Sorcha Edwards.

An Interview.
By Karin Zauner. 
Co-Founder of Housing4Europe.Org

Q: Europe is facing a housing crisis. There is an alarming lack of affordable and social housing in many cities. What are the main obstacles especially for public, cooperative and social housing providers to increase their housing stock?

Sorcha Edwards
Public investment in housing has dropped. Housing markets have become vehicles of wealth accumulation for private investors. Public policies that provide income support to low-income housing without boosting the construction of new social housing have served to further fuel prices increases. In the latest State of Housing report, Housing Europe’s Observatory recognizes a combination of factors contributing to the current housing crisis. A crisis that manifests itself in a mismatch between the price of land, private rental, homeownership and incomes.

However, the political recognition that increasing the proportion of public, cooperative community-led and social housing in our housing systems has to be at the heart of tackling the housing crisis which is pushing people into poverty and homelessness is growing.

Our 2021 ‘State of Housing EU’ report shows that while we are not yet fully grasping the impact of the pandemic, we see clear signs that COVID-19 will increase the demand for social and affordable housing even more. The mission of cooperative, public and social housing providers is to provide affordable homes in sustainable communities and this work is becoming even more essential now as a result of the economic and social impact of this pandemic. Last November, our network announced its ambition to refurbish 400,000 homes per year or 4 million homes by 2030. That would mean renovating in total 4 million homes by 2030 out of the 35 million that the European Commission urges to renovate by this date. But building of new homes and renovation can only be achieved with adequate support.

Speaking about the provision of affordable housing, we echo what the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit recently said: “Housing is a European problem with national and local solutions.”

Housing Europe works hard for better financing for housing and thanks to this work. Cohesion Policy dedicated a Euro 6.6 billion budget to housing in 2014-2020. New countries receive EIB lending for social housing such as Poland and Latvia. Between 2011-2016, the EIB issued a total of Euro 7.06 billion to the sector. Since 2015, the largest share of the EFSI social infrastructure support has been channelled to the sector (Euro 2,2 billion). Furthermore, an increased amount in the new MFF is available in investing in sustainable neighbourhoods:

  • The Cohesion Policy of Euro 377 billion in total, will continue to invest in social infrastructure and in providing basic and social services to citizens – especially through ERDF and ESF;
  • The Just Transition Mechanism will assure that no one is left behind in the green transition with an overall of at least €100 billion budget;
  • Under its dedicated Window on social infrastructure, the Euro 16.6 billion size InvestEU is going to support affordable social and student housing;
  • The Recovery and Resilience Facility of a total Euro 560 billion budget gives the possibility to the Member States to invest more in the sector as the link is made with the National Energy and Climate Plans and European Semester.

These are welcome measures however at the EU level more can be done through revising State Aid rules in order to allow support to comply with national and EU obligations; dedicating part of the revenues of the ETS auctioning of carbon allowances to fund the Renovation Wave and projects, such as the Affordable Housing Initiative, known as the 100 District Renovation or simplifying access to EIB products. Some of the local solutions are to provide State Aid for energy measures in the social, cooperative, public and affordable housing providers; provide support as part of the national Recovery Plans in the yearly public budget; enforce energy savings obligations on energy providers and ensure that part of those obligations will be in the form of setting up a fund for the renovation of social and affordable housing.

This January (2021), a solid majority of MEPs coming from different party groups voted on the own-initiative report that calls for “Access to decent and affordable housing for all” by Dutch MEP Kim van Sparrentak from the Greens, the report can also be used as a compass to facilitate the delivery of more affordable homes. The solutions are on the table we just need to turn them into action.

Q: Achieving the EU climate targets is a huge challenge for the housing sector. Housing companies need a lot of specific knowledge on decarbonisation, energy efficiency, exchanging heating systems, circular economy etc. How does Housing Europe support its members on that issue?

Sorcha Edwards
Our mission is to factor climate in without pricing people out and work with at the European level for better regulation, better finance and better knowledge. We are some way from working out the best way to make the transition which must be based on evidence and in collaboration with local and national authorities and communities. One of the strategic decisions that Housing Europe has taken is to increase the knowledge on these topics. We have started organising series of webinars for members or ‘Housing Exchanges’ as we call them that have turned into a platform to discuss major topics, such as the role of the sector in the EU green recovery, homelessness and housing exclusion, ageing at home, the cost of the Renovation Wave, innovative renovation concepts, as well as the development of positive or zero-energy districts. These 90-minute sessions allow Housing Europe members to exchange best practices and also to meet with EU policymakers and key organisations.

Housing Europe also involves members (or their members) in EU projects when they can benefit from cutting-edge technology, sustainable solutions that help them face challenges and increase capacity building within the sector. We work on state-of-the-art projects that look at long-term plans to identify and scale-up paths out of energy poverty in the EU; increasing the share of sustainable neighbourhoods with surplus renewable energy in different contexts, climates and markets in Europe; innovative renovation, new circular methods for homes; data analytics solutions for energy-efficient buildings and more.

Q: In the framework of the „EU-Renovation Wave“ an Affordable Housing Initiative for 100 lighthouse projects should be launched. What are the goals of this initiative? What’s the role of Housing Europe? Will this “Wave” have a sustainable impact?

Sorcha Edwards
Sustainability and social innovation are the only ways that can help society to come out of this crisis stronger. Rethinking, modernising people’s homes requires attention to what works on the ground and social, affordable housing providers are the soundboard EU Member States would need in order for the Renovation Wave to be successful.

The Affordable Housing Initiative focuses on creating quality, liveable, affordable homes for people and will mobilise cross-sectoral project partnerships. To kick off the discussion and position the sector, we have created a special page where we ask our network to share its view on the selection criteria, governance and funding of the initiative.

In addition to the positive initiatives from the EU side, we also see motivated key players who really want to bring up these ambitions we have as a society. What we are trying to do is to bring both sides together, looking at the real needs of people on the ground and contribute to that effort in tackling them.

Q: The New Bauhaus Initiative is “a platform for experimentation and connection, fostering collaboration across thinkers and doers who want to design our future ways of living together.” Do you think that the Initiative can deliver its multi-agency approach? Why is it necessary to have such an initiative, knowing and working on goals and solutions already for so many years?

Sorcha Edwards
Our demands are organised around three strands: an ambitious European legal framework, investments, and strategies based on regional and local know-how.

Housing Europe is eager to become a partner in this new way of working. What is interesting is that the original idea of a Bauhaus was quality, aesthetic housing should be accessible to all so in a way we see the New European Bauhaus as an opportunity to have post-COVID social housing. We are certain that the initiative can deliver what it promises because the mix of inclusive, beautiful, affordable housing with thriving communities is something we see developed by our members daily on our Housing Evolutions Hub. The website walks you through impressive initiatives in public, cooperative and social housing in different corners of Europe.

We will be urging the New European Bauhaus Te