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The “Europe really has a housing problem” Edition

The “Europe really has a housing problem” Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #3 • View online
Hi and welcome to the third official issue of the Weekly Focus!
In our first two issues, we heard from journalists from nine European countries. Now, we invite Poland, France, Germany, Hungary and Austria to the table!
If you have any questions, feedback or suggestions about this newsletter or n-ost just hit the reply button or send us an email to editors@n-ost.org.

Chances are good that you’re reading this newsletter inside your own four walls right now. ‘Staying at home’ seems to be no longer an act of social solidarity, but a routine gone stale. Many European bedrooms have turned into workplaces, universities and kindergartens. For some of us, it’s quite comfortable to talk to a teacher or boss from our spacious living room or nicely equipped kitchen. But for many others, it’s just embarrassing.
While our world got smaller, the chances of finding affordable housing didn’t become greater. European housing problems have always been there — COVID-19 has just made us see them more clearly, and forced us to ask important questions about our cities and our future: Will millennials in Poland ever be able to afford their own flat? Are local activists able to improve Hungarian social housing policy? And what are the strategies of cities like Paris, Vienna or Berlin to relax their tense real estate markets? 
The landscape of the future is dotted with a myriad of problems. Let’s take a walk through it together — before we all have to move to the countryside, anyway…
Kaja Puto, this week’s coordinating editor
This week's author team: Kaja Puto, Hélène Bienvenu, Sebastian Christ, Ervin Gűth, Stefan Schocher.
This week's author team: Kaja Puto, Hélène Bienvenu, Sebastian Christ, Ervin Gűth, Stefan Schocher.
🇵🇱 Opinion: Waiting for grandma’s death
Photo: galinachi.livejournal.com
Photo: galinachi.livejournal.com
For most Polish Gen Z and millennials, a decent place to live remains a dream.  Skyrocketing rents, fussy landlords and microwave ovens marketed as ‘kitchens’ – anyone who has searched for a flat in a huge European city in recent years will understand what I’m talking about. But in Poland, many young people can’t even afford to rent a flat.
An average Pole earns about 820 EUR after tax per month, which is only a bit more than the monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in big cities like Warsaw, Gdańsk or Cracow. That is why many young people, especially new parents, decide to take out a mortgage – monthly rates are lower. But only a small fraction of us are creditworthy, because the plague of precarious work contracts is especially infectious among the young. Moreover, Poland lacks more than 2 million flats. No wonder that 43% of Poles aged 25-34 still live with their parents.
To top it all off, house prices in Poland are on the rise (+10,9% last year), and due to inflation — the highest in the EU — real estate has become one of the safest places to invest money. But is an average Pole, especially a young one, able to afford such a purchase in these uncertain times? No, but investors are.
Without regulations on the real estate market and public housing projects, nothing will change. The allegedly pro-social PiS government hasn’t delivered on its pledge to subsidize and build affordable houses for hundreds of thousands of low-income families, promised at a time when the Polish economy was flourishing, in 2016. Will they manage to deliver during the post-corona recession? Highly unlikely.
It’s tragic, but today it seems that the dysfunctional health care system that left Poland with 125,000 ‘redundant’ deaths since March 2020 (COVID-19 + overloaded medical facilities) may be the only hope for the young. Kids can still hope that grandma will leave them her post-communist flat in her will. Well, we love our grannies here. We are a traditional society.
Kaja Puto is a Warsaw-based freelance journalist with a focus on Eastern Europe. She still remembers the electric shocks in the shower of her flat in Cracow, one of her first encounters with the overloaded Polish rental market.
Kaja Puto is a Warsaw-based freelance journalist with a focus on Eastern Europe. She still remembers the electric shocks in the shower of her flat in Cracow, one of her first encounters with the overloaded Polish rental market.
🇫🇷 Number of the week: 21 million euros
21 million euros… This is the estimated amount in fines that 420 Airbnb landlords in Paris will have to fork over to the city after a recent judgement from France’s highest court. They were caught violating a regulation that says those wishing to make some extra business by renting out a second flat as a short-term rental must first buy another flat and make it available on the normal housing market. Now, in the court ruling, landlords have been sent a clear message: there is no escaping the law. 
As Airbnb and similar platforms have taken over thousands of flats for commercial rentals in recent years, prices have ballooned even more for Parisians, who now struggle to find any suitable place to call home. Besides, late-night Airbnb parties and the constant rumble of wheeled suitcases on cobblestone pavement are not only disturbing locals’ famous sense of “savoir vivre”. Many popular European destination cities, such as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Berlin, have made similar efforts to control the industry. 
Even with the new law in place, high demand and hungry investors are likely to remain the main features of the Parisian rental market. The lack of attractive and affordable mid-sized housing is pushing newcomers, millennials and young families out of the centre to far-away suburbs or other urban hubs. No wonder Paris has been losing roughly 10,000 residents per year over the past decade. Soon we won’t be watching “Emily in Paris”, but “Emily in Pantin”.
