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The Union sociale pour l'habitat (USH, or Social Housing Association), which brings together some 800 French social housing bodies, has had a permanent representation in Brussels for ten years. And the situation has moved on considerably since 2001, according to the organisation's President, Thierry Repentin. He notes that this issue is increasingly taken account of in Community policies. He points out that the crisis will have to confront the supply of housing and its financial accessibility with new challenges which the EU will have to respond to. The USH advocates a social housing model that is geared to people in need who have difficulties accessing decent housing at an affordable price. And it wants to do this while avoiding the social specialisation of some blocks of flats, districts or territories and by preserving a mix of social groups and social cohesion.

After ten years in Brussels, how would you describe the change in European debates on social housing?

What surprised me the most is, on the one hand, the speed of change and the impact of EU law on social housing - I'm thinking in particular about single market and state aid rules - and, on the other, the gradual emergence of social housing in Community policies, especially those relating to economic and social cohesion and to combatting climate change. The leveraging effect of these policies on territories, through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund, has been real since the implementation of the recovery plan presented by President Barroso in 2008.

Reduced VAT rates, leaving social housing out of the Services Directive, exempting notification of state aid in favour of bodies with moderate rent housing, the eligibility of heating renovation for social housing and access to housing for disadvantaged groups to ERDF funding are all examples of our full and total involvement in the Community legislative process.

What I note in particular is the closer and closer interconnection between what goes on in the territories and what goes on in Brussels. That signals a higher and higher degree of European integration. The two crises which we are faced with today, the market crisis and the crisis of states and their debt, strengthen this interconnection between what happens locally and in Europe, including in the very definition of social housing and its role faced with the failure of housing markets.

The recent European Commission decisions regarding the Netherlands and Sweden did not please the USH. What role should the EU play in your view?

In our view, as a European competition authority, the Commission is not competent to define the missions given to social housing bodies by national or regional legislators in advance, unilaterally and without democratic checks. I doubt whether the Council and the European Parliament, if they had had to take a position, would have followed the Commission in its analysis of the public service of social housing and its area of intervention in the market.

These two issues refer back to collective preferences anchored locally that only the Community co-legislators are able to integrate. In any case, this decision making practice has affected the fundamentals of social housing: housing people in need with a mix of social groups while respecting public service obligations (the financial accessibility of housing, rules and allocation procedures in terms of priority of access and security of tenure of housing). It poses the question of the democratic deficit, which characterises this type of European decision in the absence of a legislative reference framework. The issue of the opportunity of a legislative framework specifically for social services of general interest therefore remains open from this point of view. I fully share the vision of Vladimir Spidla, the former employment and social affairs commissioner, that we will get there sooner or later. It is a matter of political maturity in a complex and particularly sensitive issue.

What are the other big challenges to be surmounted for social housing?

We are faced with a concrete major issue: to respond to growing needs for affordable housing for European citizens faced with the economic crisis and the rise in unemployment and exclusion while we ourselves are directly hit by budgetary austerity measures and the reduction of public funds allocated for social housing. The debt crisis calls for new structural responses to growing needs in terms of affordable housing. The regulation of housing markets is a necessary step faced with the disastrous consequences of housing cycles and the bubble' phenomena for the stability of the eurozone but, above all, for households with modest income. The consolidation of specific circuits of financing for social housing is also necessary faced with the withdrawal of the banks and the volatility of interest rates.

Europe can act very concretely by promoting, for example, new financial instruments based on solidarity' and by organising better macroeconomic surveillance of these housing bubbles'.

We are also facing new issues. Here, we could cite the fight against energy poverty', which is growing, and the need to renew the pool of social housing that exists to strengthen its energy performance but also ageing populations, the adaptation of housing and the development of new services for dependents, access to housing for young people who are the first victims of the crisis and of being left out of the job market. Here, too, Europe can play a role as a driving force.
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Publication:European Report
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Dec 16, 2011

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