require a new imaginary for housing and the role of the public. A broad social agreement is needed to prioritise housing as a fundamental right and protect it from predatory and speculative investment practices; to equitably distribute public funds and collective resources, with particular attention to the housing accessibility and affordability for vulnerable populations; to support local and community actors, such as municipalities, non-profits, cooperatives and civic groups, to develop housing alternatives and gain control over processes of urban transformation. For that we have a long way to go.

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