Crisis in Europe and housing


As part of the French EU presidency European ministers responsible for urban development and housing will meet in Marseille, 24th – 25th November 2008. According to the programme of the French presidency they will speak about two complexes:

(1) an operational continuation of the approaches of the so called “Leipzig Charter for sustainable European cities”, which was one of the results of the EU urban ministers meeting during the German presidency
2007 (accomaponied by demostartion in Leipzig). The French programme promises to discuss links between a “social city” and a “sustainable city” which could be combined on an approach towards “sustainable and solidarian cities” AND to focus on the contexts with climate change.
(2) the problems of access to shelter by disfavoured persons, the report of the EU commission about Services of General Social Interest and social housing policies within the internal market.

At the first view this sounds great. Is the French presindency going to put the EU on a path to cities of solidarity , sustainabilty and housing rights?


During the German presidency we (German AG Habitat) cared about some interventions on the proposed charter. Besides other things we called for an inclusion of housing which was totally absent in the first drafts (similar interventions can from CECODHAS and tenants unions and HIC).
But we even strongly criticized the subordination of urban development under the Lisbon strategy (which orientates on an Europe as the worldwide most competitive knowledge based economy) and the obvious deficits in addressing major challenges like climate change, unsustainable transport and democracy. The final text of the Leipzig Charter with some minor changes reacted to the critics. I.e. housing was mentioned as part of a possible strategy in disfavoured neighbourhoods.

The “Leipzig Charter” by some observers today is seen as a strengthening of social and sustainable view on cities and a correction of radical neo-liberalism territorial approaches which dominated the EU policies since the 90ies. However, according to our view the “Leipzig Charter”
isn’t much more than a pamphlet calling for some improvement of “integrated urban management” in order to “strengthen strengths” of already strong cities in the global competition AND to combine that with a specific attention towards disfavoured neighbourhoods, which should be upgraded in order to reduce social costs and support competitiveness.
Only within the problems of disfavoured neighbourhoods the charter promotes concrete measures towards sustainability and social developments and in this context even mentions housing as a possible tool.

This structure – which easily gets misunderstood if you only take a fast look at it – reflects the given role of social inclusion and housing within the EU: “Social” within the given philosophy of the EU is not a general principle guiding all the policies in the meaning of justice, solidarity and equality. It means a specific set of technologies which are subordinated under the free market and growth orientated economical agenda, aiming to manage and control specific social consequences of the economical path like disfavoured neighbourhoods and socially excluded populations. Under the present treaties and strategies this is a natural consequence, because the EU does not have the needed social competences, i.e. for housing. The charter even reflects the given situation regarding the EU funds, where we can find some minor project lines like URBAN dedicated to the same approach. The charter thus even builds a blueprint for negotiations among member states on the coming period of structural funds, where different interests compete: While the new member states generally have a high need for funds for urban modernisation, infrastructure and housing they are competing with other impoverished regions and even with successful metropolis which face heavy social divide within their cities and want to participate in EU funding in order to finance their management.

All this at the same time is part of the formulation of the so called territorial cohesion strategy of the EU. “Territorial cohesion” besides “economical cohesion” and “social cohesion” in the Lisbon treaty (and in the former constitution draft) builds one of the there “cohesion pillars” of European integration. Since a couple of years governments and experts try to define the meaning. Again the sub-ordination under the Lisbon strategy limits the possible interpretations. There is a significant notion on an approach which should strengthen the capacities of fragmented “territories” to mobilize their “territorial (human, ecological etc.) capital” for economic competitiveness, an approach which orientates on new forms of “territorial governance” by private-public partnership (thus undermining democratic legitimacy and state duties and possibly replacing it by a much stronger role of
corporations) but of course again will determine the use of EU funds.
Within the past months these implications tend to be addressed less offensive. In the just published Green Paper of Commission the notion on an improved balance among the regions, improved transport relations etc.
plays a more significant role (which however must not be a contradiction).

From this background it is interesting that the French presidency seems to focus on the social implications of urban development as well as on climate change. I don’t know how far this is a chance to overcome the Lisbon path or a new step in the technologies of subordination or just some alibi spectacle.

Regarding the housing questions it is very interesting that the EU presidency is including housing ministers in a meeting, after break of 4 years. I think this is clearly a result of the French housing crisis, the campaigning there which forces Sarkozy to react, but even of the debates in the European parliament and the lobbying by CECODHAS and others. Again the question is, if it will be more than a spectacle.

While dealing with the problems of access to shelter by disfavoured persons somehow is legitimated by the EU treaties and programmes this so far is not really the case with social housing policies in general. Only social housing which is orientated on charity for most disfavoured is in accordance with EU rule. However, predominantly in Sweden, a fundamental questions aroused if national states have the right to provide and support public or social housing which is for all. After the opening of EU funds for some housing support in the new member states this question leads to a further erosion of the still existent EU dogma, that housing is not an EU competence. The main question now is, if it may become be possible to re-build co-ordinated social housing policies within a new European frame (as part of a dedicated service sector) or if the fragmentation of housing policies into poverty-control, urgent repair, market directives and construction rules etc. will continue.


In this situation I believe it would be a failure to trust in the discourses and terms the EU uses or to repeat the fragmentation of the housing questions into governance technologies by limiting the critical approach to specific sectors. Instead of that urban social movements and critical experts should focus on a scandalisation of the obviously given multidimensional crisis:

The neo-liberal orientation of the EU on deregulation of national markets, on privatisation and liberated capital flows, on territorial competition and on imbalanced relations with the “south”, on low taxes for high income and returns, on deconstruction of the social security systems and on low wages fundamentally have contributed to the multidimensional crisis Europe and the world is confronted with today:
1. the fundamental CRISIS OF HOUSING in many territories, including those which had been extra successful in the global economical competition but as well those which suffer from mass privatisation, de-industrialisation and unbalanced patterns of the agglomeration of investments; 2. the fundamental CRISIS OF THE FINANCIAL ARCHITECTURE in which unregulated global speculation with real estates and housing played a most important role and which – besides the effects on the general economy, on public wealth and employment – already generates further series consequences for financing housing and infrastructure, for the maintenance of urban structures and for the affordability of housing; 3. the fundamental CRISIS OF ENERGY SECURITY AND CLIMATE, which already resulted in extraordinary increases of energy and heating costs, which is producing heavy financial burdens for the necessary modernisation of housing stocks and which within the coming decades will radically change the frame for territorial development; 4. the fundamental CRISIS OF DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE, which is best illustrated by the NO from the people of France, the Netherlands and Ireland to the constitution/Lisbon treaty, a NO which reflects the experiences of the inhabitants with an EU orientation which undermined democratic control by privatisation of public services, by deregulation of national social standards and by implementing governance structures at all levels which more and more get influenced by corporations, forcing the territories even more to compete against each other with low standards for most profitable investments; 5. all this resulting in a fundamental CRISIS OF COHESION in all it’s
dimensions: social, economical, ecological, political, territorial.

In order to respond to this complex crisis, the EU urgently had to shift from the given approach on mainly “negative” economical integration to an approach of completing the social and political union by fundamentally orientating all EU policies on the principles of individual and social human RIGHTS, of SOLIDARITY within Europe and beyond, of SUSTAINABILITY in a fundamental social and ecological meaning and of real DEMOCRACY including democratic control over frames and important sectors of the economy.
Social housing policies as well as integrated territorial and urban policies which are based on a “bottom ups” approach can play an important role implementing these principals and solving the multidimensional crisis. This implies a fundamental rethinking of the Lisbon strategy and the Lisbon treaty.