The Home Silk Road project is linked to the roll-out of Housing First in Lyon. At the heart of Home Silk Road is the ambition of an inclusive city where vulnerable groups can access affordable housing and participate fully in society.
Some of the social housing units being built on the Home Silk Road site are destined to house formerly homeless people in a Housing First programme. 15 of the 200+ units to be built on the site are “very social” housing (PLAI) that will be allocated to beneficiaries of Housing First. “Very social housing” (PLAI) is a category of social housing in France targeting people experiencing poverty and social exclusion. Construction is financed by a specific loan for this type of social housing, to which various conditions are attached. The income ceiling for a single-person household in “very social housing” is 11,480 Euros in Lyon. These 15 units will be owned and managed by public social housing company Est Metropole Habitat, and the support services will be provided by Alynea. Boosting the production of PLAI is one of the main objectives of the Housing First strategy in France. It is a challenging task and so far production is consistently below target levels.
A 91-unit “social residence” (residence sociale) will also be amongst the housing solutions developed on the site. It will be run by Alynéa, which is a partner in Home Silk Road and one of the key NGOs involved in the Housing First plan. The social residence is an example of “alternative housing”. One of the objectives of the local Housing First strategy is to boost the supply of such housing in the territory. Social residences offer temporary housing for people who cannot access common law housing because of their social or financial situation. Residents have an independent dwelling, for which they pay a monthly fee determined in view of their resources. They are eligible for social support. Some advocates of Housing First are sceptical about this type of setting. They argue that grouping excluded people together with limited security of tenure and future perspectives is not in line with the philosophy of Housing First. However, the reality in Lyon, as in many European cities, is that a significant part of the homeless population has limited access to social rights because of their administrative status. For migrants experiencing homelessness, this is most often linked to their residency status. This is the situation of many of the families currently living on the Home Silk Road site. Unless Housing First can be adapted to such situations, it will become another mechanism for exclusion based on competition between people in dire housing need. By normalising living conditions and linking into social support services, inter alia to activate social rights, solutions like social residencies can play an important role in the systemic change that the Metropole of Lyon is trying to achieve with Housing First.
The Home Silk Road site currently includes a homeless shelter, CHU Alfred de Musset where 21 families live. It was initially a winter-only shelter but has been made permanent. It is managed by Alynéa, which provides social support to the residents, covering issues such as access to social rights, employment, education and wellbeing of children, French language support, and integration into the community. More than 2930 hours of support work will be provided over the duration of the project. Currently, the shelter is located in a previously vacant building on the site. The residents will soon move into temporary wooden modular housing units for the duration of the construction process. From 2023, the aim is to provide long-term solutions to as many of the households as possible on-site.
Home Silk Road has provided a testing ground for using temporary plots and modular housing to try and deliver Housing First. 54 modular homes are being installed to house the families from the homeless shelter. About 100 people will live here for 3 years and continue to receive social support. Once the construction project is completed and the families have moved out, the temporary modules will be moved and deployed at other sites in the East of the Metropole of Lyon. Their mission will be to provide emergency housing on temporary sites. The 22 units will be transformed into 40 one-room apartments of 40m², intended to accommodate up to 40 individuals. The Metropole sees these units as an important tool in its efforts to tackle homelessness and housing exclusion.
Modular housing is increasingly used to provide temporary housing for homeless households in European cities. In the UK, for example, a growing number of local authorities have developed modular housing schemes to deliver on their legal duty to provide temporary housing to homeless families. The advantages of modular and mobile housing are that it can be produced quickly, and relatively cheaply. In fact, construction costs vary a lot. High-quality modular housing is not always particularly “cheap” to produce. A key factor is the cost of land. In dynamic urban growth centres like Lyon, the cost of land is the biggest obstacle to building affordable housing. Modular and mobile housing allows for the temporary use of land which is not available for permanent housing such as brownfield construction sites. It can be deployed as a short-term response and then recycled.
The use of modular and mobile housing as a public policy instrument raises concerns in terms of adequacy. Modular housing can mean a lack of space and light, noise, poor insulation, and ventilation. The temporary nature of the housing is a concern, especially in the context of Housing First. The stigmatizing effects of living in cheap, temporary housing on land that is temporarily available are potentially important.
In the case of Home Silk Road, 3 years is a long time to be in a temporary setting. Residents arguably have limited options available to them and therefore limited choice and control. There is uncertainty about final outcomes for individual households. These challenges illustrate how difficult it is to translate the principals of Housing First into operational reality, and how high the stakes are. One of the most important tests of the Home Silk Road project will be the medium- and long-term outcomes for the people living in the shelter.
It is important to emphasise that these modular units are built to a high-quality specification. The families who will live there have played an active role in the design process. The fact that the site is a cultural and social “hub” and that the residents-to-be are already established there is important, as is the ongoing support that they will receive.