Leading French charity sounds alarm over 'unprecedented' housing crisis


More than 8.5 million people in France are in, or face soon falling into, precarious living conditions as the effects of the economic downturn begin to also engulf middle income earners in an ‘unprecedented' housing crisis, warns one of France's leading charitable organizations, the Abbé Pierre foundation, in a report published this month.

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There are now 3.6 million people in France who live in "very bad or no accommodation" and another 5 million facing precarious living conditions in the short- to mid-term, according to a report released February 1st by one of France's leading charitable organisations dedicated to helping the homeless and destitute, the Fondation Abbé Pierre1.

"It is not only the underprivileged and those who belong to modest sections of the population who experience difficulties in finding accommodation but also, and increasingly so, those from the middle sections," the foundation underlines in the preamble to its 16th annual report on housing problems in France, published Tuesday. "The housing crisis is experiencing an unprecedented extension," it says.

The publication draws on statistics and observations from numerous established organizations and agencies, and its own research and observations. It warns that the "storm" that represents the financial crisis now "threatens the foundations of society", and derides a lack of adequate state protection for those in difficulty.

The foundation's report comes on the back of other alarming figures released in a study published in January by the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), which found that 49% of those living in "comfortless" accommodation were employed. The term comfortless is defined as a lodging situated in buildings that are insalubrious, close to falling into ruin, or with at least two of the following defects: insufficient heating installations or inadequate insulation, water leaks, sub-standard electrical wiring, no toilets or designated kitchen area.

The Abbé Pierre foundation cites an observation from the French state mediator's office that the monthly financial difference between breaking even or running into debt over regular household expenditure lies, for 15 million families in France, in a balance of between 50 and 150 euros.

The foundation provides case examples, often dramatic, simply narrated with interviews, to better illustrate the problems. One such case is that of a single mother living with a 13 year-old daughter on the periphery of a large urban area, who has been employed for several years on an open-ended work contract. She earns a monthly salary of 1,300 euros and receives a monthly state housing benefit of 142 euros. While her rent costs 415 euros per month, she has become unable to meet rising energy costs for both her accommodation and her car. She has now run up debts equal to several months' rent, without any other credit commitments save for the purchase of her car.

"Her regular costs are difficult to compress," comments the foundation. "Unentitled to the FSL [emergency housing benefit payment]1because of the amount she earns, she will have to sell her car to wipe off her rent debts despite the constraints this will impose on both her work and family." The foundation concludes that her situation "did not worsen through a loss of employment or a drop in income, but by the regular chipping away of her resources, the spending costs rising faster than salaries."

The report includes a disturbing finding by the French state-run National Observatory of Poverty and Social Exclusion (ONPES) which has calculated that for every 100 people made redundant since the economic crisis began in 2008, 45 more families will fall under the level of poverty in 2011.


1: The foundation is named after priest ('abbot') Pierre (1912-2007), who created the Emmaus movement in 1949 to help those in poverty, through the provision of work and lodgings, and which now operates in France and 35 other countries. The foundation comes under the Emmaus umbrella organisation, which, despite its name, is a secular charity. Both Emmaus and the Abbé Pierre foundation are among the leading charities established in France.

2: Fonds de solidarité logement, or Accomodation Solidarity Fund.

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