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.
'Fewer middle income house owners'
The cost of accommodation is a constantly rising element in the monthly expenditure of households. The foundation's report cites statistics from the French Research Centre for the Study and Monitoring of Living Conditions, the CREDOC, which show that over the past 50 years consumer prices have risen by 10 times, the cost of rent by 18 times, and the cost of utility services by 26 times. Property prices rose over the same period by 55 times, climbing notably in the 1980s and significantly in the 2000s.
Between 1992 and 2006, average earnings among people who rent accommodation rose by 1% per year, while the costs of renting accommodation rose by 2.2%. Taking the separate period between 2002 and 2006, their earnings rose by just 0.5%, while rents rose by 2.8% in state-owned housing, and by 3.5% on the private market. During this same period, the amount of monthly earnings spent on rent rose from 19.2% to 22.5% in state-owned housing, and from 23% to 27.4% in the private rental sector.
For one in five households situated in the lowest income bracket, the irreducible costs linked to accommodation (including elements such as local taxes and insurance) rose between 2001 and 2006 from 52% of income to 74% of income.
The foundation warns that now the onset of the current financial crisis "has accelerated and pushed over the top situations that were already on a razor edge." A study by a federation representing the regional managers of state-owned, subsidised housing, the Union Sociale pour l'Habitat, revealed that the number of rents that have become unpaid in this sector rose between end-2008 and end-2009 by 13%. The Abbé Pierre foundation reports that its own research shows this trend has since continued. In the heavily populated Val d'Oise département (equivalent to a county) north of Paris, requests for the emergency FSL housing aid benefit increased year-on-year by 21% in the first quarter of 2010.
"Whereas public housing policies should reduce the effects of the crisis, they feed and amplify them," the report argues. "This incapacity to limit the extension of the crisis results not only from the insufficiency of the means provided for housing by those responsible in government but, more profoundly, from a lack of ambition to act in this area. Action has principally focused on limited measures towards those without a roof over their heads and aid towards property investment by the well off, which have had the effect of revitalising the building trade while making access to accommodation more difficult for the largest number of people."
Underlining the fall in the number of property owners among those earning between 1,500 euros and 3,000 euros per month1, the foundation notes: "They represented 45% of buyers of principal homes in 2003, and little more than 30% five years later." The report calls for a "massive" programme of house building, an imposed cap on rents and stronger application of a law2 that requires councils of districts within large urban areas to ensure that at least 20% of local housing is made up of publicly-funded and managed accommodation.
The foundation concludes that the current housing crisis results from a combination of ills. "It is this double evolution, consisting of an aggravation of housing difficulties quite clearly hinged to the economic crisis on one side and, on the other, to the withdrawal of public intervention while the situation demands greater engagement, which is giving the current period a hitherto unknown but dramatic character."
1: The minimum legal wage in France, as of January 1st 2011, is nine euros per hour (gross), representing 1,365 euros per month for a full-time, 35-hour working week.
2: The December 2000 law relative à la solidarité et au renouvellement urbains, commonly known as the loi SRU. The 20% public housing quota applies to districts of more than 3,500 inhabitants within urban entities of more than 50,000 inhabitants and which count at least one district of more than 15,000 inhabitants.