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Strain of Covid-19 lockdown spurs calls for rent relief in hard-hit Paris suburbs

The Cité des 4000 housing estate in La Courneuve, north of Paris.
The Cité des 4000 housing estate in La Courneuve, north of Paris. © Philippe Lopez, AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the hardship in France’s most deprived suburbs, where families stripped of income struggle to pay their rent. While some landlords have suggested deferring payments, tenants want them cancelled outright.

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Holed up in a shabby apartment block with her children, Aminata* has gone without pay for much of this year.

“I was sick in February and couldn’t work,” says the widow and mother of two. “And since the start of the lockdown, I’ve had to stay at home, without my wages.”

Designed to slow the spread of Covid-19, France’s nationwide lockdown has come at a huge financial cost for businesses and households alike. But it hasn’t stopped the rent reminder from coming. 

Aminata is charged a monthly €368 for her apartment in the Mail de Fontenay, a massive social-housing block in La Courneuve, north of Paris. Though capped by law, the rent is still too high for the cleaner, who has effectively been made redundant by the virus.

Aly Diouara, who heads an association of tenants in Aminata’s building, is accustomed to hearing such pleas for help. He says he has received several each day since the start of the lockdown, on March 17. 

Home to more than 1,200 residents, housed in 300 apartments, their monolithic block is the last of its kind in the Cité des 4000, La Courneuve’s most notorious housing estate. At least a third of the block’s residents now struggle to pay their rent, Diouara tells FRANCE 24’s Banlieue Project, before adding: “It could well be as many as two thirds.”

Set up in 2016, Diouara’s association was designed to defend the interests of tenants amid plans to demolish the Mail de Fontenay by 2026. That now feels like a distant threat to residents faced with a “vital health emergency”, and the association’s priorities have changed accordingly.

Its members have petitioned landlords from the public and private sectors to suspend rent payments for residents of the block – and for other struggling households in the Paris suburbs. By Tuesday, April 28, the petition had garnered more than 2,400 signatures.

Who foots the bill?

Similar demands have emerged across Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest département and the most densely populated after Paris. 

Last week, the Office public de l’habitat (OPH) in nearby Bobigny, a social-housing provider, announced it would cancel rent payments for the month of April, which would have been due at the start of May. The move will benefit some 4,000 tenants, at a cost of €1.6 million for their landlord.

The Fondation Abbé Pierre, France’s most prominent housing charity, has described OPH’s decision as “exaggerated”, calling instead for targeted initiatives aimed at the poorest households. In an interview with AFP, the Fondation’s director of studies, Manuel Domergue, warned that granting tenants a complete suspension of rent would put social housing providers in an impossible financial position.

“The Abbé Pierre must be turning in his grave” over such arguments, sighs Diouara, referring to the charity’s charismatic founder. “The Fondation never comes to our estates; they should stick to their turf and let us handle ours,” adds the 33-year-old, for whom the decision in Bobigny is obviously good news.

“It puts landlords in the spot by setting a precedent,” he explains. “They can no longer argue that suspending rent payments for some tenants is unfair to others.”

Meanwhile, tenants of the Mail de Fontenay in La Courneuve are still waiting for their landlords to make a gesture.

“Everyone’s just passing the buck,” says Diouara. “Local landlords and officials call upon the state, so they don’t have to cough up the money, while the state hides behind other measures, like hiking housing allowances or extending the ‘winter truce’,” he adds, referring to France’s traditional winter ban on housing evictions, which the government has extended for two months. 

“But those who go hungry have no time for the meanderings of administration,” Diouara warns. “While they squabble in their offices, we want to go on living in our homes.”

In Bobigny, the municipal authorities have agreed to split the bill with OPH, each of them covering 50 percent of the rent waiver. Seine-Saint-Denis Habitat, the department’s biggest social-housing provider, is opting instead for a case-by-case policy. Contacted by FRANCE 24, it said it had already deferred rent payments for more than 1,000 households — out of the 85,000 tenants it counts across 30 municipalities of the neuf-trois. 

Debt spiral

Aminata has seen her rent payments deferred too, but Diouara says such measures are insufficient. He points to the risk of slipping deeper into a “spiral of debt”.

“Aminata has health problems, she has trouble feeding her children… And all they offer her is to reschedule her rent. We must end this negative spiral,” he insists, noting that residents of Seine-Saint-Denis have already paid a steep price for the coronavirus pandemic.

>> Violence flares in tense Paris suburbs as heavy-handed lockdown stirs ‘explosive cocktail’

While Seine-Saint-Denis was hit by Covid-19 later than other territories, health officials have since declared it one of four French départements suffering from an “exceptional” spike in deaths.

The combination of large families in cramped quarters and a lack of doctors and hospital beds has left the local population particularly exposed to the virus. And while many Parisians fled to countryside residences or switched to working from home, the capital’s poorer suburbs have supplied most of the low-wage workers who keep the metropolis running.

“We’re paying not because the virus targeted the 93 [Seine-Saint-Denis’ department number], but because (..) of an accumulation of inequalities that have made the situation here so much more dramatic than elsewhere,” Diouara explains. “The social crisis was already here, the debt crisis was also here before; the health emergency has only exacerbated them.”

Hoping to give more weight to their demands, Diouara and his associates have teamed up with other associations from neighbouring suburbs. Now that they have pooled together, he warns that they won’t give up the fight until they have secured a “new social contract” that guarantees affordable housing for all.

*Their name has been changed

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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