Friday, November 11, 2011

Lessons from Romania: a ticking housing timebomb

The former president of Romania shares lessons from the rebuilding of his country and argues for a 'European road map' for affordable and decent housing

Emil Constantinescu
Guardian Professional, Friday 11 November 2011

During the entire history of humankind, shelter has been a primary need for all. At its most basic, it is just a roof and four walls where we are safe and dry. But it is also one of the cornerstones upon which healthy, productive lives and societies can be built. As we rebuild democracy in south-east Europe, rebuilding our homes and communities both physically and socially must be the cornerstone of our efforts.

Despite the recent growth of GDP in Romania, an estimated 40% of the urban housing inherited from the communist times is of poor quality, prefabricated construction with ageing infrastructure and utilities. Rural housing conditions are often worse. Although many new houses were built in rural areas, 40% of our citizens still do not have their own bathroom.

We are facing serious overcrowding because of the lack of affordable housing for young people. Western Europe is also not immune from housing issues, and we see the next generation struggling in many places to access affordable accommodation. While the housing sector continues to feel the impact of the financial and economic crisis, Europeans face declining incomes, rising costs of living, energy price increases, and the loss of benefits and subsidies. In Romania, we face the additional challenges of a largely dilapidated housing stock, negative equity, frequent floods and other natural disasters, rising energy use and a lack of social change.

The process of our transition from a command to a market economy has largely shaped the housing situation in our country. Housing in the east was previously viewed as an entitlement for all, provided by the state. In a western market economy housing seems now to be largely treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. In Romania, too, houses have became goods. Mass privatisation in the early 1990s of state owned homes to the sitting tenants at extremely low prices, or for free, was a good decision. In a decade, the public sector ownership diminished to a mere 5% of the housing stock, effectively leaving no social sector in place.

New homeowners were not ready to take responsibility for their decaying apartment blocks, nor had the financial, legal or social means to achieve it. This contributed to a rapid deterioration of homes and proliferation of poor homeowners living in unacceptable conditions. Homelessness is on the rise because of evictions by private companies unwilling to tolerate utility arrears or evasion of property taxes.

Across Europe, the issue of housing has come to the political forefront. In the UK, experts are debating whether the state should promote home ownership or support social rent instead. What balance should be struck for an effective housing policy for all? What drives some cultures to aspire to homeownership while other nations, such as Austria, boast decent housing despite low rates of ownership.

I believe sustainable transformations occur only when we take collective responsibility. The values we rebuild are as important as the bricks or blocks we lay.

I believe it is high time the European decision-makers sat down together and worked out a road map for affordable and decent housing for all. Co-operation in eastern and central Europe on security and foreign policy spearheaded political changes and speeded up integration into the European Union and Nato. Why couldn't the same be true for housing?

I hope that together we can find appropriate solutions and success stories to build an inclusive and sustainable place to live. If we fail to address the issue, we will be faced with what is a ticking housing timebomb at the heart of Europe.

Emil Constantinescu is the former president of Romania and works with the charity Habitat for Humanity

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