The mayor of Paris is kicking councillors out of council-owned homes

Mayor Anne Hildago. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.