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I Ain’t Got No Home… Let’s hit the right note here: Affordable housing as a response to housing crisis

All over Europe, housing prices have been rising continuously since 2013 (Eurostat 2018). Within the European Union, residential housing price growth was near 5 percent last year, while in some Western European cities, prices for residential housing are growing more rapidly, at over 7 percent (Statista 2018). In this respect, Czech cities belong to the western world, with more than 10 percent growth in 2016/2017 (Eurostat 2018). Housing rents are rising at a similar speed. There are phenomena such as gentrification and Airbnb, which are often unregulated and distort an already deprived real estate market. With the rapid growth of residential housing prices in cities, housing is becoming unaffordable not just for the lower class or other vulnerable groups, but for the middle class as well. According to many philosophers and social activists (see Brown 2013), decent housing is a fundamental human right, which should be ensured for all city inhabitants. It should be a responsibility of city municipalities to implement social housing programs and deal with the coming housing crisis and consequent homelessness. It is not an easy task, but there are some good practices, which cities can adapt to address this challenge. I show a successful example of Brno and the story of Budapest to compare.

There are several reasons housing is becoming less affordable for city dwellers across Europe. The problem is not that housing is just more expensive, there is lack of housing possibilities even for households with above average incomes (ECBC 2017). Mainly in large European cities, we can talk about a structural housing shortage, according to Housing Europe journal (2017). It is caused by combination of insufficient housing construction and recent waves of migration (Housing Europe 2017). Moreover, two phenomena worsen the housing crisis in Europe: gentrification and Airbnb. Gentrification, in combination with the housing shortage, could lead to displacement of lower-income inhabitants as property owners take advantage of the market situation (see Zukin et al. 2009; Zukin 2010; Smith 2007; Zuk 2017). Airbnb is more insidious, global and extremely popular, mainly in Western European countries. But it is common also in Central Europe and it brings the same consequences. According to The Guardian (2016), Airbnb removes rental units from an already stressed housing market. The remaining flats are a rare commodity therefore, more expensive. The idea of a win-win shared economy is not just a utopia but damages the real estate market. People offer their property for rent at Airbnb to be able to pay their own rent. It is a vicious circle in which the solution of a problem is its cause. For consequences, we can look at Budapest’s housing market development over the last three years. Airbnb occupies a large share of city-centre housing units and former local inhabitants search for accommodation on the periphery. This sudden demand for formerly unpopular housing on the periphery has skyrocketed prices and become unaffordable for lower-income households. Airbnb is profitable for owners but not for the city, as it is difficult to force Airbnb flat providers to pay their taxes, according to The Guardian (2016). With this knowledge, cities should regulate such businesses to prevent displacement of vulnerable inhabitants.

But why should a municipality take responsibility for dwelling anyway? My argument is moral. Each inhabitant has a right to the city, which includes right to dwell. This is a fundamental human right. The right to the city (RTC) as a concept was first articulated by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre (1968) and spread quickly around the world. People have the right to urban life, the right not to be alienated from the spaces of everyday life (Lefebvre 1968). Many scholars and activists has applied the concept to housing (Aalbers, Gibb 2014). Glassa at al. (2014) argue that although the RTC movement was originally about the protection of affordable housing for the working class, it is legitimate apply it to middle-class residents, who struggle with housing issue nowadays. The RTC is a moral claim against the privatisation and commodification of housing (Aalbers, Gibb 2014), as the private sector is unable to provide affordable housing. Private property is about the ability to exclude others from using it while affordable housing is about the ability to accommodate the needy. As geographer David Harvey (2009; 2013) shows, neoliberalism in urban housing policies causes injustice, creates inequalities and pushes vulnerable people out of the city, out of their homes. Once people become homeless, they have very limited access to private housing. But with the active contribution of municipalities, there are ways to ensure this right.

I offer two examples of social housing policies to support my point that proper housing policies can promise the right to the city, while missing policies and an unregulated market cause homelessness. In the Czech Republic, the market for private housing estates reacts to the housing shortage by creating overpriced, overcrowded and hygienically unsuitable hostels for homeless people, who do not have the chance to find accommodation elsewhere. This vulnerable group includes the poor, the less able, single mothers, the indebted and the stigmatised. In 2016, the Brno municipality, in cooperation with NGOs, universities and housing experts from the Netherlands introduced a Rapid Re-housing project aiming to end family homelessness in Brno (Rapid Re-housing 2017). Brno provided municipal flats to 50 formerly homeless families, and social workers offered these families qualified help with everyday life difficulties. After one year, the project reports a 97-percent rate of success. In other words, 49 families out of 50 were able to keep their flats. There is not just a moral but also an economic reason for ending homelessness in Brno. Families with stable home are more socially integrated, happier and healthier; therefore, they require fewer social benefits and other social and health support (Rapid Re-housing 2017). In Hungary, there is just 3.7 percent of public housing stock (Housing Europe 2013). The Budapest municipality offers only half of its flats for social housing, making 1.5 percent of Budapest’s housing stock public (Field 2015). Furthermore, there is no coherent social housing program until today. Due to long-term ignorance of the issue by the local government, and a dysfunctional real estate market, there are approximately eight thousand homeless people living on streets (The Economist 2013). These two examples show different local governmental approaches to housing crises, where the passive one is definitely inappropriate.

When we look at the housing issue in Europe, we can see a trend in rising prices in real estate markets and a growing housing shortage, which indicate the housing crisis will get worse. As the housing market by itself is unable to solve the problem and city inhabitants have the right to the city, it is up to local governments to deal with the situation. Excluding lower and middle classes from cities is not just immoral or illegitimate, but also dangerous in its consequences. On the other hand, to sustain diversity and support disadvantaged people is beneficial for city as a whole. As Alison Brown (2013) argues, city municipalities have a crucial role concerning RTC. Without legal support and regulations, there cannot be “an equilibrium that severs the link between economic growth and increasing urban poverty.” (Brown 2013: 958) The rapid Re-housing project in Brno shows that successful social housing is not a mission impossible.

Jana Kočková is a PhD student of Sociology

Article was proofread and edited by professor Nadya Jaworsky

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