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.
Residents may think they know, but a massive new report suggests a far more complex reality.
If you want to live in a European city where residents think affordable housing is easy to come by, avoid London and head for Ljubljana. That's one of the possible conclusions to draw from a massive new report on European cities published by the E.U.
According to Eurostat's 2015 Urban Europe report [PDF], published this week, most European big city residents feel that decent housing they can afford is increasingly hard to come by. As the map above shows, only in Athens and Greater Manchester did more than half of citizens agree that decent value housing was easy to find. In slightly smaller cities, however, things get a little easier. Among cities of between 600,000 and 1.2 million inhabitants, more than half of respondents in Ljubljana, Naples, Palermo, and Diyarbakir, Turkey, agreed that affordable housing was easy to find.
Predictably, it is in wealthy northern European cities where people feel that finding good value housing is toughest. Less than 19 percent of respondents in London, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, Munich, Stockholm, and Oslo thought affordable housing was easy to find.
But when it comes to the realities of housing affordability, how much credence can we give to this one measure, based on public opinion? In terms of perception, for example, Vienna and London appear to be on roughly the same level, even though the latter surely has far higher housing costs when compared to average income. Indeed, if you look at another map, which shows how many people are satisfied with their household’s financial situation, a rather different picture emerges.
Even though residents of Vienna and Munich expressed doubts about whether they can find affordable housing with ease, they are also among the happiest with their incomes in all of Europe, with over 83 percent of citizens in those cities responding that they were satisfied with the financial situations of their households. Meanwhile, the number of Athenians satisfied with their financial situation is far lower, even though the same people consider local housing relatively affordable.
The average home age and size across Europe also varies hugely. Take the map below, which shows the most common construction period for dwellings across Europe's regions.
Here we can see that the housing stock in Wales, rural France, French-speaking Belgium, Eastern Germany and Polish Silesia is notably older than elsewhere, with most dwellings built before 1919. These regions all have something in common: they’re industrial heartlands that experienced intense urbanization over a century ago. They are also regions where economic growth has recently been relatively sluggish. The one exception to this rule is of course rural France, where depopulation of the countryside has removed any real pressure for massive redevelopment.
The map also reveals some interesting reflections of Europe's recent history. The effect of two world wars and the global depression, for example, is still writ large in Europe’s housing map. In only two small regions across the map does housing stock built between 1919 and 1945 predominate. By contrast, Great Britain’s and Sweden’s largely green coloring, which denotes housing built between 1946 and 1970, shows how vast those countries’ public housing construction programs were in the years following World War II.
Meanwhile in Ireland, the fact that most dwellings in that country have been built since 1991 reveals the massive property boom the country experienced in recent decades, creating the bubble that has famously since burst. Once again it’s important not to draw conclusions relying on one set of statistics alone, however. Look at Spain, for example, and you might think that most of the country’s housing had been built in recent decades. Spain did in fact experience a building boom in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, but many of the areas showing recent development dominating are relatively sparsely inhabited rural areas that continue to experience some depopulation. In the more heavily populated regions around the country’s largest cities—Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia—the average dwelling age is much older.
The map below, showing the average size of living spaces in European cities, reveals further that there is no obvious connection between a city’s relative wealth and the amount of living space its residents have to live in.
Greek cities actually offered their citizens the most room: no major city in the country offered less than 42 square meters of space per person last year. You might expect big city-dwellers in Europe’s wealthiest countries to be the most tightly packed—as a reflection of their success—but in fact Stockholm and Helsinki both offer citizens a decent amount of room, with more that 30 square meters per citizen. It is in fact in Romania where city-dwellers were the most tightly squeezed, with just 19 square meters of space per citizen even in its most residentially spacious city, Arad. What could be the reason for this particular dearth? A look back at the map of dwelling ages shows that most Romanian housing was built between 1946 and 1971.
Taken together, these surveys create a nuanced but sometimes confusing reflection of life in Europe's cities, something to be expected in a report that contrasts attitudes with facts. Eurostat's study nonetheless contains some more concrete details on exactly how much of a toll daily living costs take across the continent. To do this, they use an E.U. developed marker called a correction coefficient. This marker takes a Brussels salary as a base line and then calculates what percentage of that salary a person would need to earn to achieve the same lifestyle in another European location. The results should come as cause for alarm for Londoners in particular.
As the table above reveals, a Londoner now needs to be paid 163 percent of a Brussels salary to achieve a comparable standard of living, a difference in cost that has shot up considerably since 2005. The gap between local costs and those in Brussels has also increased in Stockholm, albeit to a less alarming peak, while the gap has actually narrowed in Copenhagen and Dublin. On the negative side of the table, a Sofia resident can achieve parity with a Brussels resident while being paid just 47 percent of their salary. Among cities that were also measured in 2005, there has been a notable drop in living costs compared to Brussels in Athens, Lisbon, Budapest, and Prague, making this perhaps the most telling table in the whole report. Europe has long had large gulfs in terms of wealth and livability between its cities. If the graph above is correct, these gaps are, in the large majority of places, growing ever wider.