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"We don’t have a refugee crisis. We have a housing crisis."

With national and European governments in gridlock, the cities themselves have decided to bypass the state level altogether and forge ahead with some very innovative solutions to the crises facing Europe today.

Eurocities Social Affairs forum panel. From l-r: Lefteris Papagiannakis, vice-mayor of Athens; Belinda Pyke, director for migration and mobility, European Commission; Kees Diepeveen, deputy mayor of Utrecht; Ritva Viljanen, deputy mayor of Helsinki; Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor of Leipzig.

The migrant camp at Calais has been dismantled. In its place, local authorities are planning to install a theme park. The French government seems to have looked at the camp and asked itself: ‘what can be done about these people? - rapidly finding the answer ‘make them go away’.

The 1500 unaccompanied children stranded without care or basic shelter stand in grim testimony to  the fact that, if one wants to respond to the crisis with some basic degree of humanity, that’s probably not the right question to be asking. Luckily, some city municipalities and local governments are beginning to ask not ‘what do we do about the migrants?’ but the more concrete question ‘where will they live?’

It’s a problem incomparable in scale. And with more arriving every day, there’s little time for the drawn-out processes of consultation and experiment that usually form the backbone of municipal policy-making. So, cities are increasingly gathering together to 'share best practice' - finding out how they’re tackling the crisis, learning from one another’s successes and mistakes.

At a recent conference run by Eurocities, delegations from 50 cities gathered in Athens to talk about just how to meet the challenge presented by the millions of people who have arrived at their gates since the start of the crisis. The practical demands of managing this influx mean that, at a city level, questions on integration often collapse not into questions of cultural difference or liberal ‘tolerance’, but into the basic practical questions of how to get thousands of new arrivals housed, fed and educated alongside the rest of the population.

Cities are where some sort of normal life can begin again

They are, largely, the ones to whom responsibility falls for housing those who make it into europe, and who either don’t end up in refugee camps, or after a notoriously long and complex bureaucratic process, eventually make it out. This is for the simple reason that cities are where more of the migrants are headed.

It’s monumentally misguided to cast the refugee crisis in terms of mass migration as guided by ‘pull factors’; it should probably, at this stage go without saying that the overwhelming majority of migrants were not enticed through snow and across perilous water by the promise of a rosy European dream, but driven out by an overlapping series of crises; war, economic hardship and environmental degradation.

But motivated, once they do arrive, to secure a better life for themselves and their families, many migrants head for Europe’s bustling metropolitan hubs. And for good reason. Cities tend to be more culturally diverse than rural or smaller urban areas, and account for greater chunks of national GDP. You’re more likely to find jobs, educational opportunities, healthcare, and cultural life. You have greater access to support from pre-existing support organisations and older migrant communities. Cities are where some sort of normal life can begin again.

lead A football pitch and some houses at Eleonas refugee camp in Athens.

A house is not a home

At Eleonas camp on the outskirts of Athens, some of the residents echoed this pattern. One man from Syria is aiming to get to Berlin, where he’s told there will be doctors who can help his eight year old niece walk again. A young man from Afghanistan tells me he wants to get to Copenhagen or Stockholm, because like him, they speak English there. But common to all of them is the desire to make it out of the camps, and find a permanent home.

This challenge is one of the greatest facing the cities of Europe. From the conversations at the conference, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Though in scale, this crisis might be unprecedented, in character it is familiar territory for those trying navigate the hurdles of how to provide a vast number of people with adequate housing, in a situation where affordable, livable housing is already hard to come by.

Many cities across europe have housing crises caused by a heady cocktail of property speculation, industry deregulation, and a dearth of social housing that predates by decades this recent influx of new arrivals. According to a recent report by Housing Europe, "There are not enough affordable homes available in most European countries to meet the increasing demand."

It seems that the arrival of thousands of migrants would be less of a problem were cities not already struggling to house residents. As Mayor of Leipzig Thomas Fabian put it: "I don’t like to use the term refugee crisis. We don’t have a refugee crisis. We have a housing crisis."

Refugees and Eurocities participants chatting at Eleonas camp, Athens.

