Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new emergency shelter is slated for one of the French capital’s fanciest spots. Perhaps you can guess how residents have reacted?
On first glance, Paris’s planned new emergency homeless shelter looks like a model of good practice. Designed by Moon Architectures to house a modest 200 people, its low-rise buildings clad with wooden shingles are approachable-looking and unobtrusive. The lightweight, temporary structure is easily de-assembled and moved, while its parkland location means it isn’t being squeezed into a tightly packed neighborhood. But despite the low-key aesthetics, the proposed shelter is probably the most controversial homeless facility Paris has ever seen. The reason: it’s located on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement, one of the wealthiest, most gilded spots on the planet.
Not only will the shelter spoil the neighborhood, locals protest, it will do so as part of a pointed attack on privilege from socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo. As one local put it in this video:
“I think we have a mayor who wakes up every morning asking herself how she can annoy the bourgeois of the 16th.”
Any mayor scouting locations for new homeless shelters is liable to receive some flak. Washington, D.C.’s Muriel Bowser, to take another example, is in a similar spot to Hidalgo after assigning new shelter locations to a variety of D.C. neighborhoods, including wealthy ones. Still, Hidalgo has left herself more open to accusations of social engineering than many. In the winter of 2014, she adopted new rules designed to increase levels of affordable housing in high-rent areas by giving the city right of first refusal when apartments in certain areas came up for sale.
Residents in the 16th arrondissement say Hidalgo’s shelter plan is another installment of a broader attack on the better off. It is, after all, placed in a rich, conservative area that mainly didn’t vote for Hidalgo and possibly never will. There are many seniors living near the proposed site, warns a local residents association, as well as many embassies that “fear for their security.” As one local woman told France TV Info:
“I don’t want strangers in my place. They’re already rummaging through our trashcans every morning. They’ve got no means of living, they’re just going to prowl and rob.”
There’s no question even a small group of homeless residents would mean a change for the neighborhood. The fact that a petition against the plan has gained 50,000 signatures shows the depth of feeling. But if the protestors hoped to mobilize wider public opinion towards their cause, they’ve so far done little to present themselves in a positive light. A recent public meeting had to be cleared after residents booed local representatives off the stage, denouncing Mayor Hidalgo as a “slut.”
Meanwhile, the objectors’ insistence that they are being singled out for punishment reveals an ignorance of the wider city. Every single one of Paris’s other arrondissements currently contains an emergency shelter like the one planned—the 16th is the only district holding out. When it comes to permanent shelter places for the homeless, the 12th and 20th arrondissements house 1,000 apiece, while the 16th by contrast hosts just 18. This false sense of victimization has riled other Parisians. One commentator accused the objectors of “obscene egoism [and] a contemptible vulgarity of thought.”
Powered by the backlash, the city is standing firm. This week, Mayor Hidalgo insisted the plans would go ahead, and asked residents to “be a bit more Parisian,” suggesting acceptance of and coexistence with the less wealthy was part of the city’s character.
While residents who will end up living next door to the shelter may feel thwarted by City Hall, they might take comfort in expert opinion on the subject. According to research compiled from a variety of sources by the Washington Post, there is little evidence to suggest that homeless shelters either push up an area’s crime rate or lower its property values. This part of Paris may well end up finding that its new neighbors aren’t so bad after all.