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Why Build New Housing?

by Jean-Claude Driant & translated by Christina Mitrakos, le 28/01/2011

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Can building more houses solve the housing problem? Jean-Claude Driant shows that a simple quantitative approach does not fulfill the different housing policy goals set by the State. Rather than rejecting the analysis based on the “housing chain”, he suggests new ways to make it more reliable.

For many years, national and local housing policy has been going in two supposedly complementary directions: the growth of homeownership and an increase in building new housing. The second part of this diptych is considered the main response to solving the housing crisis that is allegedly largely caused by a quantitative shortage that has accumulated since public policy in favor of homeownership has weakened and by the reduction in building new housing that resulted from the 1977 reform. This type of analysis often evokes a shortage of one million homes. To deal with this challenge, the national rate of production over the next several years would have to reach 500,000 homes per year, 70,000 of these in the Paris region.

And yet, the simplicity of this reasoning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Where are the prospective inhabitants of the missing one million homes living? The average household size, census after census, has been consistently decreasing (2.6 people in 1990, 2.4 in 1999 and 2.3 in 2005). Also, according to a census by the Fondation Abbé Pierre over 3 million people of the 3.5 million “people experiencing a serious housing problem” are, in fact, housed. These figures, far from minimizing the seriousness of the crisis, contribute to characterizing it and call for refining response strategies. Without negating the necessity to build a lot, it is without a doubt necessary to go from a logic that consists of building housing, to one that seeks to build good housing by posing the question of the usefulness of the new housing, differently. In order to contribute to the thinking on this subject, lets examine four complimentary factors.

What to Build and Where?

Good housing is first of all located where there is demand. Secretary of State, Benoist Apparu, supports this idea and wants to concentrate the means of the State in “tight zones” (zones where demand is higher than supply). The main ideas behind this reasoning is obviously valid; the need to build, for example, is much stronger in the Paris region than in regions and agglomerations where the pressure of demand is lower. All the more so, since during the last 10 years, this region has experienced the lowest rate of production (3 new homes per year for 1,000 inhabitants, as opposed to more than 8, in Bretagne, for example).

Good housing replaces other housing and thus contributes to restructuring supply by reducing the amount of poor quality housing, and revitalizing run-down neighborhoods, making them more attractive. This is the intrinsic logic of urban renewal, but also of urban planning, by which the building of new housing participates in the reversal of depressive tendencies that often characterize the situation of slack markets.
If it is going to contribute to resolving the housing crisis, good housing should be socially accessible. This means that it is capable of responding to the needs of households that have a difficult time finding a satisfactory solution in the supply available on the market. This is, for that matter, the definition of social housing, as it is practiced in France. But, in the dual context of historically increasing selling prices that make housing inaccessible to most renters, and the uncontrolled growth of tax-exempt investments in the rental market, the increase in new housing built between 2000 and 2007 was almost completely the result of private investment [1].The real estate boom years thus show the limits of the correlation between the growth of building new housing and the improvement of the housing situation of households with modest means, theoretically those who should have benefited from public policies.

Reviving the Housing Chain

Finally, good new housing is one that has a multiplying effect on the market by allowing several households to improve their living conditions. Today, the rationale regarding the effects of the chain, very much held during the 1980’s and 1990’s, is often challenged as a purely theoretical vision, negated by the experience of the last 20 years, marked by the increasing difficulty for renters to become homeowners. Nevertheless, one must admit that, for example, adding a home with four rooms or more is much more likely than a studio to accommodate a household already established, who will in turn free-up another home. And yet, the apartment building market is clearly oriented toward small or medium size apartments. The stakes are high. We need to aim further than the marginal effects of building new housing [2]. Rather than denying the housing chain mechanism, we need to put it back on track and avoid its negative effects as much as possible (increasing segregation, urban sprawl and the increasing poverty of tenants in social housing). This means favoring both the construction of new apartment buildings able to accommodate entire families and the better distribution of social housing on the urban territory, without taking the 20% of social housing required in each municipality by article 55 of the law Solidarité et renouvellement urbains as a maximum but as a minimum, that should be surpassed.

Therefore, everything confirms that a higher rate of building new housing is not sufficient to make all new housing fulfill its expected mission of contributing to solving the housing crisis, reducing inequalities, and planning national development. But it is in fact these issues, admittedly more complex to put forth than quantitative goals, that make-up the core of the political stakes surrounding housing. Whereas local administrations, and particularly cross-municipal administrations that conceive of local housing plans called programmes locaux de l’habitat (PLH), are more and more preoccupied with these issues, national policy is progressively abandoning them and the State is giving up the means to provide consistent leadership over the territory.


[1In 2007, 105,000 more homes were built than in 2000. Among these 81,000 were built by private developers, 19,000 by individuals and 5,000 by social housing agencies.

[2Even an annual rate of 400,000 new constructions brings up the housing stock by only 1.3%.

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To quote this article :

Jean-Claude Driant & translated by Christina Mitrakos, « Why Build New Housing? », Metropolitics, 28 January 2011. URL : http://www.metropolitiques.eu/Why-Build-New-Housing.html
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