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Thursday, March 13, 2014

The shame of Europe’s empty houses

A new report has revealed that there are currently estimated to be 11 million empty homes across Europe – enough to house the entire homeless population of the continent almost three times over. There are 3.4m vacant properties in Spain, over 2m each in France and Italy, 1.8m in Germany, and 700,000 in the UK. Add in the smaller numbers in Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and other countries, and you end up with the enormous figure. That’s in comparison to an estimated homeless population of 4.1m people – over four million people who routinely live on the streets or in very temporary and precarious rooming houses and shelters.
Of course, there isn’t a perfect fit between empty homes and homeless people. Many of the empty houses have never had anyone living in them because they were built as holiday estates or in distant rural exurbs just before the financial crisis brought the market crashing down. Consequently, they’ve sat empty ever since, crumbling and in many cases not even properly connected to the local water and electricity supplies. And, of course, the homeless people are spread throughout dozens of European countries, while the properties themselves are concentrated primarily in five of the largest and richest states. However, many of these buildings have been purchased as investments by absentee landlords, who find it more convenient to keep the properties empty (to avoid dealing with repairs, tenant law, gathering rent payments, and so on) while waiting for prices to rise again, at which point they will sell the house on to make a profit.
This is clear and open profiteering, and the juxtaposition between empty homes and people living on the streets provides a poignant commentary on our priorities as a society. Rather than address the problem by finding ways to fill those empty homes with people, governments are actually making it more difficult. In the UK, for example, the current government has passed an anti-squatting law, supposedly aimed at stopping ‘anarchists’ and Eastern European immigrants from occupying people’s houses while they’re on a two-week holiday. Such a situation has never actually happened, of course, but the law also stops homeless people from squatting buildings that have been left empty for months or years by their landlords – previously it was perfectly possible to live in such a property for at least a few weeks before being removed by court order; it’s now a criminal offence, and the police can remove someone immediately.
It’s through laws like this that we see clearly how the ideology of ‘private property’ is used to ensure that the poor remain poor and the rich remain rich. Owning land and a house is something that only prosperous people can afford; owning several houses and leaving most of them empty while you wait for the market to pick up is something that only the rich can manage. Yet any attempt to change this is met with cries of ‘private property!’. The poor and the middle class then think to themselves ‘that’s right, I wouldn’t want anyone coming and taking my property’. What they forget is that there is a huge difference between someone who owns a small house, a car, and a television, and the absentee landlords who own several of each.
It’s time for governments to start treating houses as an essential resource that everyone has a human right to access – in the same way as water or food. Governments should be developing policies that encourage landlords to rent empty houses out at a reasonable price (something which could easily be managed by a nuanced and sensitively applied property tax code and a set of rent controls). At that point, with empty houses being used to help people get back on their feet and make a living, we would finally have a government that is acting in the best interests of everybody, rather than just the best interests of capitalism.

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