Hélène Bienvenu is a French freelance journalist focusing on underreported stories in Central and Eastern Europe. She lived and worked in a 9m2 Parisian “chambre de bonne” for two years – and actually loved it!
Hélène Bienvenu is a French freelance journalist focusing on underreported stories in Central and Eastern Europe. She lived and worked in a 9m2 Parisian “chambre de bonne” for two years – and actually loved it!
🇩🇪 Analysis: Back to the countryside
Photo: David Mark
Photo: David Mark
What’s special about the German provinces is that they’re actually not so provincial. The countryside boasts relatively good infrastructure, and many universities are located in small or medium-sized towns. As German industry is spread out in rural and urban areas alike, the country’s metropolises are not as indispensable as they may seem. 
Germans have an on-and-off relationship with their cities, but when they feel again the tug of urban life, it happens for two main reasons: They are looking for work or they are exploring new lifestyles. Germans moved to the cities in the mid-19th century, in the 1920s and also since the 1990s, due to the economic transformation from an industrial to a service society and the collapse of the former state-owned enterprises in the five eastern German states.
When Germans rediscover rural life for themselves, it’s usually because of technological developments. In the 1890s, for example, the Prussian Small Railways Act made it possible to build rail lines in the remotest corners of the empire, so factories were able to locate there and people no longer had to move to dirty, overcrowded cities to find jobs. 
Today it is not a railroad law, but fiber optic cables and the new home office regulations that get people interested in country living. Rents in the cities are increasing at record rates and attempts at regulation, such as Berlin’s rent cap, have failed for the time being. While cultural life is in lockdown, many Germans long for rural life, according to recent surveys. This option seems far less unrealistic today than it did a year and a half ago, and is especially widespread among young families.
Sebastian Christ is a German political journalist and editor at Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, where he usually writes about data protection and cybersecurity. In the 1960s, his parents moved from the densely-populated Ruhr area to rural Frankenberg, his hometown.
Sebastian Christ is a German political journalist and editor at Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, where he usually writes about data protection and cybersecurity. In the 1960s, his parents moved from the densely-populated Ruhr area to rural Frankenberg, his hometown.
🇭🇺 1 question to... Fanni Aradi
Fanni Aradi (center), 25, coordinates a sit-in demonstration in 2016 against the demolition of public housing properties in the Southern Hungarian city of Pécs. She is an activist and member of the grassroots movement A Város Mindenkié (The City Belongs to Everyone), which addresses social housing problems across the country. Photo: Gyula Erdész/AVM
Fanni Aradi (center), 25, coordinates a sit-in demonstration in 2016 against the demolition of public housing properties in the Southern Hungarian city of Pécs. She is an activist and member of the grassroots movement A Város Mindenkié (The City Belongs to Everyone), which addresses social housing problems across the country. Photo: Gyula Erdész/AVM
Ms. Aradi, what does the social housing situation look like in Hungary and what change do you hope for on a local and national level?
To answer this, we have to start in the 1990s after the collapse of socialism, when municipalities all over the country sold their social housing properties. Nowadays, only 4% is left as public housing. The situation is somewhat better in Pécs, where 10% (4,000 properties) still belong to the city. But when we look behind the numbers there is nothing to be proud of. These housing estates are usually former mining workers’ colonies, mainly in segregated areas in the city outskirts and often without running water or sanitation at all. It’s quite typical all around Hungary that social housing is available in theory, but in reality flats often can’t be rented out because of their poor condition.
As a grassroots movement we focus on local solutions. It’s easier to change the rules in a city than on a national level and to pressure for progressive housing policies that can help even the poorest with their communication and debt settlement needs. In general, what we wish for is a new and transparent social housing policy in Pécs.
On a national level, I don’t have high hopes for change. Just to illustrate: when an opposition MP asked in March for the extension of the current eviction moratorium until the end of the year, the government responded that she shouldn’t “provoke with questions inspired by clandestine powers".
Ervin Gűth is a Hungarian freelance journalist and editor at the independent regional online portal szabadpecs.hu. Hailing from a small village, he worked in the capital for some time until deciding 15 years ago to settle down somewhere in between, in the most liveable city in Hungary: Pécs.
Ervin Gűth is a Hungarian freelance journalist and editor at the independent regional online portal szabadpecs.hu. Hailing from a small village, he worked in the capital for some time until deciding 15 years ago to settle down somewhere in between, in the most liveable city in Hungary: Pécs.
🇦🇹 A ghetto against ghettoisation?
