Housing issues everywhere: Impressions from the ISHF 2023

The lack of affordable and adequate housing is one of the biggest challenges many countries, regions, and cities face. In Luxembourg, it has become one of the main preoccupations of the population. According to the Politmonitor survey of November 2022, access to affordable housing is a key concern for 75% of the 1,072 participating residents. Having access to affordable and adequate housing is imperative in increasing well-being. The International Social Housing Festival (ISHF) in Barcelona from 7 to 9 June provided a forum for civil society, politicians, researchers, and practitioners to share ideas and best practices.

The conference included thematic panels, presentations, and field trips in Barcelona. While most topics concerned Europe, some panels also provided insights into policies and issues on other continents, especially the US and Latin America. Being familiar with the situation in Luxembourg (at least concerning tenancy), I was particularly interested in how other countries deal with housing issues. Since the conference took place in Barcelona, several panels were dedicated to the specific case of Barcelona and Catalonia. However, the programme of the conference was a perfect example of how broad the topic of housing can be: architecture, urban planning, climate justice, rent control, etc.

My conclusions from the conference are that a) many places face similar housing issues but in different contexts, b) a certain consensus was observable according to which ambitious plans and concrete political goals are necessary if we want to solve the housing crisis, and c) national governments are not always the ones that push forward with innovative projects. Local authorities are important, as they are confronted most directly with housing issues. One panel focused on housing first for youth initiatives, all anchored in local policies. Another session focused on Barcelona’s public housing and housing policies, facing the fact that public housing stock is too low (social housing in Barcelona and Catalonia is around (or even less than) 2%, a situation similar to Luxembourg). There are more tourist offers than social housing opportunities in the city. Examples in the US also illustrate the importance of local and state authorities. The state of Oregon, US, passed measures limiting rent increases and prohibiting no-fault evictions.

I cannot cover every aspect and discuss all the panels I attended (which are only a fraction of all the talks and debates). However, two presentations ranged among those that struck me most. The first was about Finland’s policy of eradicating homelessness, organised by ARA, Finland’s Housing Finance and Development Centre. From more than 18,000 homeless people in 1987, they went down to less than 4,000 in 2022. These numbers even include several categories of homelessness (such as people living in dormitories and hostels or temporarily with friends and relatives). The impressive decrease in numbers is not only thanks to a network of public agents doing preventive work locally by assisting tenants but also to an extensive stock of public housing. However, while they are on track to eradicating homelessness, they also face challenges with inflation and increasing construction costs.

The second presentation (as part of a panel about the Barcelona-Catalonia housing model and market regulation) critically analysed several narratives on rent control and provided a synthesis of existing studies. In short: arguments against rent controls are either posing a false dilemma (“build more, not regulate”), existing empirical data shows both positive and negative effects of rent control, and there is not always a consensus. Furthermore, it depends a lot on the context and rent control mechanisms. The speaker (Jaime Palomera, from the Barcelona Urban Research Institute) suggested several questions that every administration needs to consider: Does it apply to the whole private rental sector? Is there vacancy control? Is it enforced by the administration (often rental control did not work because the administration did not do its job)? Is there security of tenure? Are there incentives to create social housing?

My participation at the conference was very insightful and instructive. I do not regret it, and I hope to be present at the next one in Dublin in 2025. Until then, there is still a lot of work to do and lessons to be learnt. While we were a small Luxembourgish delegation at the conference, it would certainly have been beneficial if some political decision-makers from Luxembourg had participated. If we want to solve the housing crisis, everyone needs to work together. The call for a change of paradigm in housing policies is maybe best boiled down in one of the concluding remarks on the last day of the conference: “Housing is not for profit; it is for people.” (Bent Madsen, Housing Europe).

Note: For more information on Barcelona’s housing policy, you may also want to check out the following article: https://socialhousingfestival.eu/barcelona-right-to-housing-mission-2015-2023/

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