Shrinking cities: what opportunities for affordable housing and to address homelessness?
On 25th February 2021, the Housing Solutions Platform hosted a debate on the opportunities of depopulation and shrinking cities for solutions to homelessness. The debate was hosted by MEP Niklas Nienass, co-chair of the intergroup on Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas in the European Parliament. In his introduction, Mr Nienass called for affordable living for everyone and more funding by both the EU and member states for that goal. Nienass also underlined, that rural areas are places of community and the decision to move there needs to encompass the will of being part of these communities.
Chris Jacobs-Crisioni from the European Commission Joint Research Centre presented an EU-wide overview of territorial shrinkage, growth and housing market mismatches. He showed various reasons for depopulation in different EU member states. There has been, for instance, a change in the types of employment in Europe. In the agricultural sector, there has been economic growth but a decreasing need for labour, while the service sector that is mostly urban has been steadily growing.
Rural areas are losing population not only for employment reasons but also for personal reasons, as family reunification or conflicts of values of younger generations with the rural population.
Population decline will lead to more free homes at a cheaper price in declining areas. However, population decline is often offset by diminishing household size, meaning fewer people per home. Furthermore, emigrants often want to keep a houses in their country of origin. The impact of shrinking cities on the housing market is therefore mitigated. According to Jacobs- Crisoni, homelessness is a very urban problem, and the question has to be asked if homeless people want to be resettled in an urban area. Another challenge is how to make sure that the community makes them feel welcome.
Chloé Serme-Morin from FEANTSA spoke about different cases of shrinking territories in the EU that converted the challenges into opportunities for the right to housing for all. The Covid pandemic reshaped our understanding of a home, as we now collectively understand that adequate, affordable and stable housing is vital to healthcare.
An important issue in many rural territories in Europe is the declining availability and access to public services as public transports, schools, nurseries and health services.
The right to the city includes that inhabitants collectively can take control over their home, the production and use of urban space according to their needs and desires, the promotion encounters, play, creation, freedom, emancipation. Innovative solutions for depopulation need to give priority to housing’s value of use over market value.
Ms Serme-Morin presented different examples of affordable housing and revitalisation of shrinking cities from Leipzig, Bucarest, Dessau, Riace, Sutera and Magdeburg.
Conrado Jimenez, president of Madrina Foundation, presented the project of the Foundation that relocated 300 families that lost their homes to rural ghost towns. He gave the example of a family with seven children that was relocated to a small town, where thanks to the new arrivals the small school could stay open. He believed the project is a win-win for both the local community and the families relocated and that the project has a strong potential to be replicated further in Spain and abroad. He called on the European Commission to support project local efforts to address shrinking cities for instance through support and investment to transports.
Meric Ozgunes and Panos Hatziprokopiou from the URBACT ROOF network presented some insights from Thessaloniki in Greece. In Thessaloniki three-quarters of the population live in their own house. Mr Hatziprokopiou presented an overview of the housing situation in Thessaloniki, presenting challenges such as market pressure (e.g. short term rents, increasing prices, empty homes, etc), gentrification and new developments linked to Covid-19 & lockdown. He spoke about the need for targeted studies to get better data on the issue of depopulation. He concluded by highlighting some existing solutions to address local housing needs, such as the Social Rental Agencies model that provides incentives for private property owners to rent their dwellings to the lowest income groups in exchange of support in rental management and/or renovation.
Sarah Coupechoux of the Foundation Abbé Pierre closed the debate with the remark that the relocation of homeless people to shrinking cities can be challenging. Hence, there needs to be an intense collaboration with the population in order to take into account the interests of all people involved. Policies need to be adapted to people’s needs. Access to adequate housing and the fight against homelessness need innovative solutions and is not only an issue in big capitals but also in rural areas. All in all, there are great opportunities to reinvent European cities and our way to live in them while leaving no one behind.
A presentation of the Madrina Foundation is available here:
You can watch the debate here: