COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity to tackle homelessness and housing exclusion in Europe

How can homelessness be included in the economic and social pillars of the EU's recovery plan? Banner image: Shutterstock/Shuang Li

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that the need for a “home” is a key determinant of health. Yet, it has become increasingly difficult for millions of people in Europe to access housing over the last decade. This inaccessibility is the result of an unprecedented increase in housing costs combined with insufficient—and sometimes regressive—social reforms, as well as limited rental security.

Housing is not a commodity but a necessity and a right that must be guaranteed to everyone. Currently, the right to housing is increasingly dependent on the solvency of those accessing the housing market. Housing policies are thus crucial to make sure housing is affordable and, in light of climate deregulation and the European climate goals for 2030 and 2050, sustainable and green.

While the dire lack of affordable housing affects all of Europe, particularly in major cities, the increase in demand for housing has led to significant price increases. Amongst those worst affected by this phenomenon are young people who are not well established in the labour market—they struggle to find housing. In May, FEANTSA and Fondation Abbé Pierre published the latest report on Housing Exclusion in Europe, focusing on young people on the front lines of the pandemic, poverty and the structural dysfunction of housing markets. In 2019, 10.1% of people living in the EU28 were overburdened by housing costs, i.e. spending more than 40% of their income on housing; 37.1% of poor people were in this situation. 18–24-year-olds were the age group most affected by poverty in the EU, with almost one-quarter of this age cohort affected, compared to 17% of the population as a whole.

COVID-19 recovery policies

FEANTSA calls on European countries to reach out to people experiencing homelessness and those living in the worst housing conditions when they invest in affordable, sustainable housing for the post-COVID-19 era. The recovery creates an opportunity to create housing solutions that prevent and address homelessness. This unique opportunity should be seized, and all tools mobilised to bring about a paradigm shift and systemic transformation. This can be done by leveraging the Housing First policy to pave the way for a more humane, less costly and more effective action against homelessness. COVID-19 may provide some unique opportunities, for example, changes in downtown real estate and empty hotel or office buildings that can make space for affordable housing units.

Read more on the Forum Network: "From a Public Health Emergency to a Housing Emergency: How COVID-19 is worsening the housing affordability challenge" by Jonathan Reckford, CEO, Habitat for Humanity International

Read more on the Forum Network: "From a Public Health Emergency to a Housing Emergency: How COVID-19 is worsening the housing affordability challenge" by Jonathan Reckford, CEO, Habitat for Humanity International

On 21 June 2021, the EU-initiative European Platform on Combatting Homelessness will be launched. FEANTSA supports such strengthened EU-level cooperation and sees the potential of the European Platform to help tackle homelessness in the EU Member States and beyond. The OECD is another useful forum for transnational co-operation on tackling homelessness and could potentially engage in the Platform.

Affordable and sustainable housing must be a priority for Europe’s recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. Europe’s recovery policies and funds can address the current unique housing crisis, linked to not only broader social issues but also the climate emergency.

A positive example is the housing policy in the French city of Lyon, where the pandemic created an opportunity to improve policy action to house the homeless through the "zero return to the street" plan announced in May 2020 [read in French]. The plan started with the emergency increase of temporary urbanism solutions (short-term, alternative uses of city spaces), the mobilisation of private housing stock and supported accommodation. The plan aimed to increase the available social housing units from 200 to 500 units over five months.

Within the EU, the NextGenerationEU Recovery and Resilience Facility, the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund Plus, InvestEU, and the Multiannual Financial Framework among others can be mobilised  to  invest in fixing the housing crisis in European cities.[1] More broadly, States can use the Recovery as an opportunity to invest in solutions to homelessness and housing exclusion.

To house people who are experiencing homelessness, countries should also seize the opportunity to orient strategies towards systems based on access to permanent housing and Housing First. Throughout the pandemic, these initiatives have proven success reducing infection rates by enabling self-isolation but also giving people the opportunity to improve their living conditions through better healthcare and support in daily life.

The fight against homelessness must be mainstreamed in other policy areas and sectors. Whether related to anti-discrimination, health, migration, free movement, disability, taxation, consumer protection, competition, energy or macro-economic governance, policies must consider homelessness reduction and the rights of homeless people.