Photo: Stefan Schocher
Photo: Stefan Schocher
Sonnenallee (Sun avenue), Vienna – no there are no trees along this avenue. Not yet. There is only sunshine on this Sunday and the name. And just ahead: a silhouette of high-rise buildings in the middle of the nothingness of north-eastern Vienna.
The north of this city has nothing to do with the world-famous picturesque charm of Vienna, but is rather infamous for its car wrecking yards, desolate social housing sins of the 1960s, and now: Seestadt. An entirely new district built on a former airfield and one of the largest urban development projects in Central Europe. 
The plan: housing for 40,000 people. The ambition: a district with an independent social and economic structure, with schools, shops and office spaces. Social housing, higher-class condominiums and shared student flats will make up this patchwork neighborhood. About a quarter of the district is finished – over 8,000 people already live here. Social mixing unis the goal. The Seestadt is an experiment to save Vienna’s legacy as a social democratic utopia. Whether it will succeed is far from certain.
Vienna was long considered a social housing paradise. Take Heiligenstadt in the west for example: vineyards, beautiful 19th-century villas and mansions with views of the Danube – and in the middle of this upper-class suburban idyll, the “Karl Marx Hof”, a massive social housing complex built in the 1920s. Until today, this practice runs right through the whole city. Where there is a villa district, there is a “Gemeindebau” (municipality building).
Around 25 percent of Viennese still live in communal flats and social housing has become part of the city’s identity, often sung about and romanticized. But it is just as often dismissed and politically contested. A classic in the tussle between left and right was the question: Who is entitled to a municipal flat? Do immigrants also have a right?
The fact that immigrants were not included in social housing for decades has also left its mark in a city where 41 percent of the population has a “migration background”. The gentrification of inner-city neighbourhoods did the rest to displace an affordable housing market. That’s when it happened: the ghettoisation. And one of these ghettos is Transdanubia, the area north of the Danube. In other words, exactly where Seestadt is now being built.
Stefan Schocher is a freelance journalist from Vienna with an affection for what lies east of this town. Writing about a “Gemeindebau” brings back his childhood: yellowish walls with a 50’s pattern, the smell of cheap cigarettes and the sound of relatives yelling out into the yard to call their kids to dinner.
Stefan Schocher is a freelance journalist from Vienna with an affection for what lies east of this town. Writing about a “Gemeindebau” brings back his childhood: yellowish walls with a 50’s pattern, the smell of cheap cigarettes and the sound of relatives yelling out into the yard to call their kids to dinner.
5 rather desperate “solutions” to Europeans’ housing problems
1. “Patodeweloperka”
Photo: Andrzej Szewczyk https://szewo.com/
Photo: Andrzej Szewczyk https://szewo.com/
Sunlight, bus stop, playground—who needs those? In Poland, the shortage of flats is so severe that housing developers can build and sell anything, even an ‘9m2 luxury studio in the inner city’ for €4,500/sq. That’s why ‘patodeweloperka’ (a neologism coined from ‘pathology’ + ’developers’) has recently become a buzzword.
2. “100-Euro-Wohnung”
Tiny House: Van Bo Le-Mentzel presents the 100-euro flat
Tiny House: Van Bo Le-Mentzel presents the 100-euro flat
Would you rent a toilet for 400 euros a month? In Berlin, some would. Architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel’s tiny house promises luxury in comparison. Small wonder that the public showed great interest in his design of an apartment going for 100 euros a month. Secret “Harry Potter Walls” and “Tetris tables” included.
3. “Gemeindebau” (refurbished)
Photo: Lorenz Seidler, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo: Lorenz Seidler, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
SOHO, a cultural space in the Ottakring district, is trying to reclaim Vienna’s historic urban social life. Unsurprisingly, it is located in a municipal building (Gemeindebau). This way, the legacy of the city’s ‘neighborhood feel’ can be partially preserved.
4. “Chambre de bonne”
“The poor poet” by Carl Spitzweg (1839)
“The poor poet” by Carl Spitzweg (1839)
Paris’ chambre de bonnes (maids’ rooms), formerly occupied by domestic workers, are now home to students and lower-income Parisians. Located just under the roofs of Haussmannian buildings, only 15% of these mini-flats are currently occupied, although that soon may change. You may have a wonderful view of the Parisian skyline, but better not forget your keys as you head to the shared toilets in the lobby.
5. “Kádár-kocka”
Source: oeny.hu
Source: oeny.hu
These cubic houses, built in the 1960s, are informally named after the communist leader János Kádár. The low cost of affordable housing came at a high price: soullessness and energy inefficiency. There are still some 800,000 around, and the government provides you with free renovation blueprints to bring the house into the 21st century. “Kádár cubes” aren’t world famous like Rubik’s cube, but in Hungary they are.
Editing: Lucy Papachristou, Christian-Zsolt Varga
Editing: Lucy Papachristou, Christian-Zsolt Varga
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