Collective Housing Transformation - HSP debate

On the 11th of October HSP organized a debate on Collective Housing Transformation. Find the program here.

Presentation Collective Housing Transformation Report- Chloé Serme-Morin/FEANTSA

The report on Upcycling Buildings is the result of a collaboration of FEANTSA, the Abbé Pierre Foundation (FAP), and the Council European Development Bank (CEB).

Why? (1)For the past 10 years, we see rising housing exclusion and homelessness in Europe. (2) The pandemic exacerbated the consequences of bad, overcrowded or no housing at all (for those living on the street). Being deprived of proper housing or living in overcrowded spaces strongly increased the risk of infection with COVID-19. People in poverty and marginalised groups were also much more impacted by the economic consequences of the pandemic. In this context, protective emergency policies were put in place, including the transformation of existing buildings into homeless accommodation. However, these have mostly remained temporary solutions. (3) The pandemic has changed the ways we (don’t) use some buildings, such as empty hotels, offices, etc. (4) A diversity of practices has been developed in the conversion of accommodations into housing e.g. hotels into housing in the US, offices into housing in Brussels, and Housing First in Finland where congregate emergency accommodation was converted into long term housing on a big scale.

What benefits? First of all, converting congregate accommodation into permanent housing has, above all, social and humanitarian benefits; increase residential stability, improvement of health, wellbeing, social inclusion. Secondly, benefits are also economic, as the establishment of more permanent and long-term housing allows to reduce emergency accommodation which is very costly.

How? The 3 steps of collective housing transformation are the following: (1) Set objectives, assess feasibility of transformation. (2) Analyse financial/technical/administrative risks. (3) Assess building’s potential in addressing the future residents’ needs.

The 3 criteria for success are: (1) Strong partnerships and coherent housing policies. (2) Financial feasibility. (3) Focus on the needs of beneficiaries.

The 3 main challenges are: (1) Overcoming legal and technical barriers. (2) Risks of deregulation, ensuring transformation into high quality housing. (3) Social obstacles (reluctant neighbours).

Responses by experts – thematic panels

Panel 1: Partitioner perspectives

Mauro Striano, Bruss'help (organisation in charge of developing solutions for people in homelessness in the Brussels region)

Bruss’help coordinated the placement of people experiencing homelessness in hotels converted into accommodation during the pandemic. At the peak of the crisis, 11 hotels were providing accommodation to 900 people. There are around 200 people currently in these hostels.

Bruss’help made the following reaction to the report: Their experience showed that hotels are a better-quality solution than emergency accommodation as they provide more privacy, feeling of security, stability, autonomy, etc.

- First, given their cost, it seems difficult to see how these emergency measures can be sustained: Indeed, the costs are relatively high: 60-80€/day/person due to the staff, management costs, rent of hotels, etc. This would be a major barrier to making these projects more permanent.

- Second, in the Brussels context, turning hotels and other buildings into permanent housing solutions would not meet the needs of a large part of the homeless population. Undocumented migrants, with no access to social housing or to income, could not benefit from such housing. Furthermore, this kind of congregate setting might be unsuitable for people with serious health problem or addictions that don’t fit in a community environment.

Concerns: (1) So, for who is it? (2) Are public authorities willing to invest a big budget to convert hotels into housing for people who contribute little (if at all) to tax revenue?

Donal McManus, CEO Irish Council for Social Housing (IE)

Ireland: different target groups, different means, long experience. Ireland has a 20 year of experience in collective housing transformation. These projects do not only target homeless people but various vulnerable populations. The “repurposed” homes come from different types of buildings, from convents to commercial buildings, cinemas, coast guard stations and even a bank.

Diffusion of the practice with the COVID-19 crisis. During the COVID-19 crisis, a few housing associations took over the management of hotels to allow homeless people to isolate (short-term), which were transformed into long term accommodation.

Lessons from the Irish experience to mainstream collective housing transformation: (1) implement ad-hoc projects, (2) housing organizations should lead transformation projects, with support from local municipalities and the government (getting elected members and councillors on board considerably reduces obstacles at local level), (3) adapt the project to the context (all projects are unique and hard to replicate), (4) exercise due diligence.

Reasons for optimism: As the COVID-19 crisis is changing the economy, it has an impact on tourism and the way people work, which may be opportunities for collective housing conversions.

Arnaud De Broca, General Delegate at the French Union of Supported Housing Providers (UNAFO).

Example of the Pensions de famille in France. These correspond to housing for isolated people (mostly men but also women), most of them lived on the street. The “Pensions de famille’ are communities of 20-30 housing units of around 20-25 m2 each with access to collective spaces and provision of support to tenants (with the administrative tasks and in the design of possible collective initiatives).

It is conceivable to think of this model by transforming hotels. The hotels are often well located, placed near transportations, which is a necessary condition for pensions de famille which aim at (re-)integrating people.

