Homing in on Housing Desegregation

Across Europe, segregated housing ostracises communities and entrenches inequalities. Ultimately, disadvantaged citizens suffer. How can we move forward to housing policies which prioritise desegregation while upholding human rights?

Juan Carlos Benito Sanchez

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Case Study 1: Madrid, Spain, January 2021

Amidst the worst snowstorm in a century, with temperatures below –10ºC, thousands of people living in Madrid’s Cañada Real settlement struggled to keep themselves warm in their homes, lacking access to electricity. Cañada Real is located just fourteen kilometres away from the iconic Puerta del Sol, and most of its residents are Roma and migrant working families who have no real possibility of accessing the increasingly exclusionary private housing market.

In October 2020, electricity provider Naturgy decided to cut the supply for over 4,000 people (1,800 of which were children), arguing that they had found several illegal connections to the network which were being used to grow indoor marijuana plantations. This was enacted despite human rights law prohibiting a disconnection from the grid during the winter. These families have sat for weeks with no heating, hot water or access to online schooling for children, suffering respiratory infections due to the CO2 emitted by the old timber heaters they have been forced to resort to.

Even though there is a regional agreement to regularise this settlement and to provide residents with roads, water and electricity while resettling a reduced number of families, this agreement has not been fulfilled by the relevant authorities. The Spanish Ombudsman recently observed that many of the persons affected own the land they live on and wish to conclude a contract with an electricity provider, but providers refuse to tend to them without any valid justification.

Case Study 2: Copenhagen, Denmark, November 2018

The Danish government adopts the controversial legislative ‘Ghetto Package’, allowing for special measures to apply to specific neighbourhoods declared as ghettos. These neighbourhoods are defined by reference to the predominant ‘non-Western’ origin or nationality of residents and the levels of unemployment, education, criminal convictions and income of residents.

Residents of ghetto areas are subject to stricter fines and penalties for certain criminal acts committed around those neighbourhoods, which could even lead to the eviction of entire families.

Children in these areas must attend state schools where the number of migrant children in the same class is limited and take special Danish language courses, or face the possibility of their family benefits being revoked.

This legislation also makes it illegal for housing associations to assign housing to “ghetto”-based applicants who receive public integration benefits, while requiring the share of the social housing stock there to be reduced below 40% (including through demolition when necessary). Tenants affected by these measures will be offered alternative accommodation, but they will reportedly have no control over its location, quality or cost.

These two examples reveal the acute problems which can arise from desegregation policies. Such policies have a negative impact on the realisation of the right to adequate housing and to the highest attainable standard of health of residents, as well as their right to equality and non-discrimination, notably based on ethnic origin, migrant status and socio-economic disadvantage.

On the one hand, the Cañada Real situation evidences the dire impact of the state’s passivity when faced with a situation of factual segregation, where it violates residents’ human rights by not taking action to ensure basic provision and universal access to utilities, services and infrastructure. On the other hand, the Danish ‘Ghetto Package’ represents an excessive, far-fetched intervention which disproportionately restricts the human rights of residents and which furthers their social stigmatisation, thereby engendering discrimination.

If the goal is to design desegregation policies that are human rights compliant, these approaches are simply not fit for purpose.

What is segregation? 

Segregation is generally defined as ‘the concentration of ethnic, national-origin, or socio-economic groups in particular neighbourhoods of a city or metropolitan area’. Such a concentration becomes problematic when it is associated with overlapping inequalities persisting across generations.

A wide array of elements may contribute to residential segregation,  for example economic factors, housing discrimination and individual residential choices (especially of the majority population). 

Some urban sociologists have described the consequences of segregation through the concept of ‘neighbourhood effects’, pointing to the idea that living in a segregated neighbourhood limits residents’ chances of escaping poverty due to poor social networks, limited resources and constrained job opportunities.

Other authors have highlighted the underlying structural reasons which force people to settle in certain areas, including existing neighbourhood stigmatisation and discrimination that is extremely difficult to escape. Societal structures place a negative marker on residents of segregated areas which accompanies them in their social interactions with outsiders, fostering bias and discrimination.

Segregation is therefore wrong, but it’s also illegal. A series of international and European human rights measures have been interpreted along these lines: notably, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Revised European Social Charter. The bodies responsible for monitoring compliance with these measures have repeatedly recommended that states adopt effective measures to prevent factual segregation and assess the effectiveness of their strategies for preventing segregation along ethnic and socio-economic lines.

In 2016, the European Committee of Social Rights examined in 2016 a collective complaint claiming that the lack of a systematic social housing policy in Czechia had resulted in the unavailability of affordable housing for the most socially disadvantaged, in particular Roma, and to the residential segregation of many families in isolated locations at the edges of towns and cities. The Committee found little evidence of state action and of measurable progress in this regard, declaring a violation of the right to adequate housing and the right to non-discrimination. Consequently, in situations of factual segregation such as that in the Cañada Real in Madrid, states have a legal obligation to intervene to put an end to these persistent human rights violations.

How should a state desegregate? 

