Perspectives: The Brussels Bubble

Housing Crisis

Vaso Trova: Housing as a right and not as a commodity has a two-century history in Europe

Has there ever been an organized and effective social housing program in Greece?


Certainly yes. Firstly, Ioannis Kapodistrias provided housing for the refugees from the destruction of Psara in the settlement “Providence” in Nafplio, which was built for this purpose. Five years later, in the newly established Piraeus, plots of land were allocated, and an entirely organized neighborhood was built for the housing of refugees from the destruction of Chios. From 1906 and for the next eighty years, hundreds of settlements were built throughout Greece to accommodate refugees, victims of ethnic cleansing and wars, who poured into the country from the Balkans, Asia Minor, Pontus, Armenia, and Russia. Rural or urban settlements were created throughout Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace, on islands such as Samos and Mytilene, expansions in almost all major and minor cities, with notable examples being the “arc” of refugee settlements in Athens and Thessaloniki. In post-war Greece, the establishment of the Workers’ Housing Organization (OΕΚ) in 1954 marked a turning point in social housing, from managing the urgent situation of refugee flows to providing housing assistance to workers. Its last project was the Olympic Village of the 2004 Olympic Games. After decades of operation and contribution to housing provision, OΕΚ was abolished in 2012.


In the history of social housing, we must also include the permanent settlements of emergency needs that arose after disasters. Key examples from the 1960s-1970s include the settlements of earthquake victims in Evrytania, the settlement of bomb-stricken areas from World War II in Keratsini, and others. Finally, let us recall the major worker housing programs by industries at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the French Laureau Mining Company, the Drapetsona Fertilizers, and the “Titan” cement company in Eleusis. This practice was repeated with the worker settlement “Aspra Spitia” (White Houses) by the French aluminum industry “Pechiney” in Viotia and by the state-owned Public Power Corporation (DEI), which built large settlements in Florina for farmers who lost their villages and homes due to lignite mining.


Unlike other European countries, such as France, Germany, or the United Kingdom for example, the state is not investing in social housing in Greece but it is rather developing -to some extent- housing subsidy programs and rent subsidies for households with specific characteristics. Why does this happen? Why is this option preferred instead of pushing for large scale social housing programs?


Firstly, let’s remember a fundamental difference between what we call social housing in Greece and in European countries. In Greece, social housing is attributed to the beneficiary through a loan that is repaid at low interest rates over time. This system was applied both in the refugee resettlement and in the Workers’ Housing Organization (OEK). Ultimately, upon repayment of the loan, it becomes private housing. In European countries, social housing belongs to municipalities or non-profit housing associations and it is then rented to beneficiaries, usually people demonstrating very low incomes.


Following the gradual Thatcherite turn of democracies, which ultimately brought the hegemony of the neoliberal development model, social housing began to shrink in many countries, even where there was a strong tradition of the welfare state. At the same time, after 1989, in the former socialist bloc, from the Soviet Union to Albania, millions of houses – state-owned until then – were privatized, initially passed to the then inhabitants and a few years later to the free housing market. Nevertheless, in the European space, the tradition of social housing continued. In the UK, for example, every new housing development must allocate to the Municipality a percentage of around 10% of the total construction destined to “affordable housing,” which the Municipality will offer with rent up to 50% lower than current prices to low-income residents.


Housing benefits also exist in European countries (e.g. Housing Benefit and Universal Credit in the UK) to support those who occasionally face housing problems. However, they exist in combination with other social housing provision programs. In Greece, after the abolition of OEK, the provision of housing benefits remained the only state-led housing policy. This policy aligns with the strategy of dwindling the public sector, the systematic withdrawal of the state from the exercise and control of every land and housing policy, and its transfer to market forces. What does this practically mean for the housing benefit recipient? As rental prices rise, beneficiaries are forced to seek cheaper and lower-quality housing.


Is social housing more connected to a political tradition or does it operate independently? Could we see in the foreseeable future extensive social housing programs in countries with a progressive political tradition, or does support for social housing move beyond ideological settings?