Barriers to action: (1) Some hotels have accumulated debts due to the COVID-19 crisis, (2) the buildings are not always fit, the rooms are often small. The objective of the pension de famille is to guarantee that the families can stay there as long as they want to, and hotels often only provide temporary solutions. (3) Local objections (and “NIMBYism’): projects need to take care of the community and proactively manage local objections among neighbours.

Michael Monte, CEO of the Champlain Housing Trust, the biggest community land trust in Vermont, USA.

Since 2013 Champlain Housing Trust purchased 8 motels, 5 in the past years during the COVID-19 crisis

Steps for launching a transformation project:

1- Building condition and zoning: Does the building meet local building standards? Does it meet local land use regulations? Based upon the size of the motel, what number of apartments can be created? Either choose suite motels with kitchen already or look at combining 2 rooms (a bathroom becoming a kitchen for example). Is access to electricity satisfactory?

2- Purchase value: The duration of the transformation must be quick (no more than 6 months) and present low costs (the cost per unit is as half the price of a new construction).

3- Fundings: The sources of funding come from capital placements from funders (and even a medical centre).

4- Communication: Be in constant communication with founders to find opportunities. Be in constant communication with local communities, including political leaders, to reduce barriers.

Overall, the 3 most important factors to consider are: (1) Supply: is it a good project/capital investment, (2) subsidy: is there another source of funding to support tenants paying rents, (3) services: is there enough money flowing from the property to pay for the services.


Q1: What are the profiles of people housed in the Pensions de famille?

A1 (Arnaud de Broca): In Pension de famille we find mainly people who were rough sleepers or who were accommodated in emergency housing, single people with low income (minimum income needed to pay for the rent), male, who deal with social services. We also see that these groups are aging.

Q2: Are hotels are better suited than offices or other buildings?

Q2: (Michael Monte): If you ensure checking the size, price, and location, then yes. (Mauro Striano): There are a lot of empty housing units or unused social housing in Brussels, which are a real alternative to hotels, that is a reason why governments prefer investments to such commodities instead of transforming hotels. (Arnaud de Broca): We have examples of other places (military barracks, hospitals) that can be used.

Hotel converted in permanent housing in California, Louisa Gouliamaki, Getty Images

Panel 2: Financing perspectives

Michelle Norris, Chair of Irish Housing Finance Agency, which provides loans for housing purposes to local authorities and other voluntary housing bodies

We have a labour shortage in the construction industry in Ireland, so the reuse of building is an option to consider creating more housing and is also environmentally friendly.

Hotels have key practical advantages (sufficient plumbing, bathrooms, kitchens) …but there’s also risks the use of hotels is unpredictable due to the evolution of tourism, and there is a socio-spatial segregation of homeless services in certain cities like Dublin that need to be solved in other to ensure nearby access to support services.

The reconversion of shops into housing units would help. There are a lot of vacant space above shops and in shops that can be used. Using them would help to add small units to the social housing stock (60% of existing social housing in Ireland is 3- or 4-bedrooms dwellings, which are mainly suitable for families while most homeless people live on their own or in couples, and hence struggle to access affordable social housing). Furthermore, we see a potential to convert existing buildings into long-term social housing.

“The main challenges don’t come from the number of regulations, but from the administrative burden of trying to manage all the different regulations simultaneously”. One idea to combat this could be a "one-stop shop" for local authorities and organisations to help them with the administrative burden.

Jarmo Linden, Director of ARA, the Housing Finance and Development Centre in Finland

The example of Finland: In 2008, Finland changed the ideology of homeless policies with Housing First and converted emergency accommodations and hostels into permanent housing. Helsinki went from 600 beds in emergency accommodations at that time to 50 beds nowadays. The government decided to invest in the renovation of emergency accommodations. The Salvation Army hostel in Helsinki, which proposed 250 beds was turned into 81 apartments.

What funding? 45% of the expenditures were government subsidy grants and 55% were interest subsidy loans with government guarantee.

What plan? The aim was to rehouse people permanently through personal rental contracts. Residents apply for social benefits and pay their rent (350€ rent), and if the benefits are not enough, apply for social assistance. If tenants still cannot pay, they would ask ARA to pay the landlord directly. (Finland uses 2,5 Billion euros to subsidize rental housing rents directly to the tenants, and 15% of the population has housing benefits).

Samir Kulenovic, advisor on housing and urban development at the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB)

In this process it is important to focus on the needs of the users to overcome technical and legal barriers, and social obstacles. The CEB choses to finance a project if there is a good social impact. The successful examples of building renovation and transformation are often supported by the state. This is especially the case of emergency accommodations which need to be supplied quickly and where state support is needed. In such situations, the state can easily intervene on different matters (standard of the facilities for example) which can result in trade-off of social outcome. So, it is important on such projects to understand the state interventions, incentives or limits set and the risks of their trad-off for social impact and mitigate the risk by instituting social safeguards on such projects. For example, involvement of NGOs and multiple layers of financing could safeguard these projects.

