Affordable housing is becoming a major political issue in Europe, as tenants and activists push for legislation to stop rent hikes and evictions
* U.N. rapporteur says rent freezes still necessary across Europe
* Nearly a third of Europeans lived in rented homes in 2019
* City rents in Spain have risen about 45% in past five years
By Arthur Neslen
BRUSSELS, July 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of European households may have to leave their homes in the coming months because they cannot afford to pay rent, housing experts say, as pandemic-related rent moratoriums wind down across the continent.
Housing Europe, a Brussels-based social housing association, estimates that 10 million households are at risk, based on their analysis of a survey of 180,000 people across the 27 EU nations by Eurofound, which seeks to improve living and working conditions in the bloc.
The U.N. special rapporteur on adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, described that figure as "a rather conservative estimate ... given the high percentage of renters in many European countries".
Freezing rent payments for vulnerable groups is still "necessary" in regions and cities where the housing crisis is most acute, he added.
Across Europe, nearly a third of people lived in rented homes in 2019, according to Eurostat figures.
Sorcha Edwards, Housing Europe's secretary general said a "sea change" was needed in the continent's approach to housing.
Even before the pandemic hit, one in four tenants in the European Union spent more than 40% of their income on housing, the U.N. says.
The stock of social housing units has fallen dramatically in parts of the EU over the last two decades, such as Germany, where the state allows landlords to privately rent out such properties after a period of time, driving more than a 50% drop in social housing since 2002, according to the U.N.
At the same time, buoyed by zero or negative interest rates, "vulture investors" such as large equity funds have moved into the property market, creating additional demand that has pushed up prices, Rajagopal said.
'YOU CANNOT BUILD A LIFE'
After living in her Barcelona apartment for 15 years, Rosario Velasco said her landlord - CaixaBank - hiked her rent in 2019 from 425 euros ($500) to 925 euros a month - about half her income as a teacher.
When Velasco, a 52-year-old single mother, tried to negotiate over the increase, the bank began a court process that could end in eviction, which she has been fighting ever since.
On a video call from Barcelona, Velasco said when she heard about her possible eviction, "I felt extremely insecure."
"It affects your mental health and also your physical wellbeing. In this situation you cannot build a life."
CaixaBank did not respond to a request for comment.
Official data shows nearly 11,000 Spanish individuals and families were evicted from their homes in the first quarter of the year, despite the country's rent moratorium.
City rents have increased by about 45% since 2015, figures from the public financial agency Institut Catala del Sol show, and this has fed social despair.
In June, one unemployed 58-year-old man died after jumping from his balcony when court officers came to evict him in Barcelona.
Velasco is determined to fight. "I will resist to the very end," she said. "We will do what we always do, which is to go to the tenants union, residents and neighbours and stop the eviction."
Every week, dozens of people are mobilised by Barcelona's tenants union, Sindicat de Llogateres, to try to prevent evictions in small protests scattered across the city.
Union spokesperson Jaime Palomera is one of three people currently on trial for threatening and coercive behaviour, after protesting an attempted eviction.
The two co-accused tenants had previously complained to their landlord and city authorities about rats, termites and undrinkable water in their building.
Their landlord was fined 90,000 euros by the authorities shortly before he filed the lawsuit.
The trial - which began in late June - has seen pledges of support for the accused from the Spanish labour minister and hundreds of academics, who wrote an open letter.
Rajagopal said it was “very concerning that this trial went ahead although five police officers who monitored the protest testified that it was peaceful.”
"I hope the charges against the three human rights defenders are soon dropped," he added.
Affordable housing has become a core issue for the government.
The left-wing Unidas Podemos party only agreed to join the ruling coalition last year after winning a commitment to legislation strengthening rent controls and stopping evictions.
But the law has been delayed amid hints of ministerial backtracking.
Alejandra Jacinto Uranga, a Podemos spokesperson in Madrid, said the law is needed to prevent a "foreseeable massive wave of evictions" once Spain's rent moratorium ends in August.
Tenants unions say 40,000 renters in Spain, 80,000 in Italy and 90,000 in Britain will soon face immediate threats of eviction.
"We are expecting a hard autumn," said Barbara Steenbergen, the European head of the International Union of Tenants. "A frightening autumn."
Europe's housing crisis has already brought down one government in Sweden, after the Left Party withdrew support for Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's centre-left coalition last month in a row over rent deregulation.
Lofven was only able to form a new government on July 7 after backing away from the proposal.
In Germany, a large demonstration against high rents and evictions is planned in Berlin for Sept. 11.
Affordable housing has become a touchstone in the country's election campaign, with the Greens, Social Democrats and Left Party all favouring rent freezes.
Berlin is also holding a referendum on Sept. 26 over whether properties belonging to the city's largest housing corporations should be expropriated, after 350,000 Berliners petitioned for the vote.
The poll follows a ruling by the country's top court in April overturning a city-wide rent cap.
Jutta Hartmann, a spokesperson for the German tenants union Deutsche Mieterbund said the pandemic had left "deep marks in the budgets of German households."
Almost 40% of Germans had seen their income fall during the lockdown and "a trend reversal is not expected," she said.
"Our campaign is growing fast," she added.
($1 = 0.8422 euros) (Reporting by Arthur Neslen. Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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