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Empowered cities claiming the right to housing

Interview with Laura Colini

“ Today, more and more European cities and social movements are calling governments at all levels to take responsibility for reaffirming housing as a basic right for their citizens and not as a commodity. They are showing the way by trying out concrete actions to implement the right to housing.” In 2020 the UIA and URBACT programmes teamed up to explore how cities can design housing policies and practical solutions to implement the right to housing. The #Right2Housing initiative, consisting of three webinars throughout the year, was led by Laura Colini, UIA/URBACT expert; with whom we are exploring the best practices and lessons learnt from the one-year journey.

#Right2Housing was launched at the Cities’ Forum in Porto, Portugal in January 2020; what was the creation process leading to this moment?

The idea about an initiative addressing “Cities engaging in the right to housing” was born in 2016 with work of the Urban Agenda: partnerships of EU level organisations and cities were formed to reflect on different urban topics. I joined three partnerships as representative of the URBACT, namely urban poverty, affordable housing and inclusion of migrants and refugees. At the same time, with URBACT I have prompted a Policy Lab on Cities engaging in tackling homelessness together with FEANTSA related to the partnership on urban poverty. The Lab was one of the first occasions for some cities to set the ground for work on the topic, as for the currently ongoing URBACT ROOF Action Planning Network on homelessness. Under the partnership inclusion of migrants and refugees housing was also an important topic, tackled partially by another URBACT network called Arrival Cities. The UIA programme had launched a new call for cities under the topic of housing in 2018 and 5 cities have been granted UIA funding, including the project CALICO, Innovation in Community Land Trust model of cohabitation, for which I work as Lead Expert. Although housing is not an EU mandate, the topic was gaining momentum

… so the moment came to put together the puzzle.

Exactly, the above premises gave the background of the proposal to bring together the Urban Agenda and the cities experiences in both EU programmes with researchers, activists and practitioners to open exchange on the implementation of the right to housing. The novelty of this initiative is that the two European programmes URBACT and UIA worked together for the first time – URBACT is about the exchange, capacity building, knowledge; the UIA works on the implementation of innovative ideas proposed by cities’ administrations supported by a local partnership. The financing structure is different as well: URBACT involves funding from the EU and the member states, while the UIA provides funding directly to cities.

The initiative was a series of 3 online conferences on different aspects of adequate and affordable housing. What were your objectives and why you chose to opt for an online format?

The conferences have been planned online in the pre-covid time, aiming to reach people who were not necessarily part of the two EU programmes. This was a completely new way of doing this work, as most activities are directed to UIA/URBACT partners. In addition to the three conferences, we dedicated another one to housing in a time of Covid-19 at the 18th European Week of Regions and Cities.

Let’s get into the details of the three webinars: the first one was held in April on the topic of community-led housing models. In the follow-up article of the webinar, you state that there are many collaborative models from which you chose to discuss the cases of cooperative housing, co-housing and Community land trust (CLT). What is the reason behind this choice?

As stated above, the two programmes could provide case studies on these topics. We start from the practice because the logic of the session is to build up to governance level from the concrete examples: the URBACT ALT/BAU project had an interesting example on the creation of cooperative housing in a shrinking area, the UIA E-Co-Housing on co-housing and energy efficiency and the UIA CALICO project for the Community land trust.

The collaborative housing models are related to concepts of democracies with well functioning social welfare systems: community life & social inclusion; community engagement, participatory design and solidarity economy. From the above good practice cases, the cities in question are Chemnitz, Germany; Budapest, Hungary and Brussels, Belgium. Is it a reality to introduce collaborative housing models all around Europe, including the post-soviet countries?

Forms of collaborative housing are possible everywhere, as long as there is a collective and political willingness to support. An important lesson from the conference is that the models should be contextualised and adapted to serve the intentions of the promoters and the local initiatives. For example, Community Land Trust is, based on collective ownership, with a mechanism that maintains the land affordable for long periods of time in the hands of trust and housing affordable. The CLT was born in the US, from a history of collective emancipation and social movement; explained in the project’s journal. The interesting part of the UIA CALICO in Brussels is that the project is implementing the CLT model using public EU funding while experimenting with the creation of a cooperative to offer rental to low-income households. This is an example of how the model of Community Land Trust has been adapted to the local context. To answer the question of the post-soviet countries, I guess yes there are always ways to create cooperative and collective housing for all. Examples are available, like the E-Co-Housing project in Budapest.

We can read in the follow-up article of this webinar (linked above) that there is a running North-West Europe Interreg SHICC project with the objective of creating CLTs in cities across the region, we also learn that the first German CLT is currently in a conception phase in Berlin. Do you think that the concept of collaborative housing has reached the critical mass in Europe, is it becoming an acknowledged instrument to turn to?

There is a growing interest from institutional and civic initiatives, also there are academics focusing on collaborative housing nowadays, among whom Dr. Darinka Czischke speaker at the webinar. However, collaborative housing is an umbrella term and one may question what do we mean with it; who has access to it and what “critical mass” may signify? The UIA CALICO in Brussels rests on a city-wide network of Community Land Trust Brussels; creating a network of exchange, mutual support, learning between one another. In France the national law recognises collaborative housing, these examples can represent steps for upscaling these models to different levels of policy making.

