Around the world, new municipal movements are transforming the way we provide – and think about – housing. From campaigning against evictions to innovative forms of public housing to requisitioning empty properties and engaging many more people in decisions about how and where we live, municipal projects are responding to the global housing crisis, locally.
In Hungary, A Varos Mindenkie (The City is For All), an action group of people who have experienced homelessness and their allies, has been campaigning for an end to evictions and housing rights. In Romania, Căși Sociale ACUM! (Social Housing NOW!) campaigns for housing justice.
In the US, the Richmond Progressive Alliance has introduced rent controls and measures to protect tenants from eviction. The alliance’s housing action team is transforming abandoned properties into affordable housing, pushing the local school district to complete a housing project for teachers, and exploring ways to encourage homeowners to take advantage of new laws designed to make it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units (often known as ‘granny flats’ in the UK), one of the cheapest ways to provide affordable homes.
The path to rent control wasn’t smooth – early attempts to impose rent controls were blocked by the California Landlord Association. It became a key issue in the 2016 municipal elections, and with pro bono legal help and support from the Service Employees Union as well as other community organisations, Richmond became one of the first cities in California to pass rent control in 30 years. The town’s February 2018 State of the City report showed the impact: average rents were down 11 per cent from September 2016, the first rent control board was operating, and funds for affordable housing were being spent on new public housing. Now the alliance is working to appeal Costa-Hawkins, a 1995 California law allowing landlords who rent single-family houses to raise rents without limits, exempting them from rent-control laws that now apply to flats.
Building on mayor Ada Colau’s work as a housing activist, since it came to power in 2015 Barcelona en Comú has been one of the most prolific and creative new municipal movements in terms of the range and scope of new initiatives. APROP (‘provisional proximity accommodation’), announced in February 2018, is a new model of temporary flats that can be built quickly and sustainably, giving local people somewhere to live while more permanent houses are built. Empty plots will be used as sites for the temporary flats before the longer-term housing projects they are reserved for are built. A pilot scheme of 92 homes (for 250 people) is planned for completion by the end of 2018. Building a home normally takes between six and seven years; the new project cuts that time to nine months.
The city council has also signed over four sites for cooperatives to build co‑housing projects on municipally-owned land. Plots were released in October 2017 and co-housing projects invited to apply. The cooperatives had to show that they would provide social housing, be managed collectively and meet a set of strict environmental criteria. The Barcelona model involves the council, or a private owner, signing over the use of an unused property or plot of land. The members pay a deposit and a monthly sum for the use of their home at below-market prices. Residents are given lifelong access to a home, the property belongs to the cooperative and the land will always be publicly owned, meaning it can never be used for property speculation.
Other initiatives have set out to bring unused properties, particularly those owned by banks and speculators, into public use. The Catalonia registry of empty houses includes 2,021 empty homes in Barcelona and the council has conducted its own, additional surveys to identify empty flats in the city. Court rulings have allowed the requisition of five properties owned by banks this April for use for social housing for between four and ten years. The council estimates that another 600 empty apartments could be pressed into public service in this way, helping to ease the social housing shortage in the city.
As national governments struggle to respond to housing crises around the world, municipal innovation shows what can be done where the will exists.