On 10th March, the first session of the Non-Permanent Commission studying the regulation of rents was held by Barcelona City Council. Under discussion in this first opening session were the current situation and access to housing policies in Barcelona, the metropolitan area and other global cities. In order to facilitate this, experts and social stakeholders were invited to give their points of view. Taking part in the Commission were: Vice-President of the Associació de Promotors de Catalunya (Association of Developers of Catalonia), Elena Massot; the President of the Cambra de la Propietat Urbana de Barcelona (Chamber of Urban Property of Barcelona), Joan Ràfols i Esteve; the representative of the Associació de Gestors de Polítiques Socials d’Habitatge de Catalunya (Association of Social Housing Policy Managers of Catalonia), Lluís Hosta; the housing specialist from Observatory DESC, Guillem Domingo; the Secretary General of Housing Europe, Sorcha Edwards; and the Professor of Architecture at the UPC (Polytechnic University of Catalonia), Pilar García Almirall. The commission was presided over by the Councillor from the ERC group, Eva Baró, and the Vice-President was the Councillor for Housing and Rehabilitation, Lucía Martín. The commission will last until the end of June and will be held over five sessions.
This Commission arose out of the growing concern the general public had regarding housing, particularly those who live in big cities, recognising this is a global phenomenon. The Secretary General of Housing Europe, Sorcha Edwards, explained that, for the first time at Eurocities, housing appeared as one of the top five priorities. This Commission grew out of a demand by society to ensure the social function of housing and, in this first session, politicians and social stakeholders agreed that there is a need to seek consensus and act decisively in order to guarantee the right to housing and that spaces such as this need to be created so that, by listening to experts, it can be decided how this should be achieved.
Increasing the budget and the public stock, main agreements
The aim of the Commission is therefore to seek this consensus. In this regard, there are some ideas upon which social and political stakeholders came together: the need to increase housing budgets, public-private partnerships, an increase in protected housing and an improvement in the legal framework.
All participants were in agreement with the need to increase the housing stock due to an increase in demand caused by the arrival of migrant populations and the increase in single-parent and single-person households. The way this lack of housing should be dealt with, however, was cause for some disagreement. The Association of Developers of Catalonia and the Chamber of Urban Property of Barcelona urged that the construction of new homes be promoted in order to increase supply. Professor Pilar Garcia from the UPC talked about the importance of renovation in increasing and, above all, improving the housing stock. She explained that 80% of dwellings in the city are old and are sub-standard, since the atomisation of ownership has made investment difficult. Sorcha Edwards, of the Housing Project, also warned that in recent years homes were bought as economic assets and with a speculative intent. These are properties that are often empty and have lost their social function. She called for this situation to be reversed and urged working with those involved to ensure they will offer cheap and affordable housing as a way to alleviate the lack of available homes.
Specifically discussed was increasing the protected housing stock which, in the city of Barcelona, is currently around 1%. This is a much lower percentage than in other European cities – in Berlin it is 30%; and in London 23% – and all social and political stakeholders agreed that it needs to be increased. Part of this loss comes from the fact that the protected housing wasn’t permanently designated as such and has been lost over time. In this matter, there was also agreement on the need to foster public-private partnerships to expedite the construction of new housing projects, gaining investment capacity and streamlining bureaucracy. Still, the president of the Association of Developers of Catalonia, Elena Massot, urged public institutions not to transfer responsibilities to the private sector. The UPC Professor, Pilar Garcia warned that it is necessary to have private investment but not at any price; it must be linked to meeting a series of requirements and to the public administration receiving the accounts.
All participants came together in criticising the legal framework of housing, although the reasons for doing so varied. The Association of Developers of Catalonia and the Chamber of Urban Property of Barcelona joined in criticising the lack of legal certainty caused by changes in legislation over the last few years. On the other hand Guillem Domingo, the housing specialist from Observatory DESC, cautioned that this regulation has been introduced to end an emergency situation, not to solve a fundamental problem. He was also critical of the fact that, in some cases, these reforms had been regressive, for example, the reform of the LAU (Law on Urban Renting) under which the length of rental contracts was reduced.
Regulation of rent, the great debate
The regulation of rents is one of the topics on which there was less agreement. The Association of Developers of Catalonia and the Chamber of Urban Property believe that it is not necessary to regulate rental prices and, in fact, it would be counterproductive as it would reduce supply. In addition, they also argue that this would jeopardise the economy of families who are small owners who would have difficulties in maintaining their property and would simply opt to rent their flats in the underground economy. They believe that the rent is already regulated in terms of the length of contracts, deposits and the reference rate and that such regulation is already sufficient.
Social stakeholders, however, supported the regulation of rent so that families wouldn’t have to overreach themselves quite as much in order to enjoy the right to decent housing. Guillem Domingo, from the Observatori DESC, stated that “we can’t expect prices to reduce on their own” and that while 32% of society can afford the current prices, there will be a process whereby residents who can no longer pay will be replaced by others with much greater purchasing power. In this regard, the Secretary General of Housing Europe, Sorcha Edwards, talked about the social effects that this expulsion of residents, who give life to the city and make up the social fabric, would have. She has also talked about the effects of such economic overstretching in order to pay the rent. If the families have to allocate the majority of their wages to paying the rent, there will be little left to spend in the local economy and, therefore, it reduces competitiveness in cities. For this reason, Edwards was in favour of limiting rents, at least in the short term.