Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL)

Honey, I’m not home!: Europe is a growing and attractive continent, but this also has its downsides. Rent and housing prices in the EU have risen by 16% and 34% respectively since 2010. Considering the needs of students and locals, what stance should Member States adopt towards housing market intervention to ensure access to affordable homes in urban areas for their citizens?

By Nina Tsoutsanis (NL)

Police forcibly removing squatters from the squatted “Hotel Mokum” in Amsterdam. Source: Het Parool


For the last few decades, staggering housing prices, increasing homelessness rates and poor living conditions have been the reality of urban areas. Through this, urban areas have become too expensive for most inhabitants. Although the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union defines housing and housing assistance as one of the fundamental rights of the European Union’s (EU) citizens, safe and sustainable living conditions are not a given. Not only is there an apparent lack of houses in certain cities, the commodification of the housing market, referring to the treatment of housing as a financial product, has led to overly expensive urban areas. In 2020, over 12.3% of the citizens living in urban areas spent more than 40 per cent of their disposable income on housing, leading to an inability to pay for other basic necessities. 

As lockdowns and COVID-19 regulations have significantly impacted the income of urban inhabitants and thus their ability to pay their increasing rent, the situation has only gotten worse. In order to adequately ensure that every person has equal access to safe housing, the EU should keep in mind socioeconomic discrepancies and implement practical and structural measures that tackle the housing problem from the root up.

Key Actors and Measures 

Directorate-General on Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL)

DG EMPL is a part of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU. DG EMPL has a zone of responsibility surrounding employment, social inclusion, labour mobility, and social affairs. It is tasked with implementing the European social model, which lays a focus on European social protection and social justice. 

Measures surrounding housing implemented by DG EMPL have been primarily about homelessness instead of the housing crisis at large. For instance, the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness and the 2021 Lisbon Declaration striving to fight homelessness in Europe through a series of shared objectives. 

Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament (EMPL)

The European Parliament is one of the two legislative bodies of the EU tasked with rejecting, accepting, or amending EU policies. The EMPL Committee published the report on Access to Decent and Affordable Housing for All in 2020, which builds on their 2020 Resolution on tackling homelessness rates in the EU. Seven important measures are mentioned in this report, ranging from fighting evictions and combating housing discrimination to prioritising the European Green Deal and devising an integrated European housing strategy. The report has been crucial in the current European debate surrounding the housing crisis, but it sadly lacks structural implementations

EU Housing Partnership 

The EU Housing Partnership is a European collective of actors surrounding the housing market, such as NGOs, national governments, social housing providers, and private corporations. It acts as a communication platform between its participants. An important part of the Housing Partnership is Housing Europe, which is the European federation of public and social housing. The Housing Partnership has published the 2018 Action Plan, which aims to improve knowledge regarding affordable housing through a series of recommendations, policy proposals, and European-wide exchange of affordable housing. Although the plan sets a clear plan combatting the social needs of the current housing crisis, it has not yet been ratified through legislation

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

Non-governmental organisations, such as the European Action Coalition for the Right to Housing and to the City, World Habitat and Eurocities, are crucial in the decision making process, as they can represent the interests of different societal groups. Eurocities is an important representation of the voice of cities and local governments in EU policy, as they represent many cities and countries, and strive towards urban areas that are sustainable, affordable, and inclusive. For instance, in their Report on housing and homelessness, Eurocities calculates the cost of inclusive housing and paints a clear picture of what the Housing First approach towards eradicating homelessness entails. 

