Scales of housing

Illustration © Cinta Fosch

Moving from mere talk to management will be the necessary shift in scale to balance housing supply and demand as much as possible. In the spirit of efficiency that must govern all action by the public authorities, the goal must be mass production. And this will only be possible by shortening the timescales for urban land management and establishing a public-private partnership, with constant but unbiased control and supervision.

The initially approved Metropolitan Urban Development Master Plan (PDUM) presents and defines itself as a supply plan. It works on various hypotheses of population growth in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area and Metropolitan Region of Barcelona (AMB and RMB, respectively) by 2050 and 2060, and on other hypotheses associated with potential new housing needs, but basing the urban planning model on the limited capacity of the available supply of housing[1].

The ever advisable contextual references are even more evident on this occasion due to the hierarchical correlation between the Metropolitan Territorial Plan of Barcelona – with the region as the object of planning and the PDUM – and the area. The aforementioned hypotheses have been prepared – or at least are perceived as such – as a unit of study segregated spatially into two functional areas, so that the demand that cannot be met in the scope of the PDUM is understood to be met as a matter of course in the ambit of the region.

The question could be raised as to whether the model chosen is the most appropriate one, insofar as its scope will not be able to address what is considered to be one of our society’s core concerns. And whether, consequently, it should be reformulated or, at least, whether certain parameters and criteria should be redefined, so that the amount of unmet new housing within the AMB is reduced. But this is not the focus of our reflections; it only helps to point out the importance of scale in addressing this issue. Thus, a geographical scale that extends beyond municipal boundaries is widely agreed to be necessary to redress the imbalances between the demand for housing and the land available to produce it. Not in the area as a whole, nor between the constructed continuum as a whole and the rest, but between neighbouring municipalities, reducing the scale. And between the area and the region, if it is extended.

This issue related to the scale and critical mass necessary for certain operations was one of the reasons behind the creation of Habitatge Metròpolis Barcelona (HMB, SA)[2], which is presented as “the first mixed affordable rental housing company in Spain”, and which, on a territory-wide scale, added two related and pertinent factors: financial resources and the type of management.

Financing, the key issue

Over the years, local councils of a certain stature and some supra-municipal authorities have equipped themselves with specific tools for housing production, often reducing the concept of production to that of construction, in the absence of a strategy and, above all, of the shared management of actions related to land acquisition and management. Beyond these shortcomings – separating the management of urban planning from the management of housing is no trivial matter – when it comes to expanding the stock of subsidised housing, these state-owned companies – i.e. the authorities themselves – have to contend with the key issue of financing (even though we often forget that it is incumbent upon the autonomous regions to provide housing).

This matter, which is invariably of paramount importance, becomes even more critical when two circumstances simultaneously apply: firstly, the widely shared decision to increase the public housing stock basically through renting and, secondly, local authorities’ special borrowing constraints. The former implies larger amounts of long-term investment, which ultimately prove beyond the means of local authorities. This is why the HMB experience has also been put forward as an example of public-private partnership (PPP), in which the state provision of land substantially reduces or removes the need for financing, which is borne by the private sector, to be recovered in the medium and long term through rent.

But I would venture to point out that the most innovative aspect does not lie in the partnership itself, in its technique, which has been known for a long time, but in dismantling a polarisation tainted by biases that has often been somewhere between absolute mistrust and unconditional surrender. We find, on one side, a more fervent view of the simplistic reduction of the market, which advocates for the government’s substitution across all realms of economic importance by the powers that supposedly comprise and govern it. For these agents, the public-private partnership is very often understood as the handing over of economic resources to their sole and legitimate, if not owners, natural beneficiaries – emphasising the P of private – On the other side, PPP has been rejected by those who, in a mirrored manner, from the P of public, see the private sector as a predator that is best not to deal with.

P for partnership

Basically, both visions reject the complexity of a rapport that, contrary to what is often believed, does not end with granting the concession[3] in the case of the administrative mechanism, but only begins with this action, since the true PPP focuses on a P for partnership that implies a continuous relationship over time with clearly defined objectives. With different interests, admittedly, but nonetheless complementary, in which the government is responsible for controlling and supervising the entire process over time. And even more so when the object of the partnership is rented housing subject to a set of conditions governing access, maintenance and price that change over time, and determine the continuity and renewal of tenants with personal circumstances that, as they change, also play a relevant role.

These paragraphs are not a digression, but are intended to highlight other scales that must be added to the geographical scale: the financial scale and, inextricably linked to this, the management scale. And if we talk about financing and management in relation to the production of public housing, we are inevitably faced with what must prevail over all action by public authorities: efficiency.[4].

Because it is not just a matter of meeting the great demand for housing by increasing the supply in considerable quantities, without the limitations inherent in the direct investment capacity of the municipal administrations, but of doing so by making the most of the available resources. Given that these resources are basically in the form of land, it is a question of shortening the timescales of urban development management within a strategy that must include the new public housing stock as one of the priority targets and which, consequently, cannot be separated from the mechanisms for financing it. Thus, the partnership mechanisms – from the formats of land rights or administrative concessions to the constitution of joint ventures – must be present in the strategies concerned in order to achieve the objectives of mass housing production and, at least, to align supply and demand as closely as possible. Because that was the goal, wasn’t it? To provide solutions to the housing problem.

The aforementioned concept of efficiency necessarily brings us to another scale, that of production, which will have to move from a production designed for small-scale sales to one that will have to cater for thousands of units each year.

The importance of scales

The continuous references to scales, beyond what is directly described, are intended to illustrate the interplay between the different components of the problem that concerns us, in the limitations faced by the administrations as those responsible for providing a response and in the need to dismantle biases in order to overcome them. Also in the importance of considering quantity as a key value, inextricable from a time factor with which it constitutes the structure of a planning that must have had, in the land production and management strategy, its almost fundamental state, and in the financing strategy that of establishment prior to its implementation.

No reference has been made in this article to free housing, as the government has placed the emphasis on production, leaving aside the regulatory aspect linked to planning. In this respect, just a comment on the ever advisable evaluation, after a certain period of time, of the assessment of the measures taken. No reference has been made either to other aspects, such as the range of what are considered to be new forms of access to housing, given that, owing to the extent of the problem, they may be considered insignificant from a quantitative point of view. After all, in my opinion, given the magnitude of the problem, the most important shift in scale will be to move from talk to management.


[1]“...For this reason, and without compromising the goal of accommodating the maximum possible number of dwellings and new places for business activity, the PDUM has been designed as a supply plan: all development proposals will be aimed at maximising the meeting of existing demand, until this level in itself poses a difficulty for achieving the objectives of habitability and the sustainability of the plan itself. This approach also benefits municipalities in the rest of the metropolitan region, as it allows them to increase their relative importance.” PDUM. Document for initial approval. Document 0. Summary of the Report, March 2023, p. 21.

[2] The company is 50% owned by state shareholders (Barcelona Metropolitan Area - AMB - and Barcelona City Council) and 50% owned by a private partner (Cevasa y Neinor Homes, SA), whose objective is initially to build 4,500 subsidised rental housing units (2,250 in the municipality of Barcelona and 2,250 in the AMB’s other municipalities).

[3] In the case of HMB, the legal status of a capital company strengthens the link of the partnership concerned.

[4] Nothing could be further from my intention than to fall back on the cliché of the public sector’s lack of efficiency as the main obstacle to the Spanish economy’s competitiveness. And I say “cliché” because, at least the banking and real estate sectors – relevant to the subject of this article – were not, in the first decade of this century, examples of private sector efficiency.

The newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments