A European agenda for housing policy

by Julien Dijol

While housing is very often quite high on the agenda of national politics, it has increasingly become an important topic for European policy makers. First and foremost because both the origin and the solution to the global financial crisis of 2008 had a lot to do with housing, but also because the European Union has now reached a point where there is a desperate need to show that it has a positive and tangible influence on people’s lives. In this quest for legitimacy, supporting social infrastructures such as housing has become the sensible next step.

However the interlinks between housing policies and the European Union are complex. On the one hand, housing markets are local markets that react to local circumstances in terms of demographics, availability of land and legislative frameworks. The supply of social housing is determined by political choices which are linked partly to local decision makers (inclusive zoning, quotas for social housing) partly by regional or national levels (eligibility to access social housing, funding of providers). Those frameworks evolve in time but, broadly speaking, remain anchored in specific welfare state traditions.

Affordable housing or the lack thereof is a determinant of economic growth – or economic crisis – social cohesion and regional development.

That is why there are clear interlinkages between national or regional housing policies and, at the same time, EU policies aiming at supporting growth, cohesion and regional development. It is therefore reasonable for the EU to include housing in the scope of its action in the field of social policies and economic policies.

For instance in the social field, the European Pillar of Social Rights expresses principles and rights essential for fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems in 21st century Europe. It reaffirms some of the rights already present in the Union acquis. It adds new principles which address the challenges arising from societal, technological and economic developments. And the Pillar considers access to social housing or housing assistance of good quality provided for those in need to be essential for the European Welfare state.

Despite this positive trend, there will always be a tension between calling on the EU to intervene on housing issues and calling on the EU to refrain from doing so, arguing that, according to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, the member states and their local governments remain the sole authorities competent on funding and designing public and social services.

Where then is the balance between too much EU and too little EU in the field of housing?

Instead of mechanically referring to the EU treaty and the principle of subsidiarity, a more convincing and substantial answer is probably to be found in the very democratic values of our society. As a matter of fact, any democratic system, and this should be the case for the EU, is based on the central role of the people, not only because the people is where the legitimacy of power comes from, but also because policies should aim at improving people’s lives. Another important aspect of democratic systems is that policies implemented by governments should enable the capacity of the subsequent levels of governance to design measures that will make sense for people according to local circumstances. As democracy is indeed also about enabling, giving citizens the capacity to make choices, a democratic Europe that works for all can only be meaningful if it makes sure that the policies undertaken enable this capacity, as opposed to undermining it.

What does that mean for social, cooperative and public housing?

To put it bluntly, the EU can either enable member states and other levels of governance to shape, fund and implement the right housing policy for the citizens or it can limit this capacity. This is a kind of test for European democracy.
Rather than evaluating whether the EU has passed the test, we will now look at what can be done to develop a « Europe that works for all ». There is no doubt that there is a number of policies that the EU can promote in order to ensure that member states and other levels of governance can shape, fund and implement the right housing policy for citizens, for instance:

  • The European coordination of economic policies (« European semester ») can incentivize member states to adequately regulate housing markets and adequately fund housing policies in order to achieve affordable and decent housing for all.
  • The European energy policies can urge the greater use of renewable energy combined with constant effort to increase the energy performance of buildings and decrease the CO2 emissions of neighborhoods and cities, as well as provide for the right skills to do it. The European Commission should review the national energy and climate plans with this in mind.
  • The European regional and cohesion policies can support communities and cities with integrated plans tackling urban poverty, segregation and poor built environment. Despite the diminution of funding for cohesion policy, all regions should be able to use ERDF and ESF to tackle pressing issues and the rate of EU financing should be sufficiently high to create an incentive for projects.
  • State aid rules for social housing should allow for more flexibility, i.e. adapting the mission of social housing providers to the local circumstances (for instance intense housing markets where is no supply from the private market for low to middle-income households).

These policies will be at the core of the campaign for the European elections. It is appropriate that future EU decision-makers discuss the fate of housing policies, not because the EU should assume this topic at the expense of other levels of governance, but because there is a need for the EU to be act as an enabling force. As put in the Housing Europe manifesto for the European elections, « the state of housing in the European Union today remains critical and calls for an integrated approach bringing together political will from the governments, inclusive planning at local level and innovation from the construction and renovation sector. We cannot continue to approach housing policy with the tools of the past. In such a co-productive process, public, cooperative and social housing providers are the key to unlocking the full potential of our cities ».

Julien Dijol is Policy Coordinator at Housing Europe. His role is to ensure that the advocacy work of Housing Europe is effective and grounded in experiences of its members. Furthermore, he has been contributing to various EU projects, in particular in the field of Cohesion Policy, Energy, Social Development as well as contributing to several publications, for instance:
– study on sustainable regeneration in suburbs – promoting social integration in deprived neighbour-hoods through housing interventions by ERDF (review expert)
– study on financing the renovation of social housing (lead author);
– HOST innovative services to promote solidarity, technological and social inclusion of elderly people (contributor)
Julien is a social and political scientist by education and has been trained at the Institute of political studies (IEP) in Bordeaux (France), the University of Stuttgart (Germany) and the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium).

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