Paris's new public housing push aims to offset soaring rents
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While cities like New York and London have let their public housing fall into disrepair, Paris is building and renovating more than ever – including in the most upscale neighbourhoods. But despite the city’s best efforts, many Paris residents are being priced out.
A medieval monastery in the heart of the Latin Quarter. An 18th-century hôtel particulier, or mansion, just steps from the Louvre. A 19th-century barracks near the Gare de Lyon. The former home and workshop of one of France’s premier piano makers, where Frédéric Chopin played his first public concert.
These Paris buildings have one, perhaps surprising, thing in common: They’ve all been transformed, partially or fully, into public housing over the past five years under Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo. They represent a small sample of the unprecedented expansion of public (or “social”) housing in the French capital under Hidalgo as well as her predecessor, fellow Socialist Bertrand Delanoë. With rents in the private market soaring and making the city increasingly unaffordable for all but the highest earners, Hidalgo’s team has made the expansion of social housing a cornerstone of her platform for a more equitable city – and by extension, of her bid for re-election in a tight race later this month.
“The function of social housing is to allow people to keep living in Paris who wouldn’t be able to if there were only private housing,” says Ian Brossat, deputy mayor for housing, of the French Communist Party. Without alternatives to the market, he says, working-class people would effectively be shut out of the French capital.
To help retain those low- and middle-income residents, Paris has been creating upwards of 7,000 units of new social housing a year under Hidalgo (up from roughly 5,000 a year under Delanoë), for a total of more than 100,000 units added since 2001. It has achieved this through a combination of new construction, conversion of existing buildings and, to a lesser extent, simply buying apartments to take them off the private market.
Altogether, Hidalgo’s administration aims to house 25 percent of Parisians in social housing by 2025, and up to 30 percent by 2030 – a goal Brossat says the city is already well on its way to meeting, with 23.6 percent of Parisians living in social housing as of early March.
“What this means, very concretely, is that 550,000 Parisians live in social housing and are protected against real-estate speculation,” he says.
In one sense, Paris is just following French law. A landmark 2000 law – known as the loi solidarité et renouvellement urbain (Solidarity and Urban Renewal Law) – requires that cities set aside at least 20 percent of local housing as public. It aimed to reduce the imbalance between France’s poorest municipalities, where most social housing is located – in many Paris suburbs or banlieues, social housing can account for more than 50 percent of the local market – and the rest. A 2013 law increased this requirement to 25 percent by 2025 for most cities, Paris included, and stiffened the financial penalties for non-compliance.
Nevertheless, the efforts required to meet this goal in what is already Europe’s most densely populated city have been the source of significant tensions, both at the level of local arrondissements (districts) and centre stage in the mayoral race. Hidalgo’s leading opponent, conservative challenger Rachida Dati, promises to freeze construction of new social housing until “the existing stock meets satisfying criteria”.
Critics on the left, for their part, have accused Paris’s social-housing push of fuelling gentrification and displacement rather than slowing them.
Unaffordable: dwindling supply, high demand
The backdrop to Paris’s social housing efforts is one familiar to many cities. Citywide, most residents (more than 60 percent) are renters, and rents have skyrocketed over the last 20 years. A Deutsche Bank analysis found Paris to be less affordable than even San Francisco, New York or London when comparing incomes to rents, ranking the city 28th of 53 major world cities on this measure.
Compounding the problem is the explosion of short-term rental services like Airbnb. Paris attracts more tourists than any city in the world besides Bangkok, and short-term rental listings have grown to match. A 2018 study conducted by the Paris Urbanism Workshop (Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme, or APUR, a city-funded think tank) counted more Airbnb listings in the city than in New York, Berlin or Barcelona, in both relative and absolute terms.
This has meant that a declining share of the city’s precious housing is available for permanent residents. Of the 1.4 million residences in Paris, “we have more than 200,000 which are either totally empty or are empty a good part of the year”, says Brossat, widening the gap between supply and demand and further pushing up prices.
Many Parisians have responded by simply packing their bags and leaving. Between 2012 and 2017, the capital lost more than 53,000 residents, according to the national statistical institute Insee, with low- and middle-income workers most likely to move away. In other words, the city lost nearly as many residents every year as it had gained in the decade before.
Paris has sought to address this crisis in several ways. One is rent regulation, which fixes rent limits for new leases based on neighbourhood, building and apartment criteria. Originally established in 2015, the measure was suspended in 2017 by a court order but restored in July 2019 after the city appealed to the French state.
Brossat emphasises, however, that the city has limited reach when it comes to curbing rents, because the French state ultimately maintains authority over the private market. More radical alternatives to the city’s current rent-regulation system – such as a five-year rent freeze, recently passed in Berlin and advocated in Paris by the Green party (Europe Ecologie les Verts) – would face the same obstacle. So Paris has doubled down in the area where it has the most room for manoeuvre: social housing.
