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Housing for All

by Werner Rugemer Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 at 2:28 PM

Housing as a human right is subverted by the right of speculation. The Vienna Housing Fund buys up potential property and prevents speculation. Rents in Vienna are much lower than in Munich. The state must intervene since private developers cannot build affordable units

Housing shortages in the EU

Apartments instead of wooden boxes

The European Citizens' Initiative "Housing for All" calls for a social housing policy to make housing affordable again for all

A facade in Vienna shows what is already reality in Barcelona...

Photo: Willfried Gre/Picture Alliance

By Werner Rügemer

[This article published in August 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The impulse came from Vienna, the European city with the most public housing: We are founding a Europe-wide citizens' initiative! Our demand: affordable housing for all! Housing is a human right!

"Large investors speculate on high yields and buy up whole districts. Fact is: The unbridled capital market will never provide broad sections of the population with affordable housing. This is where national politics must intervene and the EU must create better conditions", says the initiative's spokeswoman, Karin Zauner-Lohmeyer from Vienna. She works in public housing in the Austrian capital. "We must radically counter this incomprehensible, inhuman speculation! This is destroying our society, and this is the soil of the radical right in Europe! We must set an example!"

Trade unions participate

Thus, in March 2019, seven citizens from Austria, Croatia, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Cyprus and Germany founded the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) "Housing for All! The initiative has its office in Vienna. In the meantime, 48 national and international initiatives, trade unions, tenants' associations, architecture and student groups and research institutes are involved. From Germany, the DGB, Mieterbund and Attac are involved.

The initiative aims to collect at least one million signatures in the EU states by 18 March 2020. In Germany there must be at least 72,000 valid votes. If these come about, the European Commission and the European Parliament must deal with the demands.

Housing policy is subject to the respective national governments. But the EU is responsible for some framework conditions.

That is why the ECI:

1. the EU limits its state aid to poor "problem groups". This must be changed, because housing shortages have long since affected the majority of dependent employees.

2. the Maastricht criteria for the limits of public debt must be repealed for social housing.

3. the EU, for example through the European Investment Bank EIB, must provide low interest rate loans to non-profit and public housing developers.

4. the lucrative short-term renting of housing by online platform groups such as Airbnb must be restricted

5. the official data on average rents, as provided by the EU statistics authority Eurostat, conceal the state of emergency. Therefore: small-scale data collection on individual cities, districts, streets!

Zauner-Lohmeyer refers to the worldwide known housing conditions in the Austrian capital. "For a hundred years, housing in Vienna has been a public service task. 60 percent of Vienna's population lives in apartments of the subsidized cooperative and municipal housing associations." So something like this is possible, in the middle of capitalism.

No longer affordable

In recent years, the Viennese activist has co-organised numerous conferences in EU countries. "There is a dramatic housing shortage in European cities. Rents for apartments are simply too expensive and no longer affordable for broad sections of the population," writes Zauner-Lohmeyer in her blog post "Are you already living or are you still afraid?

The marriage of state housing promotion was the decades from 1950 to the 1980s. This was true for the socialist states such as the GDR, Poland and Yugoslavia anyway. But it also applied, to a lesser extent, to Western European states such as France, the Federal Republic of Germany and Great Britain in particular: There it was state-subsidized social housing and cooperative housing associations.

Great Britain: The counterattack began in the 1980s under the neoliberal fundamentalist Margret Thatcher and her aristocratic and banker party, the Tories. They described themselves as "conservative", but by no means preserved the relatively social housing conditions. Rather, they drastically deteriorated, at least for the working population, which was simultaneously weakened politically and in their unions.

"There is no such thing as society," was Thatcher's motto. So their government enforced the "Right to Buy", the right to buy. Workers were to become individual owners, buying the apartments they had previously rented. With state subsidies, working families could buy cooperative housing at low prices and feel proud to be capitalists: Capitalism made easy, capitalism for all.

2.5 million homes, almost half of the cooperative Council Housing stock, were sold by the government during the 1980s. New laws allowed rent increases. London became a luxury second and third home for super rich oligarchs from Russia, the Gulf States and Israel. Banks, hedge funds and corporations still buy or rent expensive representative properties. Speculators are building expensive 300 square meter luxury apartments for top international bankers in the financial center City of London.

