Paris’ new mayor Anne Hidalgo has found a new way of liberating highly-sought after council apartments, and so help alleviate the city’s housing crisis: force their publicly-employed tenants to leave.
There are 163 city councillors under Hildago’s jurisdiction; 11 of them currently live in council housing (Habitation à Loyer Modéré, or HLM, a phrase which translates roughly as “rent-controlled housing”). Hidalgo has given them until 20 September to promise to seek alternative accommodation. While no city councillors have actively contested the directive, and some have already made the necessary move, the declaration has been met with reluctance: one described the departure from her apartment as being made “with a gun against my head”.
Social housing in France often conjures up images of forbidding concrete blocks, minimal toilet facilities, and a general air of delinquency and despair. But while this is true of some HLM blocks, others are remarkably pleasant, offering fantastic value for money and far more bang for one’s buck than many privately-owned apartments – particularly in central Paris.
These flats are meant to be distributed according to need, and there’s often a long waitlist – not least because a certain amount of fraud takes place. At its most basic level, individuals will lie about their adult children still living at home, so they can retain larger apartments. Once you’ve managed to obtain an HLM flat, you’re unlikely to be moved on, irrespective of changes in income or personal circumstances.
Some of the exceptions to this trend only highlight how long it’s possible to hang on to council housing you probably don’t actually need. Frigide Barjot is the stage-name of a notorious anti-gay rights activist and satirist, arguably best known for her song “Fais-moi l'amour avec two doigts” (“Make love to me with two fingers”). Last year she was asked to leave her 1,500 square foot council apartment in central Paris after she was found to possess six other properties in Paris, including a private parking space and three cellars, as well as two holiday homes elsewhere in France.
Two styles of Parisian apartment. Image: Jacques Demarthon/AFP.
In many cases, however, council housing abuse comes from much higher up: in 2008, the deputy mayor of La Corneuve, a north-eastern suburb of Paris, was found to be the tenant of two separate council apartments, one of which he was lending (but not, allegedly, subletting) to a “friend”.
The application process for HLM apartments is hazy and bureaucratic, with a mind-numbing number of forms that must all be impeccably completed. For recent immigrants with limited French, it can be a minefield, and while almost 70 per cent of Paris’ residents are eligible for council housing, many prefer to struggle with extortionate private housing rents rather than deal with the paperwork or negotiate the waiting list of over 135,000 people.
But, as in La Corneuve, it’s not uncommon for government and city council staff to fudge the application process in order to obtain cut-price housing for themselves. The French government has taken some steps to prevent this, for example stipulating that the assessing board must consider three separate applications for every apartment; but the opacity of the process means that fraud of this kind can be very hard to pick up.
Paris is a stratified city, where the rich prefer to rub elbows with the rich alone, and, in the leafy western arrondissements, municipal leaders have exploited France’s plodding legal system to block efforts to build council housing. But this may be set to change: Hidalgo has made a campaign promise to introduce more HLM housing in the west of the city, and to combat inequality across Paris by means of more affordable housing.
Prior to her election last March, she promised residents a more transparent application process, in which applicants can request particular areas and check up on the progress of their on-going application. Hidalgo has also promised to build some 10,000 new homes a year over the next decade.
Even if Hidalgo does succeed in kicking council staff out of council housing, there are likely to be other ways for municipal employees to exploit municipal services. In 2004, the-then mayor Bertrand Delanoë estimated that Parisian taxpayers were paying over €700,000 to give municipal employees access to city gardeners in their homes in affluent areas. And while the 11 councillors may be sent packing from their subsidised flats, the many former government or city employees who still enjoy rent-controlled housing must be counting their blessings: though they may have missed out on re-election, they have nonetheless been able to hold on to their homes.