Key words and Core Concepts 

  • Commodification of housing: means the treatment of housing as a means to financial gain, instead of a human right. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union marks having a roof above one’s head as one of the most crucial fundamental rights, while the housing market is treated as a playing field by rich investors. 
  • Gentrification: refers to the displacement of lower-income residents from their original neighbourhoods through seemingly revitalising or renovating certain areas. This leads to more affluent families moving in, which increases the housing prices and forces the original inhabitants to move out. Gentrification runs rampant in European cities. Prominent examples being Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona, where entire neighbourhoods have been gentrified to fit the aesthetic of the young upper-middle class. 
  • The ‘Airbnb’ effect: is linked to the commodification of housing, as the popularisation of platforms such as Airbnb have led to an influx in the popularity of the so-called landlord-industry, where apartments and houses, mostly in city centres, are bought up in order to be rented to tourists. This leads to empty, gentrified, and expensive cities reserved for tourists. The ‘Airbnb’ effect is one of the consequences of the privatisation of the housing market, subsequently leading to unregulated segregation, housing prices and gentrification, as real estate value rises while citizens are excluded and are unable to adapt to these changes.
  • Social housing: includes housing that is provided by the local government, municipality or housing association, which is usually cheaper, longer-term, and better protected from renting price fluctuations than housing provided through the private market.
  • Homelessness: can be defined as not having a (stable) home, but includes many situations like living in hotels or hostels, living in temporary shelters or short-term housing, living in adverse living conditions, or squatting. Homelessness has more than doubled in the last decade, leaving more than 700,000 Europeans without a home. 

Key issues and conflicts  

As social inequality continues to thrive in urban areas, the treatment of housing as a financial commodity instead of a human right has steadily changed the look of cities. A key conflict is the difference between the interests of wealthy investors and local residents. Mostly foreign investors continue to buy a large number of apartments in city centres which they use as a financial investment in the area. This is called the ‘Airbnb effect’, which refers to residences being used as passive income by people who have the financial means to do so, which has led to a popularisation of the landlord-industry. 

The ‘Airbnb effect’ has also created an increase in gentrification, where historically poor areas are commodified to fit the aesthetic of a richer population, leading to the displacement of the original citizens. Rising housing and rental prices have clearly affected marginalised parts of urban populations, like young families, workers, and students. These vulnerable groups do not always fit the strict criteria for social housing, as families might exceed the income limits for social housing, but still not be able to afford living in these areas. Evictions targeting vulnerable groups have become a regular occurrence during the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rising of housing prices, gentrification and overtourism have led to empty cities, where urban areas are no longer a home for the original population, but instead a playing field for rich investors

While the overall quality of inner-city areas through gentrification might have increased, clear discrepancies can be found between different areas. Poor living conditions in less affluent urban areas have led to unsafe living circumstances. Increasing poverty and even the rise of urban slums, like the Cañada Real Galiana in Madrid, in European cities have led to unsustainable and unsafe areas. As compliance with the European Green Deal is one of the important measures mentioned in the report for Access to Decent and Affordable Housing for All published by the European Parliament, the overall improvement  of living conditions in lower-income neighbourhoods is crucial. 

Although the European Parliament has set a goal to eradicate homelessness in the entire EU by 2030, homelessness has largely been criminalised by local governments through anti-homelessness architecture, lack of shelters, and the criminalisation of the squatters movement. An example of the latter includes the forceful removal of squatters from Hotel Mokum  in Amsterdam by the police. This ambitious goal of eradicating homelessness can only be reached if the EU actually strives towards this by implementing comprehensive measures

A huge issue in effectively tackling the housing crisis on a European level is the lack of European competences regarding the housing market. This connects to the balance between the need for public interference versus the interests of a private market. Although European officials have called interference in the market a necessary means towards a fair market, this does not immediately equate to possible actions  on a legal level, as most of the competence surrounding housing is in the hands of individual Member States.

Key Questions

  • Should the EU prioritise economic growth or the needs of European citizens, or rather try to keep a balance between the two?
  • What should the EU do in order to tackle homelessness by 2030?
  • How can the EU implement or incentivise social policies in the private housing market?
  • Considering discrepancies between Member States and socioeconomic groups in the EU, how can the EU best structurally reform social housing programs?
  • How can accessible housing be ensured for people just entering the market, like students, young families or first-time homeowners?

Things to look at