Building on an old idea
Like many European and North American cities, Paris built the bulk of its social housing over the course of the 20th century, at the height of its welfare state. While its anglophone counterparts largely abandoned this effort after the 1970s, Paris kept building – and has only accelerated the pace over the last 20 years.
The homes funded by the city are managed by a range of public and nonprofit entities known as “social landlords”. The largest is Paris Habitat (the city housing agency), which manages about half of all publicly owned units. Those units are not reserved exclusively for the poorest but also for the middle class: the city says that 7 in 10 Parisians are eligible for social housing based on their income. In practice, according to figures released through Paris’s open data portal, only about a quarter of units added since 2001 are destined for the lowest income bracket, with the rest going to middle earners.
What all of these homes have in common is rents far cheaper than those on the private market – in general, less than €10 per square metre, according to APUR, compared to more than €35 in privately owned apartments.
As a result, demand is enormous. As of late 2018 (the latest figures published by APUR), nearly 250,000 people were on the waiting list for social housing, while just 11,000 spots were granted that year. Even if Paris met its 30 percent goal by 2030, it would likely still fall far short of closing the gap.
Meanwhile, the city’s efforts haven’t come cheap. According to Hidalgo’s figures, Paris has spent €3 billion on social housing over the course of her six-year term, making it the city’s single largest investment. This has translated into tens of thousands of units renovated in addition to those built and converted.
'Ghettoes of the rich'
For Brossat, the goal of such investment isn’t just increasing affordability, but to “rebalance” the city’s rich and poor neighbourhoods and foster greater integration. As he told the weekly Journal du Dimanche in 2016, his goal is nothing short of abolishing the “ghettoes of the rich” by prioritising the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods as targets for new social housing.
On the edge of the 16th arrondissement, one of Paris’s wealthiest, stand a pair of sharp, nine-storey steel and glass buildings, overlooking the massive park that is the Bois de Boulogne. Inaugurated in 2016 after a decade of court battles with local residents, the buildings contain 176 apartments managed by Paris Habitat, marking one of the flagship social housing developments completed under Hidalgo.
The development sits on boulevard Suchet, a street lined with embassies and stately pre-war apartment blocks. On a recent Sunday, as sports cars revved by, an elderly gentleman and long-time resident of the block told FRANCE 24 the buildings were “hideous” but otherwise said he hadn’t noticed any problems since tenants moved in three years ago.
“All the city’s efforts since 2001 have been aimed at producing social housing in the neighbourhoods of Paris where there is now the least,” says Brossat. The 16th arrondissement has been at the centre of this effort, with the share of social housing there increasing four-fold since 2001. That share still stands roughly at 7 percent, however, compared to 41.7 percent in the 19th arrondissement, Paris’s poorest district.
But for some of the residents who have claimed a spot in a chic neighbourhood, even the subsidised rents can be a burden. Umair, a student at Paris-Dauphine University, moved with his parents from the 18th arrondissement to the new complex on boulevard Suchet. He told FRANCE 24 that, utilities included, his family pays close to €1200 a month for a three-bedroom apartment – more than two-thirds of the minimum state pension his parents take in every month. Umair works at a supermarket to help make ends meet.
A vehicle for gentrification?
Moreover, the bulk of the new social housing being added is still in Paris’s less well-off neighbourhoods, with the 10 wealthiest arrondissements accounting for only about 20 percent of units added between 2001 and 2018.
A closer look at the share of units being attributed to low- and middle-income residents further calls into question the effectiveness of the city’s efforts at integration – a project that is also mandated by French law. A 2017 law on “equality and citizenship” aims to end the “concentration of poverty” by requiring that at least 25 percent of social housing in wealthier neighbourhoods go to the poorest applicants. A study published by APUR in January, however, found that Paris is badly missing the mark: In 2016 and 2017, this figure stood at just over 10 percent and in 2018 dropped below 8 percent.
On the other hand, middle-income social housing applicants are disproportionately represented in the lowest-income areas. Critics like Anne Clerval, a geographer at Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and author of the 2013 book Paris sans le peuple : la gentrification de la capitale (Paris without the People: The Gentrification of the Capital), have questioned whether the city’s housing policies are fostering integration or only accelerating the gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods.
Clerval has pointed out a stark mismatch between the groups most in need of social housing in the capital and those who receive it. For example, in 2017, a majority of those applying for social housing belonged to the lowest income brackets, but a majority of the units created were destined for the higher brackets.
The city says its priority is to house those who have to live and work in Paris – Brossat lists police officers, nurses and teachers, among others – as well as the poorest. But whoever wins city hall this month will be facing the same fundamental challenges if they hope to make the city more affordable.
In the meantime, the city is hard at work on a new project in the 7th arrondissement, converting a former military complex near the Musée d’Orsay into 250 apartments, with a gym and nursery on the ground floor. The 7th arrondissement, the district represented by Hidalgo’s rival Dati, currently has Paris’s smallest share of social housing at just 2.1 percent.
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