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Understanding French Housing Policy (and its Challenges)

Understanding French Housing Policy (and its Challenges)
 Iona Lefebvre
Former project Manager - Regional Development

Father Pierre's efforts to help the homeless as depicted in Hiver 54 (a 1989 French movie) contributed to establishing decent housing for all in France, making it a political and social norm. Today, the right to housing is a fundamental right. It is recognized as an objective with constitutional value (adopted in the Decision n° 94-359 DC of January 19, 1995 of France’sConstitutional Council) and is considered to be an opposable right, i.e. that everyone can benefit from it (since the law of March 5, 2007). And yet, housing has been in a state of crisis for decades in France: 4 million people are poorly housed in France, a number which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Given that 2 million requests for social housing are pending, many are not able to see their needs met, particularly low-wages earners. 

Another challenge must be highlighted: since the building sector accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in France (according to 2020 figures from the Ministry of Ecological Transition), and since urban spread contravenes the target of going carbon neutral by 2050, will housing be able to respond to ecological transition demands? How can tomorrow’s housing policy effectively meet the need to shelter the most vulnerable and build housing while simultaneously fighting against soil artificialisation and urban sprawl, core components of ecological transition?

How is housing policy organized in France?

In France, unlike issues relating to ecology, economy or defense, there is no Ministry of State or Ministry entity dedicated to housing. The current Minister in charge of housing, Emmanuelle Wargon, is a minister delegate at the Ministry of Ecological Transition, which may question the existence of a true national strategy on this issue. However, it should be pointed out that this is not a French singularity. In Europe, only Portugal has a "Ministry of Infrastructure and Housing" which has three delegated Secretaries of State, without, however, having that status of Ministry of State. Otherwise, British, Danish and Swedish housing ministries are not major ministries while in current Italian, German and Dutch governments, the term "housing" does not appear in the official wording of any Ministry or Secretariat of State. 

Moreover, the organization of public authorities in France, which results from French decentralization, hardly reconciles a national strategy with local deployment of housing policy. Indeed, while the central State can set a national housing construction target, the mayor is responsible for issuing building permits, and there is nothing automatic about this, since it depends on local political will. This uncertainty does not easily enable construction. It should be emphasized here that this public authority organization, a product of decentralization, is specific to France, making any European comparison difficult.

The issues of housing policy: a threefold challenge

The challenge of balancing housing supply and demand in France

The first challenge of housing policy is to have a sufficient stock of housing so that the entire population can access it. However, these past forty years have been characterized by a twofold phenomenon of reduction in building permits issued each year, and an increase in life expectancy at birth of the French population (from 78.4 years for women and 70.2 for men in 1980, to 85.3 years for women and 79.2 for men in 2020). In short, while the demand for housing is increasing, its supply is not growing enough. This imbalance leads to a shortage in housing - albeit very variable depending on the territories - as well as an increase in housing prices. This is why housing policy in France must seek to satisfy the demand for housing in compliance with territories’ needs, and influence the general price level.

Housing policy in France must seek to satisfy the demand for housing in compliance with territories’ needs, and influence the general price level.

However, here again, we are not dealing with a French specificity. As the Housing Europe observatory's report "Affordability in housing construction" points out, everywhere in Europe, the supply of housing is not sufficient to cover the needs. For instance, over the period 2016-2020, Ireland lacked 81,118 new homes and Germany 1.6 million. Over 2017, Germany started 284,816 housing units for a need of 400,000 new ones. Thus, France, with 376,700 construction works in 2020 for a target of 500,000, is in line with this same trend.

The second point of nuance, which nevertheless does not call into question the structural problem of imbalance between housing supply and demand, is that even though the pace of construction was slowed by the extent of covid-19 health restrictions, the 1.3% increase in building permits issued in the third quarter of 2021 compared to the previous quarter allowed the number of authorized housing units to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Challenges in social housing 

The existence of a social housing stock is common to many European countries, insofar as it is an element of public action in terms of protection and social mix. However, the situation of French social housing is particular: with nearly 17% of social housing, France stands out for the importance of the social sector within the residential stock. This situation can be explained by the "generalist" nature of French social housing, of which the access is not limited to the most modest households.

It therefore seems urgent to clarify the question of social housing recipients being able to house the most precarious, especially since the pandemic has caused a slowdown in the construction of social housing in France. In France, 2 million requests for social housing are pending, including 750,000 for the Île-de-France region (the densest region in France), where a 25% drop in the number of authorized new social housing programs was recorded in 2020. In England, 1.1 million households are on the waiting list for social housing. In Germany, there is an unmet need for 225,000 social and affordable homes.

Despite these figures, the comparison between French social housing and that of its European neighbors is difficult. Indeed, on the one hand, the French model as we have seen, is generalist, which is an European singularity, yet on the other hand, social housing is centralized in France whereas it is largely decentralized in Europe.

It therefore seems urgent to clarify the question of social housing recipients being able to house the most precarious.

This issue begs several general questions: how can we reconcile the generalist model with the targeting of the most disadvantaged groups? In this balance, how can social diversity in housing be ensured throughout the country, without concentrating poverty in the same territories? How can the true enforcement of Article 55 of the Solidarity and Urban Renewal Act (SRU in French for Solidarité et renouvellement urbain), which compels certain municipalities to have a minimum number of social housing units, proportional to their residential stock, be guaranteed, given some elected officials prefer to pay a fine than to respond to social housing shortages?

Will housing succeed in its ecological transition?

One of the last challenges of housing policy that can be highlighted is the sector’s ecological transition. The first side of this issue is the energy efficient refurbishment. Indeed, decarbonizing the building sector is a prerequisite to reach carbon neutrality, as buildings are currently responsible for 28% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in France. This is why the France Recovery Plan provides 500 million euros in 2021 and 2022 for energy efficient refurbishment in the social housing sector. However, despite ambitious commitments - and although it may be too early to assess the effects - France was among the countries in 2019 with the most energy-intensive housing in Europe in the residential and tertiary sectors.

The second aspect of this issue is the struggle against urban sprawl, which is responsible for 42% of global GHG emissions. This is the whole project of the net zero artificialization policy by 2050 that the French government has set for itself: combat horizontal urban sprawl, which generates soil artificialisation and more frequent use of the car for home-work trips, in favor of horizontal densification of cities. However, this last point poses a problem of social and cultural acceptability in France, since densification holds such a bad reputation, and given the challenge posed by mayors’ political will to transform cities, accommodate more people and meet housing needs.

In the final analysis, identifying these challenges helps envision the agenda for an ambitious housing policy in the upcoming presidential term: building new housing, according to local needs, to solve the twofold problem of housing deficit and general price level; rethinking the French social housing model and fully committing to a successful ecological transition in housing. This threefold objective, given its complexity, will not be met without long-term strategic vision and strong political will.

Co-authored with Maximilien Chaperon, Assistant Policy Officer.



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