Interview with Housing Europe Secretary General, Sorcha Edwards

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background

My academic background goes from business and languages at Dublin City University and the University of Ulster to European studies in Leuven University in Belgium, to sustainability in the built environment at East London University. This mix has prepared me well for the daily diversity that comes with working for the housing sector.
In my professional life, I am driven by the importance of constantly working to feed best practice examples and evidence into policy making. This is more important now than ever as we see a rejection of experts and of facts in mainstream politics in many countries. I believe that societies can support and include all, however we need to continuously put the right information and evidence in the public arena. In the housing sector, this means continuously communicating on the positive impact and potential of the work of the non-for-profit sector.

A real upward convergence in Europe is possible, we can work against the pressures to de-regulate key sectors like health, housing and education and learn from excellent examples, which Europe is full of.

While my roots are still firmly in Dublin, I have lived and studied in Belgium for almost two decades, having originally arrived on a scheme run by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation to run training courses for Irish students, public representatives and civil servants at the Irish institute in Leuven. I am grateful for the chances and opportunities I have had and the luck of working for a dynamic sector which is true to my values.

What prompted your interest in social housing?

Each individual believes that their housing experience or the housing issues in their regions or countries are normal or typical however there is a huge diversity of how countries manage their housing across Europe and globally. This prompted my interest in the sector as it brings massive potential for mutual learning and exchange. What has made me stay in the sector is the spirit of individuals I have met through my work. They are professionals who love their jobs, and are not only committed to fair societies in their own neighbourhoods and countries. Their concern stretches across regions and borders, which drives them to engage at pan EU level.

What Does Housing Europe do?

Housing Europe is the representative body of public, cooperative and social housing providers in Brussels. I would narrow down our day-to-day work in the capital of the EU the European Federation in three main axes:

We defend the interests of our members towards the EU institutions, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. This includes constant monitoring of any developments in policy that may affect directly or indirectly our sector and informed Advocacy work.

We facilitate exchange among our members but also between our members and other important stakeholders, such as the academic community, policymakers, architects, tenants and other civil society organisations. We encourage our members to be involved in EU initiatives that help them develop their skillset and their overall capacity. We are partners in EU research projects that allow us to be at the forefront of social and technological innovation, while we organize or participate in dozens of events every year that offer opportunities for debate and networking with diverse experts and decision makers from the wider housing sector.

We do research work through our Observatory that identifies research needs and analyses key trends in the field of housing and social housing at European level, and thus supports our policy work by providing strategic and evidence-based analysis.

Besides from regularly publishing its own reports, including the biannual flagship report around housing in Europe, ‘The State of Housing in the EU’ and research briefings, the Observatory participates into a number of EU-funded research projects and liaises with European and international agencies and networks such as OECD, UNECE, ENHR.

Our members have a vision of a Europe which provides access to decent and affordable housing for all in communities which are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and where everyone is enabled to reach their full potential.
Therefore, they do not just provide affordable homes but a number of other services such as domiciliary care and support services for residents with specific needs, additional services for tenants, including kindergartens, community centres, employment and training services, financial advice, while they invest in the overall urban development and regeneration.

What is the biggest challenge facing social housing in Europe?

Although it’s not really easy to pick just one, to be honest, I would definitely highlight the need for investment to adapt to the new housing reality. We’ve seen governments stepping away from social housing. EU funding is channelled more and more towards public, cooperative and social housing but this is not enough. We have been pushing for more flexibility under the stability and growth pact which is limiting social investment locally.

Why is social housing important?

Housing is the foundation, where everything starts for anyone’s life. Access to decent and affordable housing is the foundation for the equal participation in independent living and in society overall. Although this is acknowledged as basic human right, according to the UN and as a priority in the European Pillar of Social Rights, sadly it does not reflect the reality for many people in Europe and beyond where housing is become more of a privilege than a right. Housing has been increasingly being treated as a commodity and this financialization of a basic human right result in social exclusion and widens the economic inequalities.

Social housing is on the one hand the safety net our societies should provide to those in need but also the necessary element that balances the market at local and national level. I think it’s quite obvious, especially after the Global Financial Crisis, that any country without a well-functioning social housing scheme has been confronted with much deeper social issues. Furthermore, it is no surprise that more and more countries decide to establish or revamp their housing systems, a fact that pushed us to put together a Working Group in support of countries with housing systems in transition.

Which country in Europe does social housing best?

Well, it depends on how one measures that. Housing Europe does not attempt to prescribe a specific approach to housing, in fact much of our energy in Brussels is channelled to preventing that.

In terms of quantity or to be precise in terms of share of the overall housing stock the Netherlands have always been leading. It is still impressive that one out of three homes in the country is provided by one of the so called woningcorporaties, the Dutch housing companies.