The economy in Munich is booming, reports Martin Kunschak, of the city’s housing and migration department. But as the economy grows, so does the demand for housing, which is far outstripped by the number of new homes being built.

As available permanent dwellings are few and far between, multiple migrant families are crammed into small flats. "Where there are homes, they are in areas of the city with no jobs. Or they are run down, and no one wants to live there." This problem became so acute that refugees were housed in converted rooms in the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

In Berlin, seized by a similar dearth of available housing, thousands of refugees are housed in cramped conditions in Tempelhof airport. The sheer volume of people passing through Vienna in search of that famously warm Teutonic welcome left many migrants in squalid conditions, waiting in train stations: and though the city has now placed many of its more than 22,000 new migrants into privately rented accommodation, this costly option only puts further pressure on an already-strained housing market.

These are just the problems that Eurocities meetings are intended to tackle. Vienna is building apartments and converting empty buildings into habitable accomodation - but faced with practical hurdles, the city representatives are keen to learn from the experiences of others.

Discussion delves deep in the nitty-gritty of housing policy: what works, what doesn’t. How to ease potential tensions between refugees and local populations. How to convert commercial space into residential space. How to ensure that families with similar needs are housed together. That communalised kitchen facilities are labour-intensive to run, and unpopular with many of the residents. That it’s important to provide dedicated facilities for single women and mothers with young children, and, increasingly, for LGBTQ asylum seekers. 

The difficulty is convincing them that they will have to stay here

On the one hand, long history of housing crises throughout Europe means that cities already have a wealth of knowledge to rely upon, gathered from years of research into the problems of precarious housing. Having conducted extensive social research for the Ghent City Hall, Anja van Durpel points out that this refugee crisis is less of a state of exception than we sometimes assume. "Homelessness is not new. Migration is not new." The problem, she explains, is simply volume. The migrant crisis tests the integrity of our usual responses - loading more and more weight onto them to see if they hold.

And sometimes they do. In Amsterdam, local government worked with housing associations formed to tackle the city’s problems of rising rent and homelessness. This partnership has resulted in 1000 extra homes being made available of additional homes, to be provided to students and precariously housed Amsterdamers, as well as those with refugee status. As Housing Europe pointed out, these actions relied upon “experience gained in the Starting Block Riekerhaven, a project by De Key housing corporation and the municipality.” These houses are, for the moment, temporary - but there are plans to turn these into permanent communities.

From l-r: Laia Ortiz, deputy mayor of Barcelona; Georgios Kaminis, mayor of Athens; Thomas Jezequel, Eurocities.

Cities working together transnationally....the future of Europe?

More often though, governments struggle to meet the desperate volume of demand. Across the continent, town halls, school gymnasiums and empty office buildings were rapidly turned over to provide temporary shelter; but the the transition to long-term, stable housing has proved much more fraught with difficulties.

For some municipalities - such as Athens  - the city has been building up and building over pre-existing migrant camps, first thrown together as an emergency patch and stitch solution, and now rapidly becoming more permanent. At Eleonas, once a military training facility, they are laying down lights, installing washing facilities, and bringing in mobile homes. This effort comes after national and international outcry at the conditions in camps such as Idomeni, which one senior Greek minister compared to a Nazi concentration camp.

This might not be such welcome news for the migrants living there - they have no wish to stay in the camp, or indeed, in Greece at all. But drawn-out asylum process and the rapid securitisation of Europe’s internal borders has left many stranded in their countries of arrival - mainly Greece and Italy. Lefteris Papagiannakis, Athens’ deputy mayor for migration and refugee issues, explains that "the difficulty is convincing them that they will have to stay here".

Participants at the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, Athens.

Wracked by rising rents and homelessness, these cities of arrival already have their own disenfranchised and precariously-housed populaces. And when resources seem to run scarce, it’s not surprising that Malthusian thinking kicks in, and people begin to ask why refugees are being housed before them.

This, as Herbert Bartik from Vienna explains, plays nicely into the hands of the far right. Whereas these policymakers might be determined to talk about the importance of “social mix”, and to locals in the programmes they provide for refugees and migrants, for many others the provision of social housing represents a failure of governments to ‘look after their own’.