Ex-socialist states: The second wave of privatization and speculation was organized in the ex-socialist states from the 1990s onwards. The CDU/CSU/FDP governments under Chancellor Helmut Kohl pushed the sale of public housing not only in the old Federal Republic, but also in the ex-GDR: The tax advantages granted to private companies and speculators until 2014 have increased the state budget of the Federal Republic more than was ever spent on social housing.

In Hungary, the government promoted, following the Thatcher model, that previous tenants buy their apartments. The largest bank, OTP, lured with low interest rates for loans in Swiss francs: citizens got into debt, interest rates rose, hundreds of thousands of buyers went bankrupt and were driven out of their own apartments. The Orban government is trying to mitigate this with a few subsidies from the state treasury.

In Poland, in the three years after 1990 alone, a total of 67 public housing companies were sold to private individuals, 624 were liquidated. Since the turn of the millennium, major Western investors have become active, as in Germany, such as Griffin from the financial oasis of Luxembourg, City Life from the British financial oasis of Guernsey and Pimco from the USA, mostly through Polish subsidiaries. Investors have discovered real estate with small, expensive one-bedroom apartments for students as a new lucrative segment, in Poland as everywhere else in the EU.

Germany: The Kohl government had abolished the non-profit status of public and municipal housing companies and introduced the own-use notice: If someone had bought an apartment, he could use "personal use" to evict the previous tenants. There was a lot of cheating going on with the help of pretended needs. But the real push came from the red-green government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, SPD, from the beginning of the 2000s. "Locusts" such as Fortress, Cerberus and Whitehall struck, in Dresden as well as in Bochum and Hanover. The red-red state government of Berlin with Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin was at the forefront (see ver.di publik 4/2018).

After the financial crisis in 2007, the big players came in: BlackRock, Massachusetts Financial & Co. with their major corporations Vonovia, Deutsche Wohnen, LEG and TAG made Germany the center of rent speculation in the EU. With the help of the billions in profits in Germany, Vonovia has now bought tens of thousands of apartments in Austria and Sweden and is now hoping for Macron's banker government in France. Vonovia CEO Rolf Buch proudly announced in August 2019: "The rental income has increased by 14 percent compared to last year!

...there are people living in stacked wooden boxes on 2.64 square meters with shared toilet and TV

Austria, Spain, France: Viennese conditions do not prevail in all cities in Austria. According to official statistics, 623,000 people in the Alpine Republic have to pay more than 40 percent of their household income for housing. "That corresponds to all the inhabitants of the cities of Graz, Linz and Salzburg combined," says Zauner-Lohmeyer. After all: But it is still better than in other EU states.

Foreclosures, unemployment: the number of homeless people has grown dramatically in recent years, especially in the rich EU states. 650,000 homeless and an additional 48,000 homeless in Germany - estimates the Federal Working Group for Assistance to the Homeless for the year 2017. For the yellow vests in France, protesting against homelessness is one of the central issues. In Spain, this is already becoming a business model: In Barcelona, an entrepreneur offers accommodation in 24 wooden boxes stacked on top of each other: 2.64 square meters, 138 centimeters high, a shared toilet and a shared TV for a monthly rent of 200 euros each.

Living, working, right to the city

Especially in Germany, the demands on the EU are rather secondary. Because the constitutional "debt brake" is the much bigger problem here. But the ECI with its collection of signatures is - like the initiative "Expropriate German Housing" in Berlin - a form of action to promote housing as a human right politically and publicly.

Housing costs and ancillary costs are rising much faster than income from work - and many incomes from work tend to stagnate. Millions of pensioners are also affected, temporary employees, unemployed, solo self-employed and so-called crowd-workers.

The 48 organizations of the ECI show what is involved in the housing shortage: Work, housing, pensions, urban planning, public finances. And what they intertwine with each other. Forms of action and organization have to change, radicalize - trade unions, tenants' associations and Attac can also learn something from this.

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