Public authorities may influence the spatial distribution of various ethnic or socio-economic groups through a variety of policy choices: whether they guarantee affordable housing and in which areas, whether they promote the improvement of existing housing stock, how they regulate the construction of new buildings through zoning ordinances, whether they effectively combat discrimination by private landlords, etc.

This means that the state has a whole set of policy tools at its disposal to counter housing segregation and the social exclusion it causes. Crucially, states should desegregate in a way that is respectful of human rights, particularly the right to housing and the right to equality and non-discrimination.

Desegregation policies often lack a thorough examination of the causes and effects of segregation in specific neighbourhoods, the potential harmful impact of desegregating measures on individuals and families, and the need to establish adequate safeguards. They also tend to disregard the impact of gentrification and the right of residents to ‘stay put’. This refers to their right not to be displaced from areas where they have established strong and long-lasting bonds due to the location of their employment, schools, local networks and quality public services.

Moreover, desegregation policies do not always achieve the aims that they set to accomplish. In some cases they have actually exacerbated inequality and discrimination.

For instance, one of the most frequently stated aims of desegregation policies is that of a ‘social mix’, which aims to ensure balanced urban development. However, this aim is often pursued through measures attempting to limit the number of lower income residents, and of those belonging to minority groups, in favour of higher income families. 

This aim therefore raises concerns about the disproportionate impact that such social mixing policies may have on ethnic and cultural minorities and on lower income groups, such as those affected by the Danish ‘Ghetto Package’, which may see core elements of their right to housing unduly restricted.

Five policy proposals for desegregation 

In light of these considerations, I advance five proposals to elaborate and implement desegregation policies which are human rights compliant:

1. Make public or social rental housing available across every neighbourhood instead of concentrating it in specific areas. Social housing units should vary in terms of design and configuration, following the principles of sustainability, quality, accessibility and inclusion embodied by the recently presented New European Bauhaus initiative.

Public and social rental housing should be allocated based on need, ideally in the form of variable and capped rentals commensurate with levels of income (for instance, by setting rent at 30% of a household’s net disposable income). Publicly owned housing must be linked to the fulfilment of public interests for as long as possible or in perpetuity, prohibiting that it be sold and revert to the private market.

2. Recognise access to public and social housing as an enforceable right when beneficiaries meet certain conditions, for instance by reference to income thresholds or other disadvantage indicators. States must guarantee the availability of sufficient dwellings for all beneficiaries in order to secure this right. These mechanisms must be set up in a way that does not result in discrimination against disadvantaged groups, for example by not outright excluding those who do not have a legal right of residence.

3. Provide subsidies to promote the construction and renovation of affordable housing through low-interest loans and non-repayable contributions. Nonetheless, states ought to couple those subsidies with strong requirements that subsidised dwellings remain affordable for a significant period of time. Specific subsidies to improve the adequacy and energy efficiency of dwellings should be directed to low-income and disadvantaged households.

4. Adopt inclusionary zoning measures, requiring developers who build new housing to include a certain number of affordable housing units within their developments. These areas can be defined by reference to the neighbourhood or the municipality level, and such restrictions can apply once a certain level of mismatch between the housing supply and demand is attained in that particular area. These measures must be carefully designed, bearing in mind anti-discrimination principles, to ensure effectiveness and avoid territorial stigmatisation. For instance, affordability should be defined according to local housing markets, and it should not result in too high a burden for the poorest segments of the population. Mixed developments must remain effectively mixed between those living in affordable housing units and those living in market-priced units, avoiding discriminatory practices.

5. Force landlords who keep their dwellings deliberately empty to put them on the market. This can be accomplished by implementing administrative sanctions on homeowners who leave their properties vacant for prolonged periods of time without a valid reason. Alternatively, measures can be enacted to force sales to public authorities, who will then rent out those units as affordable housing. These measures rely on the social function of housing.

Europe can do better!

Desegregation policies should be geared towards the realisation of the right to housing, the right to equality and non-discrimination for everyone.

The participation of disadvantaged groups in this context must be realised not only through consultation and contribution, but also by ensuring their involvement at all stages of policy and decision-making, from the design to the implementation and monitoring of housing policies. This should be accompanied by appropriate channels of participation that are accessible and consistent with their situation and needs. At the same time, there must be room to adapt and adjust those policies and measures to the local economic, political and social context.

Between inaction and disproportion there lies ample room to design human rights compliant desegregation policies that do not leave people in freezing cold temperatures during the winter, nor exacerbate the criminalisation and stigmatisation of residents by labelling their neighbourhoods ghettos. Recent legislative developments at the EU level have shown an increased awareness and concern for housing segregation and discrimination issues, but it is now time for states to live up to their human rights obligations.

Juan Carlos Benito Sanchez

Leaving a crisis-ridden Spain in my early twenties to pursue my doctoral education in Belgium, I have always been intrigued by how human rights are (accidentally?) protected across Europe, especially for the most disadvantaged groups in society. My work lies at the crossroads between the realisation of social rights, on the one hand, and equality and non-discrimination, on the other hand, including from a socio-economic and an intersectional perspective. Since nothing is more accidental than the characteristics and traits we are born with and the fundamental values and beliefs we choose to stand by, I fight for a Europe where these ‘accidents’ become immaterial for a life lived in dignity as equals in society.