Building Sustainable Communities: Housing Policies are the Driving Force

This seminar was organised by FEANTSA, a member of HIC and a European network, working on the issue of homelessness and extreme housing deprivation. The subject was housing policies in the context of the European Union. The title of the seminar is telling. Housing is not in the European Union (EU) charter; theoretically it is left to the member states. However it is a key element of the economy and has an impact and is influenced by interest rates, inflation etc. over which the EU does have an influence. One has to bring housing policy into EU programs under other titles such as urban regeneration or sustainable communities etc. For Europeans to include housing in its prerogatives would be an important step for better housing as the EU can provide considerable resources for its programs. Showing that housing is the driving force for sustainable communities is, of course, a way of legitimising and developing housing policy in EU programs.

In the following text I have summarised selected parts of the reports of the delegates that I feel were the most significant for housing struggles in Europe. Unfortunately homelessness was not dealt with in any of the papers although declining communities and the poorly housed was. I feel that the three themes discussed there of particular interest to members of HIC are: a) the use of housing action (building and rehabilitation, renovation) in Ireland and Liverpool as a means of development and encouragement of economic growth and employment; b) the increase in different neighbourhood support activities, community development and other non landlord actions of not-for-profit housing corporations; and c) the insistence on the participation of the tenants/residents in the plans and policies concerning them.

Flo Clucas whose paper was entitles “How the EU regional cohesion policy can contribute to a stronger role for housing policy in urban regeneration/development” made it clear that she was concerned with bringing housing policy under the EU umbrella. Her paper dealt with Liverpool which had lost half of its population between 1931 and 1991 by out migration to the suburbs and elsewhere. The EU granted Liverpool considerable Structural Funds for community revitalisation not just housing. However, in Liverpool it was felt that housing policy should be considered a major element in regeneration and in developing community as it has far reaching implications. It has been used as part of a cohesive policy of planning for overall improvement using local citizens as actors, in preventing “ghetoisation”, and also as a provider of work through such schemes as a handy person project and employment opportunities in housing. The overall plan included eliminating derelict sites, energy conservation through better insulation, housing regeneration and support for owners of low cost homes. With these measures Liverpool, whose population is now growing, became an example of how housing can be an important part of urban regeneration and growth. Both the public sector and the private sector were helped but the private sector like the public sector had to agree to provide training and jobs for the local population, to work in co-operation with the housing associations and to remain in the city for 15 years. Partnerships were created with the tenants of social housing allowing them to make up a majority of the management board which makes the major decisions thus allowing for real participation by the tenants. .

Paul Jeffrey, of the research and consulting group ECOTEC/ECORYS, gave a paper entitled “The importance of housing for building sustainable communities”. This consulting group was commissioned during the UK presidency for an informal meeting of EU ministers which was to explore the value of sustainable communities and promote learning between cities. He gave evidence from studies of his organisation on the values of a holistic approach to the housing question and also in tackling decline in cities. The research came to the conclusion that whether the issues were related to growth, decline, or social exclusion in cities, housing responses were a key whether it was boosting the supply, renewing the market or regenerating deprived areas. This research, in the context of the EU focus on cities as key drivers for change, underlined the link between housing policy and sustainable communities and demonstrated that the exclusion of housing policy is inconsistent with a holistic approach.

Des Dowling of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in Ireland presented the key elements of the Irish Housing policy. In the context of a high demand for housing and strong economic growth the response has been a great increase in the number of homes built but also in the high quality of the houses and their environment. The government support goes to social housing, and private ownership, making it possible for even low income households to become home owners; it also provides housing for special needs. In the future National Development Plan, as well as continuing emphasis on quality and quantity in building new housing, there will be an important program for housing renewal. The Irish approach considers support for housing to be a contribution to national social and economic development. The rate of growth in Ireland over the last 30 years would seem to prove this point.

Michael Newley the chief executive of a British Housing Association, provider of social housing (not for profit), gave a needed definition of “Sustainable Communities” (the subject of the seminar) “active and safe, well run, environmentally sensitive, well designed and well built, well connected (i.e. with good transport) thriving, well served (i.e. commerce etc;) fair for everyone.” These are the goals the housing associations attempt to achieve. What may be surprising is that the housing associations are not just concerned with building and managing the housing but, in many cases, they take on much larger roles in these neighbourhoods. For instance, they seek and develop the active participation of the tenants; they regulate harmful and disruptive behaviour, and work in many ways to make local /regional economies more successful. Newley gave examples of the activities of some housing associations. For instance there is the program “Youthbuild” which has a training and development project for young people 16-21, support with job searching , or enrolment in vocational training courses; there are also credit unions, program for healthy communities, teenage pregnancy support, and many other activities only distantly related to managing the buildings but which help develop a sustainable community.

The wider role of social housing providers was also developed by Jouko Heino a representative from research and development of CECODHAS from Finland. This need for this new role is explained partially by the impact of structural changes on this sector caused by EU directives and by market and national policies. There are also changes effecting the environment of social housing organisations in Europe. Political changes including decentralisation, democratisation/accountability and EU governance; economic changes such as privatisation, reduction of subsidies, market orientation to social service provision, competitive approach in public procurement; and social changes mainly changing customers’ profile: demographics, ageing, immigration, changing household composition (divorce rates, patchwork families), lifestyle changes. The activities of housing companies across Europe now include many non landlord activities such as community development, employment generation, training, work experience, youth projects. A study was made of 42 social housing companies from 15 EU countries to understand the causes and the effects of these changes in the role of these organisations. They are faced with three main challenges: 1) changes in customers’ demands/needs; 2) deteriorating /declining neighbourhoods; and 3) lack/reduction of subsidies. The housing corporations have tackled these challenges by: 1) changing the management strategy; 2) expanding to cover new fields of activities; 3) operating in a more “businesslike” way. This explains in part some of the non landlord activities.

Richard Hewgill of the International Union of Tenants made a strong and very useful appeal for tenant participation that has a real impact that gives tenants a real chance to be involved and allows them to get what is needed and not what others think they need. Participation is essential he insisted, because from the residents viewpoint it gives them an enhanced bond with the community, practical value for money, and they get what they believe they need not what others want. From the landlords viewpoint it gives them a better product, more value for money, and easier implementation. From the regulators point of view it is something that is expected and it is seen as a way to improve services. But to achieve real participation, not just tokenism, there must be real choices, a variety of different inputs, not just meetings, or a tenant organisation or a survey but many different actions of this type. One must check what is believed to be the results of the participatory action. One must playback to the residents what is thought to be their idea of what is needed. The achievement of real participation is the creation of a spirit of engagement, a belief in partnership and continuity in the programming.

Paris, May 04, 2007