Wohnungsmarkt Berlin Reihenhaus Falkenberg
16 November 2020

“There is no doubt that the home has become more important.”

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The Covid-19 pandemic is changing many areas of life and the economy. In an interview, Professor Dr Peter Boelhouwer, Chairman of the European Network for Housing Research (ENHR) at Delft University in the Netherlands, talks about the possible impacts on the European housing market.

The European Federation for Living (EFL)’s conference on “The future of housing after Covid-19” took place at the end of October 2020. The European Federation for Living is a network of housing associations, companies and experts who aim to create affordable and sustainable living space. The more than 70 members and partners from 19 European countries, including Gewobag – also hosts of this year’s conference – represent an essential part of social housing in Europe with a portfolio of more than 1,300,000 apartments and business units. Professor Dr Peter Boelhouwer was one of the main speakers at the conference.

Professor Dr Peter Boelhouwer, what are the possible impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic when it comes to housing?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: There is no doubt that the home has become more important. Larger houses in a green, beautiful and sustainable environment, can be a prerequisite for a good family life and good work performance. The willingness of people to spend more of their income on housing will also increase. And the use of the home and even the way we live in our daily environment could change.

I would like to stress that there are not only positive effects. Domestic violence, especially during lockdowns, will also probably increase.  And health issues and conflicts in public space can be expected to increase. Many larger households, members of which have to work from home, are faced with a lack of space. In some cases, this leads to stress and even psychological problems. Poorer families in particular with less favourable housing conditions suffer from lack of space. This can even affect their children’s academic performance. Children from low-income families with less favourable housing conditions were also put at a disadvantage because of home schooling during the lockdowns. Education experts warn that it will be difficult to catch up with these learning deficits and that disadvantaged children will continue to be affected by this for years to come.

An example of social inner-city housing: by the end of 2022, Gewobag will have constructed a mixed-use property, the so-called “Schöneberger Linse”, between Südkreuz station and the Schöneberg suburban railway station. 211 flats, a nursery and more than 5,000 m² of commercial space are being built. © thoma architects

Is the desire for more space at home leading to a comeback for the province?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: Already before the start of the pandemic, there were individual signs that more people are leaving the bigger cities in some industrialised countries. Since the Covid pandemic, city populations are decreasing, notably households with young children. Research suggests that this emigration can be explained by a lack of affordable housing and/or a wish to switch from an urban to a suburban environment.

Also, more and more people are working from home and are noticing that it’s very convenient to have a separate work space and some outdoor space for relaxation. Many big employers have already stated that after the pandemic, working from home will be the standard. This makes it more attractive for households to leave the city and to move to accommodation further away from their workplace.

Another effect of the Covid pandemic, certainly in the short term, is that more people will be unemployed and will experience a drop in their income. This means a greater demand for social and affordable housing. The waiting lists for social housing have already become longer in many countries, and the situation will escalate in the near future.  

What are the proven effects of the Covid 19 pandemic on the housing market and on tenants, according to the current state of the housing market?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: In most countries, housing demand has not yet been influenced by the Covid pandemic. It’s remarkable the way housing markets have reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic in comparison to the 2008 financial crisis; there are almost no effects yet compared to the big recession. Some banks were warning about house prices declining when the coronavirus broke out, but demand has not decreased dramatically in most European countries.

“The most important lesson: decent housing is a crucial prerequisite for the well-being of families”

What can we learn about the link between housing and social justice in the crisis?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: The most important lesson: decent housing is a decisive prerequisite for the well-being of families. Good health, children’s academic performance, work performance and mental state are closely related to decent housing. Against this background, it’s politically irresponsible to make low-and-middle-income households too dependent on the market.

“However, a new challenge is providing housing for middle-income groups and key workers in cities.”

What are the future challenges for the social housing market?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: Social housing will present us with many challenges in the near future. There’s the traditional task of providing for low-income households and households with a specific demand like people with disabilities, households who require care and assistance, and big families. And a new challenge is providing housing for middle-income groups and key workers in cities. The market is less and less able to accommodate these households due to rising property prices and rents. The lack of affordable housing for middle-income groups combined with the new direction of welfare policies will increase the plea for a stronger role for housing associations to serve a broader spectrum of the population.

What about young people who have few financial resources?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: They constitute the second challenge connected to social housing. They have no or only have limited access to the social rented sector, the owner-occupied sector is less accessible because of high house prices and strict financial regulations of the mortgage market, and the private rented market is too expensive, especially in cities. The housing market leads to a separation of the rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, which makes it politically very difficult to change.

In der Wiclefstraße entsteht ein Zuhause für Auszubildende und Studenten.
University city Berlin: in the Moabit district’s Wiclefstraße , Gewobag is constructing two buildings with 91 flats for apprentices and students to be completed by autumn 2021. Illustration © Haas Architekten

Which concepts do you think are sensible and feasible for older people?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: How to organise decent and affordable housing for the elderly in the next few years will be a real brain-teaser. An important question is whether we want to allow older people to stay in their old homes for as long as possible, or whether we want to encourage them to move to smaller homes that are better adapted to their needs? On the one hand, older people will stay in their trusted environment and will benefit from their social networks to the maximum. On the other hand, they can remain independent for longer in a better adapted environment. Also, their more spacious current accommodation can be used by young families who have difficulties finding appropriate housing on the current strained market. Perhaps a mix of both strategies is most beneficial.

Your very personal vision of the housing market of the future?

Professor Dr Boelhouwer: I think that housing issues will increasingly dominate the political agenda in the near future. It has already become one of the most important social issues of our time. In this perspective, Covid-19 can function as a game changer for our European and national housing systems, in combination with a welfare system that is less dominated by neo-liberal assumptions, has more government responsibility and influence, and a more empowered social rented sector.

Prof. Dr Peter Boelhouwer/Delft University of Technology

Prof. Dr Peter Boelhouwer was elected as Chairman of the European Network for Housing Research in 2008. He is editor-in-chief of the “Journal of Housing and the Built Environment” and a member of the “European Journal of Housing Policy” and the “Journal of Critical Housing Analysis” advisory committee.

In 2001, the Delft University of Technology (TUD)’s Faculty of Architecture and the built Environment of TUD recommended Boelhouwer for appointment to the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Chair in Housing Systems. Since then he has been responsible for the housing policy component of the “Management of the Built Environment” master’s programme. 

Peter Boelhouwer studied human geography at the University of Utrecht and was awarded a PhD in 1988 for his research on the effects on the housing system of the sale of council houses. After his dissertation was published, Boelhouwer moved to the TUD’s research institute, where he spent most of his time studying housing finance, international housing systems and the methodology of measuring housing preferences.

Thank you for the interview!

Title photo “Mein Falkenberg” © City Press

Portrait photo © TUDelft / Job Jansweijer

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