Social housing policy began with early “utopian” socialist examples in 18th and 19th century England and France, continued with the first major programs of the interwar period in socialist municipalities such as Vienna or Berlin. Immediately after the war and for the next thirty years, all of Europe offered social housing. In Eastern Europe, housing provision for all was a cornerstone of the communist regime. In Western Europe – whether governed by social democratic or conservative governments – housing provision for those on low incomes was a given. In the competitive culture of the Cold War, the welfare state served as a spearhead for both sides. However, even in the United States, where a completely different political model has prevailed – where the communist and socialist traditions of Europe never existed – we have had provisions for social housing at the federal level since 1933 during the New Deal era.


Is there a thread connecting social housing with participatory planning and public space? How and where do these three elements intersect?


The reactions of residents to the uniformity of post-war European mass construction led in the 1960s and 1970s to many projects involving residents in housing planning. A characteristic example is that of Byker in Newcastle, England, in 1969, where residents systematically participated in the regeneration of a dilapidated complex of working-class housing, with the main request being the preservation of existing buildings of public character that hosted the community’s shared activities (e.g. pubs, schools). Similar examples were found in many European countries, such as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. But even in Greece, a unique experiment has been recorded, that of the Regeneration of the Refugee Settlement of Thebes with the participation of its residents in the late 1980s.


Regardless of the issue of participation, the provision for public and shared spaces was inherently integrated into the planning of social housing. Until the 1980s, planning almost always provided extensive outdoor and public spaces, which were usually absent from the rest of the city. In Greece, for example, in the complexes of the Workers’ Housing Organization (OEK), approximately 60% of the plots were configured as public green spaces accessible to all. Let’s think about what this means in densely populated Greek cities. Since the 1980s, there has generally been a departure from creating large complexes in Europe, and strategies for dispersing social housing buildings within the urban fabric have been chosen. This choice reduces the problems of ghettoization but also removes the possibility of enriching urban life with a different, more generous housing model.


Can there be a balance between the commodification of housing and the perception of housing as a means to support vulnerable groups at risk of housing insecurity?


We must agree whether the state and society are concerned about the housing insecurity of its members. If we accept that housing is a commercial product, then it will be subject to market forces. The result is well known; we see it in other goods and services that were once public and are now commercial, such as energy, healthcare, and education. The market provides a good product to those who can afford it. Those who cannot afford it will have access to low-quality products and services or none at all. This is the society of the “two-thirds” envisioned by Margaret Thatcher, one-third in conditions of poverty, housing, energy, education, and welfare deprivation, or in two words, conditions of exclusion from the necessary goods for a dignified life. The assertion of housing as a “right” and not as a commodity has a two-century history in Europe; let’s not forget that, and in this assertion, the regulatory role of the state, whether at the central or local level, is indispensable. I previously mentioned such regulations in the UK context that attempt to combine commodified and social housing. In Greece, a change in the institutional framework will be needed so that the local policy administration can have similar rights and activities.


Is it utopian to talk today about adapting and incorporating the design of housing complexes and cities into our needs instead of adjusting it to models that make our daily lives more difficult to handle?


We must consider the lifespan of a building or a city. A building can live for 100, 200 years. A city, of course, much longer. In these 200 years, how many different generations will inhabit the buildings? How much will the evolution of lifestyles change models and the needs of everyday life? We now observe to what extent the advancement of technology in recent years has brought into home designing and building. Or how increased mobility has expanded job opportunities with temporary moves to other cities or countries. Every design carries the cultural imprint of its era and seeks to address the problems and needs of the society it serves. The design of social housing in post-war Europe expressed the needs and visions of its time. It also targeted the social typologies of the time, mainly nuclear families with many members. Today, these needs are different. For example, the extensive access to tertiary education in our era has created new vulnerable groups (i.e. the student population) with specific needs and great difficulties in securing decent housing for the finite years of their studies. The aging of the population and the decline of family support networks have also created a large social body of elderly singles with different daily life needs and therefore different housing specifications.


The reuse of existing social housing buildings is the big challenge. First of all, because they are material resources that, within the framework of sustainability, must not be destroyed. In this context, design comes to evaluate the stock and introduce a compatible use. The proposal to reuse the refugee houses on Alexandras Avenue in Athens as temporary residences for the relatives of patients at Agios Savvas Hospital is an excellent example in this direction.


*Vaso Trova is a professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Thessaly.

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