Paris’s new public housing push aims to offset soaring rents

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 citys best efforts, many Paris residents are being priced out.


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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 Frances premier piano makers, where Frédéric Chopin played his first public concert.

These Paris buildings have one, perhaps surprising, thing in common: Theyve 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, Hidalgos 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 wouldnt be able to if there were only private housing,” says Ian Brossat, deputy mayor for housing. 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, Hidalgos 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 Frances 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 Europes 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. Hidalgos 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 Pariss social-housing push of fuelling gentrification and displacement rather than slowing them.

Near the Galeries Lafayette, in the 9th arrondissement, the city has upgraded and converted 29 apartments in a classic Haussmann-era building. © Colin Kinniburgh

Unaffordable: dwindling supply, high demand

The backdrop to Pariss 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 dUrbanisme, 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 citys 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 citys 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.

The Réfectoire des Cordeliers in the 6th arrodissement is the remnant of a 16th-century Franciscan convent.
The Réfectoire des Cordeliers in the 6th arrodissement is the remnant of a 16th-century Franciscan convent. © Colin Kinniburgh

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 Pariss 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 – on average, 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. Even if Paris met its 30 percent goal by 2030, it would likely still fall far short of closing the gap.

Meanwhile, the citys efforts havent come cheap. According to Hidalgos figures, Paris has spent €3 billion on social housing over the course of her six-year term, making it the citys 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 isnt just increasing affordability, but to “rebalance” the citys 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 citys wealthiest neighbourhoods as targets for new social housing.

On the edge of the 16th arrondissement, one of Pariss wealthiest, stand a pair of shaRead More – Source

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