The Barcelona model in the European context

Illustration © Cinta Fosch

Cities are emerging as key players in the European challenge of building a human-focussed model for housing. Against this backdrop, Barcelona is becoming a reference point and a laboratory for a rights-based strategy, departing from the historical path in diversifying housing models and increasing social rental housing generated via construction, renovation and purchase.

Housing Europe’s goal is the achievement of decent housing for all at EU and international level. Our focus is improving the legislative framework at EU level so that it fosters the achievement of this goal and supports national policies that work in the same direction. Much of our focus is at European and national levels. However, increasingly we see that cities are at the forefront of the housing challenge and are key players feeding into a human- focussed model for housing, fitting in a beyond growth narrative. A number of cities have invested in mobilisation at EU level to access finance, to improve regulation that impacts their ambitions on housing and to access knowledge and information on how other countries and cities are handling the housing challenge. Barcelona is one of those cities along with Paris, Amsterdam, Lyon, Bologna and other cities that are making a mark and leading the way on a new housing path.

While many cities in Europe struggle with the housing challenge, Barcelona has shown particular dynamism and openness to new ideas over the last eight years and has become a reference point for progressive housing policy. It embodies the current ‘zeitgeist’, characterised by a recognition of the need to re-set our housing policies after decades of liberalisation and reliance on market forces. The growing interest was illustrated by the fact that the 4th International Social Housing Festival hosted by Barcelona last June drew 2,100 people from 82 countries.

Housing policy in European Cities

In housing, what is needed is a change of perspective. We do not need to ask ‘Where can we house these people who cannot afford market prices?’ but rather ‘Where do people want to live, how do they want to live and how can we shape housing systems to accommodate them and to ensure better functioning societies?’ Over the last eight years, Barcelona has endeavoured to adopt this perspective and has become a laboratory for a whole government, rights-based approach to housing. The policies could be grouped into better regulation, better finance and better knowledge. There is a lack of accurate comparative data at city level. However, what is clear is that the policies are delivering results in Barcelona in the form of an increase in social rental housing generated via construction, renovation and purchase.

To improve knowledge, Barcelona developed its housing observatory, involved people directly in decision-making and drew on successful policies from all over Europe and beyond. Financing was increased to build more public, social and rental housing but also to draw in private capital to support the development of limited profit rental housing affordable in perpetuity and purchase homes from the private market. Barcelona also worked to shape the system by regulating short-term rental, private rents and the sale of housing.

Comparison of Barcelona: Low proportion of existing public and social stock

We have a growing body of data that argues for a critical mass of regulated housing, whether public, limited profit, cooperative or community-led, with a view to maximising its dampening effect on private market prices. It is a self-evident market-shaping approach but it differs from market-fixing, providing housing for the most vulnerable and assuming that the market will meet the broad needs of the population. From this perspective, Barcelona with only 2% public rental housing is up against a challenging starting point compared to rates of over 10% in many major European cities, with Paris standing at 30% and aiming to reach 45%, Zurich and Copenhagen at 30% and, of course, the reference point of Vienna with over 50%. Barcelona also lacks space for expansion and must therefore focus on increasing the housing density and optimising the use of existing buildings.

This low proportion of social or public housing in Barcelona, due partly to the fact that public intervention in the housing market in Barcelona and Spain has mainly been aimed at increasing access to ownership, is a characteristic shared with many countries in the Mediterranean region of Europe where cities also face a dwindling supply on the long-term private market due to short-term letting.

Departure from the historical path

Housing, by its nature, often has a fixed historical path, meaning that, once a country has a certain model of delivering housing, it rarely changes path. Barcelona has become an exception as it has departed from its historical path by introducing a model of right-of-use cooperatives typical in Germany and Switzerland i.e. rental cooperative housing, adding to the typical home-ownership cooperative alongside the public provision of rental social housing and housing for ownership. In addition, inspired by housing associations in other European countries, Barcelona has introduced a new legal structure, which enables public private partnership to boost the supply of social rental housing. The city has also worked to ensure a proportion of every new project be social housing based on a quota model already in place in France, the UK and Ireland. This departure from the historical path is now happening in other cities, with increased interest in diversifying cooperative housing models and replicating the CLT (Community Land Trust) model.

Inclusion of communities and local voices in housing planning

Barcelona established a Council for Social Housing to provide a space for resident participation in matters relating to housing, serving to generate opinions, propose ideas and promote the results of its analyses. This ensured a constant relay of information, particularly in innovative policy moves. This is a move quite specific to Barcelona and that I hope helps to ensure continuity of supply beyond political cycles.

A reference for the international policy community

The International Social Housing Festival (ISHF) was a culmination of eight years of concentrated effort. More than 2,100 people came from 82 countries to Barcelona to debate how established and recent housing systems are facing similar challenges. Over 200 organisations – many of which were Housing Europe members and partners – were deeply involved in the management of 30 side events, as well as 25 visits to exemplary public and cooperative housing, running 20 stands and six exhibitions, all of which were spread across the Catalan capital in eight different venues. The ISHF 2023 local hosts, Barcelona City Council, put together a fantastic edition and we expect the next in Dublin in 2025 to follow in the tradition.

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