There is great scope for a win-win situation when it comes to environmental and social objectives in the housing area. However, care and attention are required to ensure that the most vulnerable on the housing market are not left behind. Transnational co-operation can help EU member states to work towards more inclusive and sustainable housing systems. Under its Green Deal that aims to “turn climate and environmental challenges into opportunities, and make the transition just and inclusive for all”, the European Union is currently running several initiatives that have the potential to influence housing policies:

The Renovation Wave

With its Renovation Wave strategy, a “flagship” project of the European Green Deal, the European Commission plans to double the EU’s annual rate of energy-related building renovations by upgrading 35 million buildings over the next ten years. To tackle housing exclusion effectively, the Renovation Wave must be social and environmental conscious, especially in those member states that suffer most from energy poverty to make sure no one is left behind.

The Renovation Wave provides a unique opportunity to tackle Europe’s inadequate housing while contributing to EU climate targets. It is a chance to move to sustainable housing while making it accessible to everyone, including—and especially—low-income households. Prioritising renovations of the residential sector is paramount to aim support at those who need it the most. Only by being linked to a commitment to decent and affordable housing for all can the Renovation Wave benefit Europe’s most vulnerable.

Affordable Housing Initiative

Another EU initiative that has the potential to influence housing policies within Europe is the Affordable Housing Initiative, announced by the European Commission as a cornerstone of its Renovation Wave strategy. In the coming years, the initiative aims to revitalise 100 neighbourhoods as “lighthouse projects” across the EU, while ensuring that renovated units remain affordable to demonstrate the potential to scale in other districts.

The New European Bauhaus

With the New European Bauhaus, the EU wants to create a space where future ways of living can be designed at the crossroads between art, culture, social inclusion, science and technology. The hope is that it can help to create inclusive, accessible and affordable cities through cross-sectoral co-operation on social inclusion. This initiative's ambition, which calls for creativity and interdisciplinarity, is an unprecedented opportunity to implement projects designed for and with homeless people. Innovative projects in this field must enable access to dignified, adequate and affordable housing, and can in no way promote temporary or precarious solutions that sideline the central issue of securing a permanent home.

The role of the OECD

The OECD can play an important role in promoting policy initiatives for efficient, inclusive and sustainable housing markets. It can help build knowledge and understanding, promote good practice, and monitor and analyse developments in housing systems, among others. Unsustainable and exclusive housing systems are one of the biggest challenges facing OECD countries’ economies and societies, and the OECD can add great value to the policy design process by engaging with other international organisations like the EU.

The OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies examines housing policies related to inclusiveness, efficiency and sustainability. The report addresses the affordability crisis for housing in many OECD countries and calls for long-lasting policies that take mega-trends as digitalisation, an ageing population and climate change into account. Even before the pandemic, at least 1.9 million people were experiencing homelessness in OECD countries. The report recognises homelessness as a serious challenge, stemming from “structural factors, institutional and systemic failures, individual circumstances and combinations of these”. Housing exclusion and homelessness are linked to rising housing costs, higher rates of poverty and evictions.

Read the new OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies, emphasising inclusiveness, efficiency and sustainability for the design of housing policies

Read the new OECD report Brick by Brick: Building Better Housing Policies, bringing together evidence, international experience and policy insights for the design of housing policies

To tackle the affordability crisis in housing there is a need for interlinking housing policies of different governance levels. The OECD Policy Action Toolkit provides a good overview of which actions governments can take to make housing more efficient, more inclusive and more sustainable. FEANTSA welcomes this contribution to the international evidence base on addressing housing exclusion and homelessness. We look forward to analysing and debating it in more detail.

The OECD Housing Indicator Dashboard analyses policies on being inclusive, efficient and sustainable. According to this overview, in particular government spending to invest to build green social housing with portable eligibility to ensure mobility has positive effects on all the aforementioned dimensions. FEANTSA shares this view but underscores the need to design these policies carefully and target investments to improve the living conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Examples of policies that the OECD could further analyse and promote include Housing First programmes for homeless people, housing market regulation, targeting energy efficiency measures to tackle inadequate housing and investment in social and affordable housing.

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

Check out the updated OECD Housing Gateway for a wealth of data and work on housing including our new interactive policy action tool

[1] See also our report: Investment in Affordable & Social Housing Solutions: Reaching the “Locked Out” in Europe

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Housing

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Frederik Spinnewijn

Director, FEANTSA