On the afternoon of 5 June, representatives of eight European cities gathered in a former silk factory building in Villeurbanne, a municipality at the eastern part of Lyon’s metropolitan area. The eight cities meeting had a few shared characteristics: they all run UIA-funded projects, in which housing has an important role.
The time and place were by no means accidental: the meeting took place as part of the International Social Housing Festival, organised in different locations across the city and bringing together public administrations and housing initiatives from all around the world. L’Autre Soie, the edifice that hosted the gathering, is a heritage building formerly accommodating silk workshops and a training centre, now accommodating a variety of associations, temporary uses and neighbourhood events.
L’Autre Soie is also at the core of the Lyon’s UIA-funded project Home Silk Road, transforming the building to combine affordable housing with social services and economic opportunities for vulnerable groups. The building, besides offering housing to 30 families, will also host a complex programme of social inclusion as well as a broad range of educational, cultural and economic activities and circular economy solutions.
Home Silk Road is exemplary for the role of housing within the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative: instead of being treated as an autonomous sector, housing here is conceived in its interactions with other urban challenges. Many UIA-supported projects are in the process of developing accessible and affordable housing models in the context of poverty reduction, the integration of refugees and other vulnerable social groups as well and job creation and circular economy.
This integrated character of UIA cities was at the core of the meeting in Villeurbanne, investigating a variety of questions: How can a housing programme be connected with social services, education, employment and citizen initiatives? How can housing be part of a broader neighbourhood ecosystem with its community anchorages? What is the role of housing in social integration and intergenerational cohesion?
Participants first joined a world café where they had the opportunity to engage in small group discussions and get to know each project in details. As participants moved from one table to another, they explored the projects through a series of themes including social integration and governance, financial tools and incentives as well as economic integration and capacity building. Each world café table, organised in four different locations of L’Autre Soie, brought together representatives of two cities hosting discussions ranging from the criteria to access subsidised housing and the involvement of (future) residents in decision-making to questions of the financial sustainability of housing models and the connection of housing with social services, local economic development and job creation.
Participants learned that in Antwerp, housing young refugees together with Belgian youngsters also involves a variety of neighbourhood activities and shared facilities at the co-housing site reinforce community involvement. In Athens, refugees are encouraged to join neighbourhood activities with civic initiatives as part of a broader integration process. In Brussels, the Community Land Trust will connect housing with various care services, combining elderly care with birth facilities. In the Zugló district of Budapest, the apartments of the future smart co-housing complex will be collected with community spaces that can accommodate a variety of activities. In Ghent, the city connects residents who participate in the housing energy renovation programme into local community groups. In Mataró, the federation of cooperatives that mediates between property owners and prospective tenants is building on the skills of its member organisations to offer a variety of “added value services” (renovation, energy upgrade…) that serve as another source of attractiveness. In Nantes, the city combines housing for homeless/socially excluded people with a variety of work opportunities through a neighbourhood restaurant, an urban farm and a solidarity store. In Lyon-Villeurbanne, made tangible through a walk across the spaces of L’Autre Soie after the roundtables, the project builds connections between the vulnerable groups helped with housing and NGOs and other civic actors that temporarily use the vacant spaces of the complex.
The world café was followed by two roundtable discussions: the first one grouping cities that rely more on public resources and assets (like publicly owned properties), while the second one bringing together cities that work more extensively with a variety of private partners including property owners. Based on the discussions, the participants reached a few conclusions:
- Cities with more significant (property) assets on their own have to build strong coalitions between various public or semi-public bodies (Nantes) and need to develop zoning plans and regulations supporting the co-existence of housing and other activities (Lyon-Villeurbanne).
- On the other hand, social infrastructure and subsidized housing can only be maintained on the long term with the help of continued political support (Budapest-Zugló) or with legal structures that resist market pressure and protect land and housing units from real estate speculation (Brussels).
- Cities, working with private and non-municipal actors, need to build a system of incentives and guarantees to create meaningful partnerships: these can range from creating bonds between landlords and future residents (Antwerp) to connect housing to broader involvement in neighbourhood-based citizen activities (Athens).
- While negotiating with private owners can be facilitated by an umbrella organisation that represents a broad community of prospective tenants and other service-providers (Mataró), specific contracts and a revolving fund can guarantee that public resources invested in deteriorated private housing will remain under public control (Ghent).
The goal of the event was twofold: while it was an opportunity to present the currently running UIA projects that focus on housing issues to a broader public, it also provided a platform for UIA projects to get to know each other and build new networks to exchange their ideas, tools and methods. These experiences, while prompting reflection and exchange among the city representatives, and sparking inspiring discussions with the workshop participants, were also shared with the broader festival audience and UIA’s institutional network. In order to connect the UIA experience related to housing with other institutional agendas, findings of the workshop were presented next day during the This Land is Whose Land? conference, the annual agenda-setting event around public, cooperative and social housing in Europe.
Moving from tools and mechanisms to wider concepts, the UIA event in Lyon allowed participants to discuss technical details as well broader ideas of housing as one of the key pillars of social infrastructure. Beyond sharing tools and expertise, however, the workshop also proved that housing is more than a single policy item on municipal agendas: ideas around housing need to be repositioned – and Europe needs a new, positive narrative for social housing as part of a more inclusive vision for the European cities.
Author: Levente Polyak, UIA Expert for “Curing the Limbo” project (Athens) and moderator of the event