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.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.