On the other hand, the Vienna model is definitely one that every researcher, policymaker or practitioner stumbles upon when looking for inspiration. Municipal housing in the Austrian capital is really a category by itself and has managed to absorb rather smoothly the turbulence of the recent economic and migration crises.

At the same time, personally I am always impressed by the fresh ideas and the constant push for innovation from countries like Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and Finland, while we should never forget the long tradition and the deep roots of the social housing sector in France, the UK and Germany.

So, there is no simple answer to this question and actually I must say I am quite happy about this. Public, cooperative and social housing providers are at the core of welfare in many EU member states and have been among the key factors driving social progress and prosperity.

Do you think there is a space for increased provision of co-operative housing in Europe? If so, why?

It’s not just my opinion but it’s the reality we see unfolding in many EU member states at the moment. Many forms of collaborative housing with co-operative housing being a cornerstone are regaining popularity and are seen by more and more people as the solution to their housing needs.

I think we can observe a trend of going back to forms of collective living and there are many reasons for this, including demographic change, lack of land especially in the urban centre, increasing costs of living space etc. In this new context, I am convinced that co-operative housing is gaining a new dynamic and can contribute significantly to open and equal communities for all. On the 30th anniversary of Housing Europe we have signed a joint declaration together with Cooperative Housing International to support this dynamic.

Describe Housing Europe’s members in three words!

Pragmatic, Committed, Doers.

What makes you optimistic about the future of social housing?

Numbers facing housing exclusion and homelessness are growing. The banking and finance sectors were at the centre of the global housing crisis in 2008. It is clear that we cannot look to either the financial sector nor the market alone to address the current gap between supply and demand of affordable housing. Regulation and public intervention must direct housing systems so that they receive adequate funding and function in the interest of society. Currently in many cases, regulations are not fit for purpose which becomes especially apparent in the growth of real estate investors expanding their short-term rental portfolios for tourists to the detriment of long-term homes by taking advantage of the loopholes in rental legislation and facilitated by short-term letting on-line platforms. Land which represents a significant cost of housing delivery is not been sufficiently prioritised for social and affordable housing. Minimum quotas for social housing within new private developments are in many cases avoided also through legal loopholes.

Housing Europe is optimistic and pro-active. There is a recognition of the need for action is growing among cities, governments, in some cases under pressure from citizens as they take to the streets. Housing Europe as partners in the Urban agenda Housing Partnership has prepared a toolkit of examples, show-casing ways to address housing challenges. We continuously work to increase the finance forthcoming from EU funds and financial institutions for social, public and cooperative housing. We have also established an ad-hoc group for Housing Systems in Transition which support countries in making policy decisions on their housing systems and accessing EU finance for housing.

At European level the European Commission along with a grouping of public banks and expert organisations including Housing Europe have called for new wave of investment in social infrastructure (education, housing and health). They identify an annual investment gap of €57 billion in adequate energy efficient housing. As a follow-up, there is now a new proposal on the table under the so-call EUinvest programme to provide a public guarantee of €38 billion for sustainable infrastructure, smes, social investment and skills. There is a new recognition of the importance of integrated housing and services to cater for different needs of communities and individuals which the social window of the EUinvest programme, which proposes a guarantee of 5 billion, may help our sector to expand. At global level, the New Urban Agenda has recognised the need to put ‘Housing at the Centre’. Under Goal 11 under the internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals our governments have committed By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums. City networks at European level show an increasing interest in exchanging on housing after years where the trends showed the opposite.

These developments are positive and can help local and national actors to argue for stronger regulation to favour of access to land, co-finance for non-speculative housing providers.

Recently, a local social housing manager from Charleroi in Wallonia attending a Housing Europe event for the first time, told me that listening to colleagues from around Europe and beyond helped him see a future for social housing in his own district. It gave him hope. At Housing Europe, we get regular feedback on housing policies and projects from more than 20 countries, we witness the problems however we also regularly hear about radically positive policy changes. Through our responsible Housing awards, we gather inspiring projects coming from local level from throughout Europe.

The really tough last decade made most people realize the broad added value of public, cooperative and social housing. Now, it’s clear that measures making space for affordable housing are being taken by many countries, so the future is really demanding, yet bright. The fact that our members never stop evolving, adapting the way they operate to the constantly changing needs of their residents makes feel confident that we will be able to the multiple challenges ahead us. The Housing sector is increasingly also seen as the source of solution for other societal issues. Housing Europe receives support from EU level for promoting the energy efficiency and circular economy in housing (HOUSEFUL) promoting the inclusive digital innovation in the fair energy transition through the (HEART and Triple AAA project).

But must crucially, we see a recognition from European level of ‘the critical importance of social housing and its contribution to growth and social cohesion’. This recognition and the finance that can come with it can be used as an important lever for change.