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.
The city will build public housing in its wealthiest neighborhoods.
“Rich people’s ghettoes in Paris—they’re finished!”
So shouted the headline of an interview with Paris Habitat Commissioner Ian Brossat this weekend. Charged with looking after the city’s housing needs, Brossat is hoping to take Paris into uncharted waters by overseeing an intervention in its wealth map.
The French capital badly needs more affordable housing and is building a large amount of it between now and 2020, with one significant twist. Almost 5,000 of these new affordable units will be built in the city’s center and west, giving future tenants some of the wealthiest neighbors in all France. As you might expect, the plans are controversial. So is this a necessary social rebalancing, or class war?
The concept seems somewhat less dramatic when you zoom out to the bigger picture. Paris hopes to create 7,000 new public housing units every year between now and the next elections in 2020. Given that only 5,000 units in total are planned for especially prosperous areas across this period, that means that most new units will still be created in the less wealthy east, where most of the city’s public housing is already concentrated.
The insertion of low-income housing into high-income areas is nonetheless causing a stir. Last week, the city opened an affordable housing development with 113 new homes in a backstreet of the 16th Arrondissement, just ten minutes walk from the Arc de Triomphe. And on Wednesday, the foundation stone will be laid for 76 apartments set aside for young people in the Espace Beaujon, a youth arts center on Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré—one of Paris’s fanciest shopping streets.
Larger and more unusual plans are also in the pipeline. City Hall is creating 376 new public housing units in the old Ministry of Defense, just around the corner from both France’s National Assembly and the Musée D’Orsay. By 2018, there will even be affordable homes in the newly refurbished Samaritaine department store, less than two minute’s walk from City Hall itself.
The logistics of creating these new projects are far from simple. Paris is densely built and doesn’t have a lot of spare space in any area, wealthy or otherwise. City Hall is trying a clutch of different measures to overcome the dearth of available land. It plans, for instance, to take over some space owned by the state or such bodies as the national railway company, SNCF, for new building, on sites including former government buildings and railway sidings. It will also exercise a right of first refusal when fresh properties come on to the market in high demand areas, drawing from a list of potential properties created in 2014.
None of this will come cheap. The city has almost doubled its budget for such purchases, from €85 million ($96 million) to €160 ($181) million. Paris will also will convert some unused office space to housing, mainly in 19th century buildings that were themselves originally built as homes. Finally, the city will require most new private housing constructed to contain a percentage set aside for public or affordable housing.
There’s an obvious issue with the plan: land in expensive areas is, well, expensive. Couldn’t Paris house more people by concentrating construction and conversion in cheaper areas? Commissioner Brossat was dismissive of the question in his recent interview, without fully answering it:
“This criticism is not valid. The main obstacle is not lack of money—since we devote an annual budget of 500 million euros to this area—but the lack of land. Furthermore, I am very clearly taking on the political objective of rebalancing [the city]. We want to avoid having two Parises, even if it is expensive to do so.”
For many residents of wealthy areas, this objective is a problem. They fear that in creating greater social mixing, their neighborhoods are simply being dragged down, with an injection of poorer residents liable to lower property values and provoke a spike in crime. Many of these objections came to a head in a recent fight against a temporary homeless shelter to be constructed on the gilded edge of the Bois de Boulogne, where locals felt they were being singled out partly because they hadn’t voted for the socialist mayor. Despite some remarkably poisonous public meetings, the residents lost.
Still, the pressure for more public housing does not come from City Hall alone. Since 2000, French law has stipulated that public housing must make up at least 20 percent of the housing stock in all municipalities of over 3,500 inhabitants, or the municipality will face a fine. In reality, these fines are rarely levied, but Paris’s significant shortfall—only 15.9 percent of city housing stock was public in 2009—means it has to grab land where it can or be marked down as failing.
Paris has also learned the hard way about the negative effects of social atomization. Massive public housing construction on the metro area’s periphery in the late 20th century created large areas that were both socially and geographically isolated from the city core, leading to communities that were marginalized and often neglected. With control of just 2.2 million of Greater Paris’s 12.4 million inhabitants, the administration of Paris Proper can’t do that much to rectify this problem. What they can do is prevent social segregation going yet further within their own jurisdiction. Reintroducing less wealthy tenants to rich central areas—albeit in essentially homeopathic doses—would in theory get the city back to a level of social mixing that was closer to the rule several decades back. Ultimately, current residents will probably find their new, poorer neighbors are not the property-ruining sans culottes they fear.
There’s also a gap between City Hall’s rhetoric and the actual reality of Paris policy. Tough talk from the likes of commissioner Brossat masks what is on a day-to-day basis a far cozier relationship towards wealth and private developers. The recent Reinvent Paris competition, which sought private bidders for 23 major city-owned sites, produced a group of short-listed winners who, on closer inspection, delivered projects that were far more about private profit than social benefit or architectural imagination. Paris may be talking up key aspects of its social equality policies, but elsewhere in this wealthy city, it’s largely business as usual.