Let’s move on to the 2nd webinar on housing inclusion, focusing on eradicating homelessness and on the inclusion of migrants and refugees, held in June 2020. Your follow-up article emphasizes the current relevance of this topic: housing exclusion in the light of COVID-19 situation, making it inevitable for governments to tackle homelessness. The measures taken show that cities & governments have the means to eradicate homelessness, the challenge is to keep the topic on the agenda and to make these solutions sustainable for the future. My first question is whether you see persuasive results of the city case studies presented in the webinar, do they present enough lobbying potential to push governments towards maintaining the results?

This initiative is one contribution to the big picture, with many organisations and initiatives working for the eradication of homelessness: on EU political level advocacy is done by FEANTSA, the only European level organisation concentrating on the fight against homelessness - they were invited to the workshop as well to present the key findings of their yearly report on homelessness. On the level of our work in the Urban Agenda, we have reached a milestone just recently: the findings of the Partnership have been taken-up to the European level, in an own-initiative housing report by the European Parliament, also presented at our workshop. The URBACT and UIA projects showcased in the webinar have just started, so we cannot talk about results yet.

The city case study focusing on homelessness elaborated by the URBACT ROOF network builds on a methodology called Housing First; is this methodology a leading approach in eradicating homelessness?

Housing First is a policy that was born originally in the United States in 1988. Its principle is that the first means to help homeless people get out of their condition is to provide them with permanent housing and other supporting services afterwards: psychological support, coaching, etc. The approach argues that access to housing is the key for a person to return to society in a dignified way. In Europe, Finland adopted Housing First with huge success. The idea for us was to showcase that there could be an exchange of cities on ways of adopting the model or in sustaining each other in the implementation, adaptable to different contexts.

On top of adapting the Housing First model, ROOF concentrates on gathering accurate data as well. Is this an issue?

An important issue why addressing homelessness on a European level is difficult is that the data collected varies from country to country. It is very difficult to have a full picture of identifying homelessness as a target for intervention. It is even more complicated in countries where homelessness is criminalised. That is why one aspect of the FEANTSA campaign is that homelessness is not to be blamed on the individual, it is not a fact of life, it is a result of systemic inequalities. The conclusion and starting point for our work thus is that governments are accountable to make sure that there is zero homelessness, an approach followed by the European Parliament as well. The point is that governments on all levels acknowledge this, creating and implementing action plans to eradicate homelessness.

What lessons to mention regarding the discussion on homelessness in the webinar?

The Covid-19 pandemic made it clear that the issue of homelessness is a challenge for the whole society which governments need to take on top of their agenda. It also showed that they have the means to address it. I think it is important to emphasize this message by showing that there are examples that this can be done and that everyone benefits from it. The approach of housing as a human right is also a way of rethinking the system, making sure that everyone has access to dignified housing to feel protected and safe, a key factor for the growing number of migrants and refugees as well. The FEANTSA report on housing exclusion for 2020 signals a 70% increase in homelessness in Europe over ten years and an alarming growth in homelessness among minors, young people, LGTBIQ, single women, asylum seekers and people under international protection.

The last webinar held in November; fair finance in housing, exploring what role, responsibilities and levers of action cities have in relation to the financialisation of their housing market. The two cases represented were URBACT ALT/BAU operating with the financial instrument of collective ownership and the Spanish UIA Yes We Rent!, proposing guaranteed rent and renovation support to individuals. Two debate sessions were held: investigating the relations of housing as a commodity vs business; and discussing the European Union’s standpoint, with the involvement of an MEP and the International Union of Tenants (IUT), an important actor in advocacy. My question is directed towards the debate sessions: what are the main conclusions, was it possible to come up with some shared ideas?

It is again important to show that cities can counteract financialisation, namely the process of turning housing into a valuable financial asset. Regarding housing financialization, we could hear that these global financial strategies are anchored to the territories with detrimental effects for the population such as raise of rents, eviction, gentrification. The strategies vary, but large investors are involved because governments provide them with a red carpet to enter the market. While global financial trends cannot be curbed at city level, there are some instruments cities can put in place to control the local market. For example in Berlin following a citizens’ initiative, a quota system was promoted to avoid investors creating a monopolium: one investor can own a maximum of 3000 apartments. (A detailed article on the conclusions of this webinar was published here.)

Wrapping up the 3 webinars: are there any topics you would find important to handle but couldn’t fit in the programme?

As you may imagine, the aspects related to the adequate and affordable housing are multiples, and UIA/URBACT team had to make compromises selecting themes where UIA /URBACT cities had practical examples to share. There are several important aspects we couldn’t address but hopefully will do in the future: energy efficiency, energy poverty, renoviction, different innovative forms of finances, relation to land and taxation, etc. The ideal would be to have a series of events, each focusing on a specific angle with one person invited at a time, enabling a deep discussion with cities on one topic.

In the beginning of the interview you said you would like to reach an audience out of the scope of the regular EU events: do you think that you met this goal?

We definitely met our goal, we indeed reached a diverse audience: policy makers, researchers, activists and city representatives familiar and nonfamiliar with EU projects. Regarding the numbers, 500 people registered for the first event in April, we had 300 participants for the second in June and 200 for the third one in November; even with the growing virtual meeting fatigue.

What impact would you like to see as the fruits of this initiative?

In line with The Shift campaign of former United Nations housing rapporteur Leilani Farha, the scope of the initiative is not only to exchange knowledge but to involve governments at different levels in delivering the right to housing in practice. Our main expectation is to encourage other cities to engage in this topic, get new ideas and to show that different government levels are accountable for making housing accessible and decent for everyone.

Full documentation of the above activities carried out in the frame of #Right2Housing initiative launched by URBACT and UIA, coordinated by Laura Colini will be available at the URBACT website in January 2021 as a new online platform on housing.

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