Expert article
Home Silk Road - Housing toward empowerment Lyon Metropole, France
Modifier 06 March 2022
by Ruth OWEN, UIA expert

Innovating in the time of COVID19

Construction workers with masks
© Lionel Rault May 2021
A look back at the impact of COVID19 on Home Silk Road

Home Silk Road is about developing an inclusive city through experimenting with innovative temporary housing, cultural and economic activities in an industrial neighbourhood of Villeurbanne that is being redeveloped into a new housing district. The project has turned the site into a hub for culture, inclusion, and the social economy, involving families living in temporary shelter on-site, residents and other inhabitants of Villeurbanne and the Metropole of Lyon.

The 5th wave of the COVID19 pandemic has now passed its peak in France. Restrictive measures are currently being relaxed. It seems like a good moment to look back on the impact of the pandemic on Home Silk Road so far. Home Silk Road started one year before COVID19 was first identified in November 2019.  It has had a considerable effect: accentuating existing challenges, presented new ones and demanding flexibility and creative solutions.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the public health crisis caused by COVID19. It continues to affect society in a myriad of complex and ways. The full impact is still unfolding, and the next phase of the virus’ development remains difficult to predict. The virus and the measures brought in to control it have many implications for sustainable urban development, and for urban innovation. There are probably many shared challenges amongst UIA projects resulting from COVID19. Capturing the experience of this project can hopefully generate some learning for future innovative urban initiatives.  

COVID19 has generated a lot of challenges for partnership dynamics. Coordination meetings at the technical level (Core Group meetings) shifted online quickly.  Some partners found that the shift to online meetings has reduced space for open-ended and forward-thinking discussion. They noticed a tendency to focus more strictly on the administration of the project, which is understandable given the major modifications that have had to be managed. Less scope for informal interaction is seen as a barrier to more creative thinking that brings great added value.

Higher-level political meetings (Executive Board) have been more affected than COVID than the technical level. It has been difficult to create occasions to bring elected representatives together as planned because of restrictions and other priorities. This has implications for project visibility and potentially for political ownership of the project. However, solutions have been found to compensate e.g. producing a video about move-in to modular housing on the site featuring Executive Board members.  

Now that face-to-face meetings are easier and COVID19 restrictions are being lifted, the partners can meet more in-person at the technical and political level. Like workplaces everywhere, the partners need to figure out how much of the “new normal” will stay and how to boost opportunities for informal interaction.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a series of major delays to project implementation. The project has been extended by one year to fulfil its objectives. It will now close in October 2022.

The installation of modular housing, a hallmark of the project, was pushed back.  Families living at the shelter CHU de Musset were supposed to move into the modular units in June 2020 but were finally able to do so only in January 2021. Project partner Alynea, which runs CHU de Musset, planned to open a restaurant as a work integration scheme for the residents. However, successive lockdowns made that impossible until early 2022. The restaurant project also had to be reimagined and adapted. It is now operating but instead of serving the public, it provides catering services. This was a better business plan given the challenges facing the restaurant industry during the pandemic.

The cultural dimension of the project was heavily impacted by the pandemic. 2020 was especially difficult as many events were cancelled or postponed due to lockdown. However, project partners CCO, a laboratory for cultural and social innovation, managed to adapt and to maintain the cultural life of the site, albeit in a less dense form. Having moved to a new building after the construction work started, they continued organising a huge range of events and initiatives, adapted to the COVID restrictions. This included the festival “L’Aventure Ordinaire” that took place in October 2021, a year later than originally planned.

Project delay and extension brings its own set of practical difficulties. A key one relates to personnel. Staff costs have continued to be incurred over the pandemic, despite the delays to activities. This creates pressure on the budget. A one-year extension means more time to get things done but does not cover additional staff costs to cover an extra year. Some key staff will stop working on the project before it is complete with lots of implications for ensuring impact, learning, scaling-up etc.    

At the heart of the UIA project are the families living in temporary shelter at the CHU Alfred Musset. Since the project started in 2018, their situations have evolved. They moved into modular housing units with private bathrooms and kitchens. Their flats are more adequate than the previous shelter. However, many of the families are overcrowded and this has made lockdown especially difficult.  A minority of people have obtained regularisation and been able to move on to their own housing during the project. Some new families have arrived.  

Throughout the pandemic, public authorities have told people to “stay home” for their safety and the safety of others. This has been particularly difficult for people without a stable or adequate home. COVID19 has impacted on many aspects of the residents’ lives: regularization processes, education, training, work. Access to the cultural activities on the site has been affected. Social support has been maintained throughout, but the conditions have been more difficult.    

COVID19 has brought into sharp focus the need to find decent housing solutions for homeless people.  The dangers of sleeping rough or being forced to rely on shelters with shared spaces for sleeping, washing and cooking have been made even more obvious by the pandemic. In many cities across Europe, this brought a sense of urgency to addressing homelessness, at least in the short term.  

In Grand Lyon, substantial efforts were made to offer people shelter, including by mobilizing additional hotel capacity, as part of the response to the pandemic. The Metropole since made a political commitment to ensuring that no-one be returned to the street.

An ambition to change policies and services in line with the principals of Housing First predates the pandemic. This means that homeless people should as far as possible be offered housing and support, rather than just temporary shelter.  In this context, there is a recognition that dignified solutions need to be found those who cannot access social housing or income under common law because of their precarious administrative status. The modular units in the Home Silk Road project are one attempt at this. Some of the newer residents came to the site from hotels mobilised during the pandemic.  Villeurbanne has recently launched another similar project: 40 mobile “tiny homes” for homeless women with young children. In time, COVID19 may prove to have re-enforced political commitment to developing and implementing adequate housing solutions for homeless people.  

COVID19 has had huge implications for European cooperation. The partners have had fewer occasions than foreseen to showcase the project to urban authorities and other stakeholders across Europe, and to learn from others undertaking similar innovative actions. They have taken every opportunity in the circumstances to create visibility and share knowledge despite not being able to travel or host international events. For example, they presented the project via European networks like Eurocities and FEANTSA, and participated in activities coordinated by the UIA secretariat e.g. a joint UIA-Urbact initiative on Cities Promoting the Right to Housing. 2022 will bring some new opportunities. Visits to the project will be organised at a major European conference on homelessness taking place in Lyon on 1st March as part of French Presidency of the Council of the EU and the new European Platform on Combatting Homelessness.

Despite the huge challenges presented by COVID19, the project has overall progressed well and is now moving quickly towards completion in Autumn of this year. The project partners have demonstrated a lot of resilience, flexibility and agility in project implementation. They have managed to find creative and workable solutions to many bumps in the road. The impact of COVID19 on the residents of the project highlights their vulnerable situation and the centrality of decent housing to inclusion. COVID19 is an opportunity to boost the ambition of homelessness policies and make housing the solution; in Villeurbanne, Grand Lyon and other urban areas across Europe.