In the past years Finland has managed to decrease homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, contrary to the general trend of increasing numbers of homeless people in many European countries. The main reason for this positive development has been the success of the Finnish National Programme to reduce long-term homelessness started in 2008.
Finland has also become known as a country that has implemented Housing First principles at policy level. In practice this means that, instead of temporary solutions like hostels and shelters, homeless people have been given proper, independent rental flats with adequate support if needed.
In eight years 3,500 flats have been allocated to people suffering from long-term homelessness. Of these, 80% have been from the social housing stock, or built or acquired using the same financial instruments. A very straightforward conclusion would be that, in Finland, a sufficient social housing stock has been a necessary requirement for the successful implementation of Housing First principles and for the decreasing trend of homelessness.
"Social housing is as much about ‘social’ as
it is about housing and real estates"
It is not far-fetched to say that there is a strong interdependence between availability of social housing and homelessness. Some recent news on the dramatic increase in street homelessness, for example in the United Kingdom and Ireland, underline the importance of social housing. Neglecting a sufficient supply of affordable housing or diminishing it deliberately will instantly be reflected as increasing numbers of the homeless.
In Finland, social housing production has functioned as an effective measure of stabilisation policy. In 2008 when the above-referenced programme to reduce long-term homelessness was launched, Finland was hit by an economic recession during which there was less demand on the private market. Construction companies and housing corporations were more willing to invest in social housing production. It was also easier to keep the cost of construction within the level approved by the Finnish Housing Finance and Development Centre ARA. It is rather a paradox to have been ‘blessed’ with recurrent recessions which have made it possible to obtain a reasonable level of social housing supply.
However, Finland is not a social housing paradise by any means. The share of social housing of the total housing stock is around 15%. This is a relatively modest portion although the social housing resources have been quite well targeted for the groups with the most urgent need for housing.
Defending social housing is indeed a constant battle. In recent years there has been a common understanding that in every new housing area, especially in the Helsinki Metropolitan Region, at least 20% should be social housing. However, it is obvious that 20% is simply not enough for the demand and that the share of social housing should be at least 30% or even more. At the same time there are very idealistic views about free markets ‒ how we simply have to build enough housing and it will trickle down in lower rents and more supply of affordable housing. This is the promise of free market; a promise that with the commodification of housing and its internal logic of value increase looks more and more unlikely to be fulfilled.
Recently some very important and powerful views have been stated on the importance of social housing. Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Affordable Housing, has called for a paradigm shift whereby housing is “once again seen as a human right rather than a commodity”. David Ireland from Building and Social Housing Foundation has highlighted social housing as “a national infrastructure like transport, energy and water”. Another encouraging sign is the City of Amsterdam setting up a target to have 40% social housing in new housing projects.
"In Finland, social housing production has functioned
as an effective measure of stabilisation policy"
Now it is about time for social housing providers, associations and NGOs to speak out. People who are working in key positions in society, who with their own actions can make a big difference for individuals, have to use their voice. They can also show that it is possible to build a more inclusive future in our societies.
The idea of social housing needs to be made crystal-clear. You do not have to perform miracles. All it takes is to remember that social housing is as much about ‘social’ as it is about housing and real estates. There are requirements by default for social housing chiefs and directors: real estate has to be kept in good condition and the same goes with the economy of the associations and companies. But the third requirement is the most crucial and demanding as it makes the biggest difference: the social consciousness. There is a need for an ethically conscious, socially minded leadership in social housing and it is our duty to take care of the most vulnerable people.
In my understanding the discussion on social housing is emblematic of a wider societal discussion. Where are we going? For whom are we building future society and which values it is based on? Could social housing actually be the locus for a wider civic movement for human rights?
There is a lot of talk about human rights, but it sometimes remains quite abstract. In real life it is a question of very ordinary basic human social rights: a decent, affordable home in a safe and healthy environment is certainly one of them.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - Graeme Wilmot