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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.