After the hostel fires, the crisis in the suburbs, the return of shanty towns, the soaring prices on the housing market, the tents in Paris…A complaint has been lodged with the Council of Europe against France for infringement of the right to housing.
The European Federation of National Organisations working with people who are Homeless (FEANTSA) is using the collective complaints mechanism of the European Social Charter to highlight France”s responsibility for the failure to ensure the effective exercise of the right to housing as defined in article 31 of the Revised European Social Charter of the Council of Europe.
What does the Law say?
The Revised Social Charter, ratified in 1999, lays out in article 31 that:
“With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to housing, the Parties undertake to take measures designed:
- to promote access to housing of an adequate standard;
- to prevent and reduce homelessness with a view to its gradual elimination;
- to make the price of housing accessible to those without adequate resources.”
Through this treaty, France undertakes to act to improve the situation in relation to each of these three points. It is an international treaty, which places it at the top of the hierarchy of legal norms (after the Constitution, such texts are the strongest: they take precedence over laws, decrees etc.). In the case of France, these international provisions only serve to reinforce those already laid out in the legislative arsenal France has armed itself with in this area, particularly the Besson Law of the 31 of May 1990 on the implementation of the right to housing, which pushed the French Conseil D’Etat to recognise the right to housing as an “objective having constitutional value”.
What are the facts?
On average, the quality of housing has substantially improved in the course of the last 30 years. The theoretical legal protection of tenants has been strengthened (Law of 1989) and the social system has also been strengthened and modernised.
In principle, everything seems to be going well, yet in practice the crisis is worsening and the signs of its severity are increasing.
We argue, on the basis of official (INSEE etc.) and independent sources (Fondation Abbé Pierre, the High Committee on Housing for marginalised groups, academic research, etc.) that:
- The situation of the most vulnerable is continually worsening
- Homelessness and housing exclusion are on the increase (809 000 people);
- There have been unbridled housing price increases (+88% in six years in existing housing, while household resources have gone up 24%);
- Evictions are on the increase (94 000 orders a year – +10% in ten years);
- Access to social housing is getting more difficult (between 1996 and 2002, the theoretical waiting time (based on number of allocations/requests) went from 1year and nine months to two years and 3 months);
- The laws adopted in France and the policies that have been implemented do not aim towards the effective exercise of the right to housing.
The percentage of the GDP spent on housing policies has continually decreased (2,22% in 1983; 1,95% in 2004). Among these policies, however, the money spent on subsidising private landlords is actually on an upward curve, but increasingly without the social obligations that it is intended to generate, and to the detriment of good quality social housing construction.
Policies to meet the needs of vulnerable groups represent less than 1% (0,8%) of housing policies. Yet, at the same time, political decisions have meant that entire population groups have been oriented towards this type of provision: 70 000 asylum seekers a year, whose social rights were withdrawn in 1991; the 128 000 people with mental health problems for whom hospital places have disappeared over these past 30 years (30 to 40% of people who are homeless have mental health problems…); the 25 000 old migrants whose foyer places were demolished without being rebuilt in the last six years; etc.
These figures must be contrasted with the public effect created by the announcement of a plan to relaunch 9800 places in 2004…the authorities are aware of the seriousness of the situation and of the absence of impact, or indeed the negative impact (the De Robien convention) of the policies in place on the right to housing.
Other European countries are putting in place the right to housing for all, whether through a legal guarantee at the level of the individual (Scotland) or through ambitious public policies (Nordic countries). Most countries are making progress towards the effective exercise of the right to housing; while France, formerly one of the leading countries in this area, is now one of the few to be moving backwards.
Thus France is responsible for the lack of progress towards the effective exercise of the right to housing, on each of the points laid out in article 31 of the Revised Social Charter. The housing crisis is a political choice. When an individual does not respect his obligations towards the collective, he is duly sanctioned. When the collective does not respect its obligations towards individuals, particularly in the area of protection of fundamental rights, it must equally be sanctioned.
The collective complaints procedure of the Council of Europe
A specific procedure, known as the collective complaint procedure, has been established in relation to the application of the Revised Social Charter of the Council of Europe.
It is a legal procedure which may be put in train by certain organisations that have the recognised status to do so from the Council of Europe, against the government in question. Collective complaints have previously upheld against France: for example in relation to the schooling available for autistic children.
An audience will therefore be held, to outline the positions of FEANTSA and of the French government. Following this audience, the European Committee of Social Rights and then the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe will take their decision.
What’s at stake?
A vital policy question: to recall that the protection of fundamental right is not one of the adjustment variables of public policy, but rather that it is the responsibility, as well as the source of legitimacy, of public policy. The existence of individual rights supposes a corresponding public responsibility.
- Awareness raising: to make the French public aware of the continual slide in public housing policies, which no longer seek to protect the most vulnerable, but rather to organise the smooth functioning of an economic sector.
- A legal precedent: to create jurisprudence in a high level legal instance, which badly housed individuals, roofless people, or people threatened with eviction, may be able to use, when they present their case at local level.
- A telling example: A complaint upheld against France will serve as a warning to countries whose public policies are still too far from the effective exercise of the right to housing. This procedure is a way of contributing to a top-down harmonisation of social policies across the EU.
 The “De Robien” is a form of tax-based support to private landlords, more or less without attached obligations. It costs the state more than the construction of new social housing (HLM – Habitation Loyer Modéré)
For more information, please, visit the follow websites
FEANTSA – European Federation of National Organisations working with people who are Homeless: http://www.feantsa.org/code/en/pg.asp?Page=558
FAPIL (Fédération des Associations pour la Promotion et l’Insertion par le Logement), one of the french FEANTSA members: http://www.fapil.net/
DAL – Droit au Logement: http://www.globenet.org/dal/index.php3?page=ACTUOPPO