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Second overview of housing exclusion in Europe 2017

At the beginning of his mandate as President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker promised ‘social fairness’. The European Union’s aims include fighting poverty and social exclusion and the principle of human dignity has always been at the centre of the European project. Europe's 2020 Strategy established the goal of taking 20 million people out of poverty. The European Union has committed to eradicating extreme poverty with the adoption of the UN’s 2030 Agenda. Various international and European treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter (revised), have been used for decades by supranational courts to define the exact meaning of social rights, including those related to housing. The legal standards that have come from decisions made in these courts are clear: respecting the right to housing is no longer a political choice but a legal obligation. Public authorities are compelled to respect, protect, and implement this universal right.

And yet... Homelessness is on the increase in Europe, reaching record numbers across almost all Member States. Homeless people have been left on the fringes of a European project that prides itself on ‘leaving nobody behind’. People living below the poverty threshold are being put under severe strain by the housing market. They are being increasingly marginalised by a private rental market that feeds off a systematic lack of affordable housing; their financial security and wellbeing are being endangered by housing expenditure that is taking up an increasingly large proportion of their budget. The most vulnerable sections of the population are being ignored and left with nowhere to turn. A large number of young people are being abandoned,
families are being destabilised, and migrants are being stigmatised. The number of evictions skyrocketed in some countries in the aftermath of the 2008 subprime crisis. Eviction in itself has always been hugely traumatising for the victims but it is explained by legal experts and defended by landlords as a necessary evil. The dramatic situation in Greece shows the most violent side to this ongoing crisis. 2017 marks the seventh anniversary of the first Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Troika and Greece, which initiated the series of austerity measures. The social impact of these, and other, measures are observed in this report.

And yet... The finance ministers of Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund have once again been putting pressure on the Greek government since the beginning of the year to introduce further austerity measures in exchange for financial support. The European Commission is pushing hard to ‘revitalise’ and ‘fight stigmatisation’ of the securitisation market, even though this market is prospering and played an undeniable role in the 2008 subprime crisis. Vulture funds are buying up social housing that is being sold off in Spain, where the crisis has left millions of empty housing units in the aftermath of the property bubble. In the name of the subsidiarity principle, whereby Member States have competence with regard to housing
policy, the European Commission is still not making the link between a balanced economy and an accessible housing market that is fit for purpose.

This report is a warning. In almost all European countries, increases in the number of homeless people are observed both over the short and long term. This is in spite of data collection that is often considered partial by sector professionals. In France, the number of homeless people increased by 50% between 2001 and 2012, according to INSEE (France's National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies). The study carried out by Italy’s National Institute for Statistics, although biased, shows an increase of 6% in the number of homeless people between 2011 and 2014. In Denmark, the number of homeless people is counted in a more comprehensive way with the definition being broader, and this number has increased by 23% between 2009 and 2015, according to the Danish National Centre for Social Research. In the Netherlands, where the definition also includes a wide variety of housing deprivation and exclusion situations, the number of homeless people has increased by 24% between 2013 and 2016. Studies carried out in certain European capitals also show alarming increases in the phenomenon including Brussels, Paris, London, Dublin, Vienna, and Barcelona.

This report is a call to action. First, to draw the attention of European decision-makers to the fact that there is no economic stimulus without social stimulus and that the housing sector is at the centre of this. The tools required to deal with the challenges of housing exclusion in Europe already exist. At European level, networks bringing together various entities – local, regional, and national governments, NGOs, civil society collectives, research bodies, European financial institutions – are actively committed to partnerships aiming to break down barriers in the sector and unleash a creative dynamic promoting accessible housing for all that is sustainable for the future. Instruments established by the European Commission, such as the Urban Agenda for the EU or the European Pillar of Social Rights, can act as protectors for the implementation of the right to housing. There is no shortage of inspiration, and good practice abounds: in Finland, longterm programmes for reducing homelessness (ongoing for 20 years) have proven their value, by focussing on the provision of permanent, affordable housing, and providing specialised support for the most vulnerable people. While other Member States have committed to this path, clear European incentives would give greater momentum to these proven solutions that deserve to be prioritised.