In France, housing policies are creating vast numbers of empty cities

The Tour de l'Europe, Mulhouse, is a quarter empty. Image: Rh-67/Wikimedia Commons.

The continuous need for more housing is one of the few things most French politicians seem to be able to agree on. Both the Socialist Party and the centre right UMP argue that France needs to build at least 500,000 new homes every year.

That quota is never quite reached, but the idea still remains universally popular. After all, France is one of the EU countries that has traditionally built the most houses. In 2013, it built 5 per 1,000 people, compared to only 2.3 on this side of the Channel. This has been driven by a series of financial incentives – mostly centred around tax breaks – created both by the government of President Hollande, and by the Sarkozy administration which preceded it.

But this commitment to housebuilding has created a whole new problem. By encouraging the housing sector to build across the entire country, the government is creating vast numbers of empty cities.

Last week, an investigation carried out by Le Monde revealed that 7.8 per cent of all homes are currently empty, up from 6.3 per cent ten years ago. The problem is especially pronounced in 42 towns of over 8,500 dwellings, of which at least 12 per cent are unoccupied.

The most extreme example is Vichy, in the centre of France, where 22 per cent of homes – 4,700 of them – are currently empty. The town has become an affordable housing dream, as any request for council housing is filled in within two weeks, Le Monde notes, with claimants being offered “newly renovated flats on the lakefront”.

Nonetheless, the town's officials complain that they are being forced to build even more social housing this year – homes they absolutely do not need. Under current rules, French towns are required to have at least 20 cent social homes. Vichy only has 15 per cent.

Despite this building spree, housing in France has become increasingly unaffordable over the past 15 years, as house prices have doubled, and rents have increased by more than half. Over the same period of time, wages have gone up by just 30 per cent.

French housing is now some of the most expensive in Europe, just behind the UK. In 2015, a 70m2 flat would cost you around 7.9 times the average wage. In the UK, it's 8.5.

The problem is especially obvious in Mulhouse, a middle-sized town by the German and Swiss borders. The 37-storey high “Tour de l'Europe”, built in the 1970s, and one of Eastern France's most famous buildings, stands worryingly empty. About a quarter of the tower – around 50 flats – is now unoccupied. The emptiness has been blamed on rent and utilities prices, which are deemed to high for many to afford.

The Abbe-Pierre Foundation, which campaigns against precarious housing and social exclusion, released some more worrying figures earlier this month. Its researchers found that 3.5m French people are currently in precarious housing, including 2.7m who it described as in an “especially difficult” situation. In the past year, what's more, 1.8m people asked for affordable housing, but only 467,000 homes were allocated.

In other words, simply building more homes is an overly simplistic response to a complicated problem. For one thing, the state hasn't been building in the right places. Because demand is unevenly spread, some towns are bursting at the seams, while others are struggling to fill their existing buildings.

Nor have state subsidies been targeting the right homes. Most French help-to-buy schemes are focused on newly built housing; but even without such schemes, it often remains cheaper to buy pre-existing dwellings.

If you're struggling to get onto the French property ladder, an empty home in the wrong town, or a subsidy for one you can't afford, won't do that much to help you. It's not enough to build more houses: you need to think about who you're building those homes for.

 
 
 
 

A man who got his bag caught in a tube train’s doors for 15 stops would like to know if there's a map to help him

Bank station, the scene of the crime. Image: Derwin/Pexels/creative commons.

Did you know that, at the northbound Northern line platforms on Bank tube station, the doors will open on the left hand side? But that at every station north of there, all the way to Edgware, the doors will open on the right?

Probably not, right? Even if you’re a tube nerd, who can draw the tube map from memory and has ruined a perfectly good night in the pub by boring on about the demise of the Northern Heights plan for hours – who pays attention to which side of the tube carriage the doors open? All the way along an entire line?

Well, Samir knows. Samir knows all too well. That’s because, just before 9 this morning, this happened:

Colindale is only two stops from the end of the line. Which, as it happens, is where Samir ended up.

Luckily, he can count on his family to be supportive.

 

For the record – looking at the Carto.Metro map of track layouts, we’re fairly sure that, had he only been on the High Barnet branch, Samir would have been able to escape his predicament at Camden Town. Sad!

Anyway, the reason we found out about all this is because Samir posed a question – one which we’ve been unable to answer:

Does anyone know of a version of the tube map which shows which side of the carriage the doors will open? If not, would anyone like to make one?

Get in touch. Enquiring minds trapped in tube carriages across the city want to know.

Incidentally, if you’re on Twitter, give Samir a follow will you? He’s had a hard day.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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