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Open letter to the EU Housing Ministers

THE SPANISH GOVERNMENT CANCELS THE EU HOUSING MINISTERS’ MEETING; THE INHABITANTS’ ORGANIZATIONS CONFIRM THEIR COMMITMENT TO THE STRUGGLE FOR HOUSING RIGHTS

Out of the blue, the EU Housing Ministers’ meeting in Barcelona (16-17 October 2006) has been cancelled by the Spanish government.
This decision is regrettable because it wastes an excellent opportunity for all parties involved, both institutions and grass roots organizations, to dialogue and deal decisively with the housing crisis which is currently affecting all European countries.
The idea is not only to let the EU Housing Ministers hear the cry of pain of the homeless, badly housed and those under threat of eviction but, also to put forward concrete proposals.
The IAI would have liked to raise these issues on behalf of inhabitants, listen to what the Ministers had to say and place directly before them the analysis and proposals that had been worked out at the European level.
This we will do in any case by publicly circulating our "Open letter" in the hope that the appointment has only been postponed. Let all the Ministers know this: the housing rights movement will always be with them.

The next stage: the preparatory meeting for European General States for housing and city rights (Paris 2 February 2007).

OPEN LETTER TO THE EU HOUSING MINISTERS FROM THE URBAN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS


Respected Ministers,

I write to you on behalf of the International Alliance of Inhabitants (IAI), an international network of social organizations (inhabitants’ associations, tenants’ unions, homeless and badly sheltered people’s committees, housing cooperatives and social centres, volunteers’ and migrants’ associations), which for many years has been committed to the defence of housing rights ‘without frontiers’.
We are specifically engaged in drawing up proposals to cope with the negative effects of the construction of the European Union on urban and housing issues.
We believe that the Barcelona meeting is of particular importance, since it is an excellent opportunity not only to compare the different approaches and experiences of those involved, but especially to offer a concrete response to the homeless and those faced with homelessness by attempting to find a common strategy for the construction of the European Union of the future.
After a halt in proceedings in the last few last months, discussion is again under way on the new European Constitution, which will inevitably involve discussion on competences and the allocation of structural funds.
That is why it is absolutely essential that all the social, institutional and political bodies concerned should be involved.
The IAI would also like to play its part by making sure the voice and the proposals of European city dwellers is heard at all levels. Over the last few weeks, in fact, city dwellers have stepped up their mobilization for housing rights in Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Moscow and many other European cities.
Discussion on these issues at the European Social Forum in Athens (May 2006) involved social organizations, local authorities, and professional experts and resulted in a proposal for a General States for Housing and City Rights, a thematic space for discussion and initiatives to help build a future based on rights, the individual and the people.
We are appealing for this at an international level through mobilizations involving a large number of social organizations as part of the World Zero Evictions Day and for housing rights throughout the month of October.

On this basis, we propose an intervention by the IAI at your meeting in Barcelona, in which we would address each of you individually and collectively, and offer the following observations and proposals.

Housing rights are recognized but violated

All the states of the European Union have ratified the international treaties and conventions that recognize and protect housing rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 25), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 27), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (art. 14 and art. 15), Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (art. 8), the European Social Charter (art. 15, 16, 19, 23, 30, 31), the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (art. 2, clause 94).
Nevertheless, despite this legal recognition, often reinforced by national constitutions and legislation, despite the States’ additional commitment to Millennium Objectives No. 7-11, which provide for the improvement in housing conditions for 100 million people by 2020, and the Lisbon Strategy for social inclusion at a European level, housing rights are still violated more and more.
Therefore, it is our painful duty to point out that even the member states of the European Union are contributing to the failure of these minimal objectives, since it is predicted that the global housing crisis will actually get worse with another 700 million people either homeless or badly sheltered by that date.
In Europe the housing crisis affects 70 million badly housed people, of which approximately 18 million are under threat of eviction and 3 million are homeless. These people find themselves excluded from the housing market and adequate social policies are lacking. Neither the Member States, nor the local authorities are able to offer satisfactory solutions to the problem.
The crisis is aggravated by the free circulation of speculative investments within the EU, by the privatization of public sector housing and the liberalization of this sector especially in countries entering the EU, by migration from poorer countries and the gentrification of cities and tourist areas, as well as by the aggressive policies of the REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) on the residential sector. The results are an exorbitant increase in house prices and rents, less security of tenure in housing contracts, greater risk of foreclosure in mortgage agreements, threat of eviction and forced evictions which affect the young, the elderly, and immigrants, but also families on an average income.
This situation denies social inclusion; it fosters inequality, speculation and corruption.
This inequality cannot be dealt with by Member States individually, because of the budget cuts imposed by the Euro control mechanisms. Without the allocation of the necessary resources, little can be done by local authorities, whose competence it is through decentralization, or by means of policies for private social housing.

The failure of the EU’s liberalist approach to the housing question
The EU’s competence now includes many aspects of the urban and housing question, but instead of working toward the recognition of housing rights, it accentuates the mercantile side of it through directives on building, insurance, tenders, taxation, FEDER and BEI funds, Urban programs, etc. It has also muscled in on the sphere of the public housing service. The DG Competition is making inroads into this sector in various countries (contesting the funding system –“A” book – of the sector in France, requiring Holland to privatize, contesting the tax benefits for Swedish communal associations, banning the tax exemptions for the bodies managing popular housing in Berlin, etc.). At the same time, the European Parliament has voted for the exclusion of the social housing sector from Bolkenstein Directive on the liberalization of public services, but limited its application to the charity sector. If this were definitively approved, it would mean the death of public social housing as an alternative to the free market.

Toward housing rights as the basis of European Union competence

In light of the failure of the liberalist approach, the social organizations that work in the housing field would urge your respective governments and the European Union to take up the following proposals:
• housing rights should be explicitly recognized in the EU Constitution; public bodies should respect their legal obligations and the liability imposed by such rights at all levels;
• the Charter of Rights to the City should be approved as the basis of urban policies;
• a European Directive should be approved guaranteeing security of housing tenure for everyone, with the introduction of new public guarantees for rental contracts, protection against speculation and mobbing in housing and access to property. Evictions without the offer of decent alternative accommodation should be cancelled. By means of price controls and even a specific public contribution, house prices should not exceed a certain percentage of income;
• The public housing service should be revitalized; public policies should be developed to recuperate, build or purchase approximately 8 million homes, for the public sector at the European level, financed in part by a specific European Fund for compensation for housing rights;
• A European tax should be introduced on unlet properties, uncultivated land and speculative property transactions, the yield from which would go toward the European Fund mentioned above;
• The public housing sector should be totally excluded from the Bolkenstein Directive on the liberalization of public services of general interest;
• Privatization of the housing sector should be suspended in order to study the effects it has had so far and find possible alternatives;
• The REITS should be banned from intervening in the residential housing sector;
• There should be experimental projects for a new type of public social housing, sensitive to multiculturalism and the issue of social exclusion, in partnership between local authorities and civil society, for example home-building and collective property co-operatives, by means of participatory democracy.
Respected Ministers,
On this basis we are ready and willing to hear your analysis and proposals and engage with you in a useful dialogue.
We trust in your willingness to open this dialogue and await your individual and collective reply, on the basis of which we will decide on the attitude we should take and the initiatives to undertake in individual countries and at a European level.

Cesare Ottolini
IAI Coordinator

Click here and here to read more.
Click here and here to know about the mobilizations for housing rights in Spain.
Click here to know about struggles for housing right in Europe
Click here to know why the World Zero Eviction Days
Click here to know about the Zero Evictions Campaigns
Click here to know about the Charter of Urban Rights