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The right to housing knocks on Europe’s door

Bernard Birsinger, the former communist mayor of Bobigny dreamt about it. His friends have done it. On the 5 and 6 November 2007, more than 130 representatives from organisations committed to defending people living in bad housing conditions or homeless, the ONG, inhabitant and tenant associations as well as local councillors, European Members of Parliament and of course CECODHAS, which coordinates managers of social housing at a European level, all found themselves in Brussels at the heart of the European Parliament for the first European States general for the Right to Housing. This event, coordinated by the International Alliance of Inhabitants (IAI), the National Association of Communist and Republican Elected Representatives (ANECR), Plataforma por una Vivienda Digna (Spain) and the European Network of Progressive Local Councillors (REALPE), is the next logical step following the States general for the right to housing initiated in France. The roots can however be traced back as far as the European Charter for Fundamental Rights and the Fight against Social Exclusion, which was born out of the first informal meetings of European housing ministers at the beginning of the 90’s,, That common thread revived at a seminar organised during the Athens ESF in 2006.

The numerous testimonies given over these two days have been able to raise awareness about the disturbing state of bad housing and homelessness in around a dozen countries from the old Continent. If situations differ enormously according to the countries, all participants have strongly denounced State abandonment of the housing sector. Eva-Britt Stevenson, a Swedish European Member of Parliament (GUE/NGL), explained in the same way, how the pressure of the European Union and the political decisions by the centre-right majority, her country – which up until now considered housing as a right for everybody whatever the household income – was currently steering towards a “rampant privatisation”, by reducing housing grants and getting ready to put 860,000 public households up for sale. In Russia, the ultraliberal reforms by Vladimir Putin are undermining access to housing. According to Carine Clément, forced to send a written message because the Russian authorities have prevented her from leaving Moscow, the consequence of these reforms has been to throw thousands of families onto the streets, to the benefit of corrupt property developers, under the blessing of corrupt public powers. The case of travellers, stigmatized and discriminated against everywhere, has been repeatedly touched upon by the participants. According to Miroslav Prokes, Prague’s municipal coucillor (Czech Republic), they make up 90 % of the people living in the some 300 shanty towns in the country. In Italy, it is the new decree concerning Romanians which has reinforced the policy of destruction of shanty towns without any re-housing, as well as non approval towards protecting tenants liable to be evicted. Both of which are denounced by Cesare Ottolini, leader of the International Alliance of Inhabitants, and Paolo Gangemi from Rifondazione comunista.

“It is necessary for the European Union to take the question of the right to housing seriously" says Heinrich Niemann, committed to LHASA, the Association for Urban Reconstruction in Berlin. Moreover, the deputy mayor of Paris, Pierre Mansat warns, “today it is the financial markets that decide how to make a town. Thanks to their striking force, investment funds have the ability of destabilising public policies.” This was the case in Berlin where, “in ten years, investment funds were able to buy 1.8 million public households", states Barbara Litke, representative of the International Union of Tenants, in Brussels.

Wouldn't EGEDAL have only been an acknowledgement of powerlessness? “No - responds Cesare Ottolini - These States generals are a justified stage towards the constitution of a European movement of resistance and alternative.” In effect, dozens of participants, from Jean-Pierre Giacomo from CNL France to Paul Trigalet from Solidarités Nouvelles (Belgium), from Joseph Jones from the Thames Valley Gypsy Association (United Kingdom) to Daniele Porretta from Plataforma por una Vivienda Digna (Spain), from Knut Unger, from Witten Tenants Union (Germany) to Annie Pourre from No-Vox, have not only all presented a great richness of analyses but also proposals and fights.

In the final declaration, the participants committed themselves to organizing States generals in their own countries and to call for ”the development of a genuine public housing and city service” and even recognize and demand housing rights at a national and European level.

Following on from this shall be European General States during the European Social Forum (Malmöö, 18-27 September 2008) and the European meeting of housing ministers, next October 2008 in France.