Social rental housing faces a difficult dilemma in Flanders. Expectations to solve the housing problems of people in poverty are high, but with a social housing supply of 160,000 homes (barely 6% of the housing stock) and a high poverty rate, there is a big gap between dream and reality.
There is also a lack of general support for social housing. When it comes to ‘poverty’ in one’s own backyard, there is resistance among citizens. This is so much the case that, in 2009, the Flemish government obliged the municipalities to create a minimum number of additional social rental dwellings on their territory. At the Flemish level, the goal was set at 45,000 additional social rental dwellings by 2020.
When it comes to ‘poverty’ in one’s own backyard, there is resistance among citizens.
How does Flemish social housing work?
The vast majority of the dwellings are owned by social housing associations (SHAs). These organisations can borrow from the government at advantageous interest rates to build dwellings and also receive benefits such as tax discounts. In turn, they rent the homes at prices commensurate with the tenant’s income, which on average, is approximately half the price on the private rental market.
Another 10,000 social dwellings are rented out by social rental agencies (SRAs). These do not build dwellings themselves, but rent homes from private owners to rent them out to vulnerable groups. The rental price is approximately 15% below the market and two thirds of tenants benefit from a Flemish rental subsidy.
A development of 150 new social dwellings near the city of Leuven
Access to social housing is strictly regulated by Flemish legislation. For example, there is a maximum income limit below which half of the private tenants fall. In principle, SHA housing is allocated according to the order of registration, but some groups of tenants can be prioritised.
SRAs use a points system that allocates points according to need. As a result, their tenants generally have a lower income and are more vulnerable than the tenants of SHAs. SRAs also offer their tenants more help and guidance than the SHAs and are subsidised by the Flemish government for offering this service.
Of all social tenants, more than 80% rank among the 40% with the lowest incomes. This strong focus on low incomes is seen as a risk to public and political support for social housing. To increase this support, regulation has made it possible for SHAs and SRAs to give priority to residents of the municipality in which the housing is located. Income limits were also increased. As a result, 50,000 more families became eligible for social housing.
Quality and affordability
In general, the quality of social housing in Flanders is reasonable. When SHAs build new dwellings, they must follow high quality standards. But older stock shows many shortcomings, and there are major tasks in improving energy efficiency.
Many social tenants also face problems in terms of affordability. Even with low rent many still struggle to afford their home because of low income. However, since private rental prices are much higher and housing quality is often substandard, social housing in Flanders protects a very weak income group from serious housing problems and from poverty.
Big gap between need and supply
Lowering social rental prices does not immediately appear to be a good or fair policy option, as this would limit the expansion of social housing stock. It is estimated that 280,000 households who are forced to stay on the private rental market meet the legal conditions for receiving social housing. So, even with the substantial investments made in recent years, it is clear that more needs to be done.
In principle, housing allowances combined with a sufficient and decent private rental supply could also provide an answer to the housing needs of poor people. But introducing this kind of allowance system for everyone in need is not considered politically realistic in Flanders at the moment.
Public supply of social housing contributes to a high-quality design of public space and the liveability of cities and places.
Role of private vs public sector
At present, the government is preparing an adjustment to the current system of rental subsidies for SRA tenants and a guarantee scheme for landlord. The latter would make it attractive for private developers to build social dwellings for rental by an SRA. This may lead to an expansion of the social housing supply, although the result is expected to be limited.
In my opinion there remain strong arguments for a (semi-)public supply of housing as by SHAs, one of which is that it builds up public assets which will protect future generations from poverty. Privately owned social housing cannot do this.
Moreover, the benefits of a public supply are not limited to social tenants. Based on their public remit and with municipalities as their main stakeholders, SHAs contribute to a high-quality design of public space and the liveability of cities and places. Raising awareness of this could also offer opportunities to increase support for social housing.
Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.
Sien Winters is Research Manager Housing at HIVA - KU Leuven and Coordinator of the Policy Research Centre Housing in Flanders.