Panel 3: Future perspectives

Deborah Padgett, Professor at NYU Silver (USA)

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis is the availability of hotels for conversion into homes. The problems in terms of the creation of more housing we face in the US are not only related to funding (the Biden administration gave unprecedented amounts of money – 50 billion$ from the US rescue plan). The obstacles are linked to the history of housing policies in the US, favouring white landowners and private estate developers over everyone else, and excluding African Americans from property. This is different from Europe (and from Vermont which is an exception with Bernie Sanders being senator). For instance, the city of New York spends over 4 billion$/year on homelessness of which almost all goes to shelters. We need to convince governments to invest in housing, and not just incentivize the private sector, to reverse a long history of privatization and refutation of housing as a right. California is trying to skip the shelter step and go directly to housing, which is hopeful.

Eamonn Waters, Principal Officer on homelessness in the Department of Housing in the Ministry of Local Government and Heritage Ireland, in charge of the development of homeless policies, funding and delivery

It is difficult to know whether the quality of the converted buildings will reach a certain level, so that the people living in them will have access to a certain degree of comfort in a good value dwelling (this is easier in a new building). The regulations for the transformation of buildings need to be part of a proper and visible policy framework that is underpinned at a national and municipal level. There is a need to work with a large variety of stakeholders within by a strong national policy framework. The policy needs to be housing-led and not emergency accommodation-led and set high objectives such as eradicating homelessness at the horizon 2O30 (as in the ‘Housing for All’ Plan which has been signed off by the Irish government).

Homelessness Policy Conclusions

Karel Vanderpoorten (DG GROW), social policy officer working on the Affordable Housing Initiative

These ideas are in line with the spirit of the Affordable Housing Initiative led by the DG Grow of the European Commission. One issue to be considered is the position of office buildings in cities. Office quarters often do not have the adequate facilities (shops), the services (crèches) or open spaces (playgrounds and green spaces) as housing districts have. Buildings can also be of poor quality and not energy efficient. However, there are innovative projects to consider such as modular housing, but their impact is limited as these are only temporary projects.

Sorcha Edwards, Secretary General of Housing Europe, the European Network of Social Housing Providers

Now is a crucial timing for collective housing transformation, as many authorities are looking for ideas and ways to use the funds of the recovery plans (Ireland launched the “Housing for All” Plan, the EU launched its Recovery Plan etc.), but there is a need for clarity around the different types of loans that can be used for collective housing transformation projects. This issue must be addressed with a case-by-case approach, as it depends on the building, the environment, etc.

There is a call for a new social contract, as we are facing an environmental and COVID-19 crises, which should increase our efforts to make more use of vacant buildings, existing materials and improve mobility in the cities to lead to the “15-minute city” with a circular economy perspective. This will only be possible if political will is there, and there is now a huge push in the society for making policy makers accountable.

This cannot be the only solution: we don’t want “zero new buildings”, but we must adapt the new buildings to these more resourceful and creative approaches.

Final conclusions by chair

These solutions are useful, we need to bring more affordable and supported housing at-scale, quickly, in many spaces and especially in city-centres. It is not the only solution, but it is an opportunity to be creative and courageous about solving the housing crisis.


Main criteria for success: The main criteria for a successful collective housing transformation are the development of strong partnerships and coherent housing policies, the financial feasibility, and focussing on the needs of beneficiaries. It is important to have the combination of a good supply (buildings that meet safety standards and provide comfort for future tenants in an appropriate area), subsidy (so that tenants can pay their rents), and services. In that regard, hotels are good solutions as they already have many of the necessary facilities, are in areas with good transport links, and provide more privacy, feeling of security, stability, and autonomy than emergency accommodations.

Main challenges: The main challenges to collective housing transformation are to overcome legal and technical barriers, the risks of deregulation, ensuring transformation into high quality housing, and social obstacles like reluctant neighbours. As the state is often the investor for transformation projects, it may try to cut the corner and forgetting categories of vulnerable people. The administrative burden for local authorities and organisations often also slows the process. Some obstacles are more deeply linked to the history of the state such as in the US for example, where housing policies have favoured white landowners and excluded African Americans from property for years. Regarding the transformation of hotels, its high costs raise doubts about its sustainability. It is also unsuitable for certain audiences such as people struggling with addictions or mental illnesses and undocumented migrants. Hotels have often small rooms, the buildings may be unfit, and their use is unpredictable due to the evolution of tourism. Regarding offices, their spatial position is often not appropriate for housing.

Solutions to overcomes the main challenges: Based on the success of the Finish model, the state should invest in the renovation of emergency accommodations. Organizations should lead transformation projects, with support from local municipalities and the government, with a proper and visible policy framework. There is a need to convince governments to invest in housing and not just incentivize the private sector, and for NGOs to work as safeguards for state action. Another way to make collective housing transformation sustainable is to have multiple layers of financing. The reconversion of other types of vacant spaces such as shops into housing units is a solution to add smaller units to the social housing stock. A "one-stop shop" for local authorities and organisations would help them with the administrative burden.