The European Union has not had its troubles to seek in the years following the financial meltdown of 2008. Continuing concerns about the euro, the refugee crisis and Brexit are challenging Europe’s leaders as never before, leading to speculation about the very existence of the EU. But at the end of March, new research highlighted an additional challenge that threatens Europe’s social fabric.
The authors of the report described the current situation concerning housing exclusion and homelessness as “a state of emergency” affecting all European countries. Startling figures uncovered by the research show a continent-wide crisis in the making:
- In France, the number of homeless people increased by 50% between 2001 and 2012
- In Germany, 16% of people spend more than 40% of their income on housing
- In Romania, one in every two people live in overcrowded conditions
- In the league table of homelessness, the UK now ranks 20th out of 28
- The number of families in temporary accommodation in London has increased by 50% since 2010
- In Copenhagen, youth homelessness has increased by 75% since 2009
- In Warsaw, the number of people sleeping rough or in emergency shelters has risen by 37% since 2013
- One in 70 people in Athens are now homeless
The report finds that young people across Europe are being hit especially hard by housing exclusion.
“In all EU countries, young people are more vulnerable to prohibitive housing costs, overcrowding and severe housing deprivation than the rest of the population. For poor young people across Europe, the situation is becoming unbearable, with 65% in Germany, 78% in Denmark and 58% in the UK spending more than 40% of their disposable income on housing. The average in the EU is 48%.”
The report also found that Europe’s poor are being side-lined at a time when housing expenditure has increased while incomes have fallen.
“In general, people living below the poverty threshold are increasingly marginalised by a private rental market that feeds off a systemic lack of affordable housing.”
Non-EU citizens are another vulnerable group experiencing housing difficulties:
“Two-thirds of non-EU citizens are overburdened by housing costs in Greece, almost half in Spain and Belgium, more than one third in Ireland and Portugal, and more than one quarter in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Slovenia.”
While homelessness and the rising cost of housing are proving to be growing problems across the EU, poor housing is are also a Europe-wide issue. Across all European countries, a poor household is two to twelve times more likely to live in severe housing deprivation (leaking roof, dampness, poor sanitation) than other households, and in the European Union as a whole, one person in six lives in overcrowded housing.
Fuel poverty is another significant problem, affecting almost a quarter of poor households across the continent. In the UK, 9.4% of the population and 20.2% of poor households experience financial difficulty in maintaining adequate household temperatures.
Eviction: “a collective abandonment of other people”
An entire chapter of the report is dedicated to eviction, which the authors describe as “…one of the worst forms of violence that can afflict someone.”
The figures from national governments and Eurostat highlight significant variations in the pattern of evictions in each EU country, with surges in the number of evictions in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia and the Netherlands, while six countries – the Czech Republic, Denmark, Croatia, Lithuania, Portugal and Sweden saw substantial reductions in the number of evictions.
The figures also show varying trends within the UK and differences between the private and public sectors. In England and Wales, rental disputes rose in the social housing sector, but fell in private housing; in Northern Ireland, property foreclosures rose slightly, while tenant evictions rose dramatically by 75%; in Scotland, eviction procedures of all kinds fell by 17%.
Addressing the issue
The report argues that the tools for dealing with the challenges of housing exclusion in Europe already exist, including Europe-wide networks of local, regional and national governments, and EU initiatives, such as the Urban Agenda and the European Pillar of Social Rights. The authors note that there are many examples of good housing practice, notably in Finland, whose “housing first” strategy has achieved a reduction in homelessness – the only EU country to do so.
However, the authors contend that Europe’s leaders need to rapidly activate the political will to tackle the problem of housing exclusion:
“The EU and Member States should place the elimination of homelessness in the core of their social policy agendas. Responses to homelessness should be mainstreamed into the design and implementation of relevant sectoral policies including youth, gender, migration, and Roma inclusion. The EU and the Member States can and should act to enforce social rights.”
The report’s figures make sobering reading: more than 36 million households living in overcrowded conditions; almost 11 million households facing severe deprivation; more than 22 million households experiencing fuel poverty. Perhaps most worrying is the number of homeless people in Europe. This is an unknowable figure, but all the indications are that it is rising dramatically.
Published a week before the UK signalled its intention to leave the EU, the report received comparatively little media coverage. But if the problem of housing exclusion and homelessness continues to grow, it threatens to overwhelm political leaders at EU, national and local levels. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that homelessness could rival Brexit in its impact on the future of Europe.
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