A gift to nativist thinkers, then. For them, the funding dedicated to housing refugees creams off what little social provisions are left after years of cutbacks to social safety nets. It does not seem to make much of a difference that the housing provided usually consists - at best - of small, overcrowded apartments in dog-ends of the city.

The city government of Gdansk voted to welcome refugees, and 83% of its population see migration as a positive

Nor does it matter that social provisions for refugees are usually funded by different income streams than those used . Whereas regular social housing is largely funded by national and regional governments, cities are reliant on the European Union to provide dedicated Asylum and Migration Integration Funding (AMIF).

Integration through social housing?

Where the housing seems to be working well, this is less of a problem. Piotr Olech from Gdansk Social Development department insists that, in his city, the far right’s bark is far worse than its bite. The tiny - if loud - demonstrations are more likely to annoy local motorists than spark any sentiment of slighted nativism.

In Barcelona, where the city mayor Ada Colau got her political start in radical left housing activism, refugee accommodation plans are drawn up in consultation with the local residents. But one Eurocities delegate from Brno, recounted that she has been repeatedly threatened by the far right group for daring to express solidarity with refugees.

Thus, the housing crisis forces policy makers to steer between the raging horns of a raging problem of social discontent: how does one meet the immediate needs of refugees, whilst trying not to provide the far right with more yarn to spin a story of local populations left behind?

The solution to this problem is the same perennially proposed as a fix for the housing crisis writ large - and a solution at the forefront of people’s minds at Eurocities: build more social housing. For some governments, the acuteness of the refugee crisis seems to have thrown the urgency of the housing crisis into ever-sharper relief. German housing minister Barbara Hendricks called for the construction of 350,000 new dwellings a year, so that refugees could be housed without ‘depriving’ low-income German households of affordable accomodation.

Moreover, many city governments have publically stressed the need to avoid ‘ghettoisation’, where refugees are forced into segregated, forgotten areas of the city. This can only be done by building affordable homes in more affluent areas, and attempting to integrate refugee housing with wider social programmes to tackle precarious, unaffordable housing for everyone.

But that, as ever, is easier said than done. Where national governments double-down on austerity-driven cutbacks to social housing, where they rely on a booming property market to bolster fragile levels of growth, many city governments simply cannot afford to commit the vast housing projects needed to tackle this problem.

Moreover, the policy agendas of governments at national level seem to be drifting further away from those adopted by the cities at the front lines of the crisis. The city government of Gdansk voted to welcome refugees, and 83% of its population see migration as a positive. However, this doesn’t hold at a national level. The ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party is being dragged further to the right by the growing coalitions of far-right nationalist groups; the party leader recently claiming that refugees bring with them "all sorts of parasites and protozoa". In this political climate, it’s unthinkable that the national government would commit funds to housing refugees. 

Even if cities were better funded in their building efforts, europaforum’s Herbert Bartik pointed out that massive social housing programmes may well contravene recent EU competition regulation, by distorting the housing market. That the housing market may be in need of distortion is besides the point. There is, he says, a contradiction here in EU policy. This problem is only exacerbated when European Central funding, intended to provide for the immediate needs of migrants, is doled out not to cities directly, but to national governments. These governments have reportedly proved slow, reluctant or indifferent when it comes to channelling this funding to local organisations.

At the conference, Belinda Pyke of the EU commission invited city representatives to consult her on how best to lobby national governments for funding. This suggestion was rebuffed by a member of the Barcelona mayoral office: "Don’t tell me to lobby our national governments," he said. "We have tried. It doesn’t work."

So they are forced to rely on their own resources, recruiting housing groups, third-sector organisations, charities and the private sector in a patchwork solution that tried to circumvent both EU bureaucracy and national indifferent. These programs lay bare the fact that meeting the challenge of housing Europe’s new migrants will be intimately bound up with a solution to the housing crisis. And where national governments have failed, cities may prove a testing ground for policy that promises a way forward.

All photos are by Eleanor Penny and Alex Sakalis and can be reproduced under creative commons license.

About the author

Eleanor Penny is a writer, editor, translator and poet. She's an editor at Novara Media, and an associate editor at openDemocracyUK. She holds a degree in Philosophy & French from University College London. She tweets @eleanorkpenny.


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