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Does an increase in social housing keep cities affordable? Not always

In Vienna, a large social housing stock keeps overall housing costs down. In Paris, not so much. The year of the 2024 Olympics, the City of Light is too expensive for ordinary Parisians.

Which city do we all see in iconic Paris? How does the perception of transient people compare to that of born Parisians and newcomers from France or the rest of the world? Is the so-called Paris syndrome something that occurs to many, or is it just a vulgarization of the Stendhal syndrome in the era of mass tourism?

Looking at the Paris skyline from the top of the Pompidou museum (February 6, 2022)

To writer Marguerite Duras, Paris is also a mental estate for the world:

“Paradoxically, the freedom of Paris is associated with a persistent belief that nothing ever changes. Paris, they say, is the city that changes least. After an absence of twenty or thirty years, one still recognizes it.”

Marguerite Duras, “Tourists in Paris, from Outside: Selected Writings” (1984)

There are high and pop culture symbols all over it. Hence, perhaps, the collective rapture experienced by many (including us, who lived in town back then) when a fire ravaged Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019. The French capital isn’t just another city, and to some, it’s still the place where “good Americans go to die” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858).

Too expensive for bohemian life

It’s also a costly city to live in. Recently, the New York Times published an article about public housing policies in Paris. Signed by Thomas Fuller, it states that the French capital has invested billions in public housing in the last years and describes it as a success. Most Parisians—and aspiring or forced-out Parisians—would say: not so fast.

Do public housing policies work when their effect doesn’t spread throughout the total housing offer and the price of market-rate properties is still unattainable by even higher-income citizens? The personal stories highlighted by the New York Times are real but not as common as the piece’s triumphant title suggests: How Does Paris Stay Paris? By Pouring Billions Into Public Housing.

Paris may be pouring billions into public housing, but whatever the city is doing doesn’t accommodate the trends experienced by those trying to rent or buy who can’t tap into generational wealth to achieve so. The 2024 Olympics add another stressor to the strained market offer, with more individuals and investment firms turning apartments into long-term and short-term rentals.

From “La Haine” (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995); from left to right, the movie protagonists: Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), and Hubert (Hubert Koundé)

Some Parisians just want to be able to pay their rent or buy a place. Their goals clash with investors seeking increased rental income and capital appreciation: the City of Light bears a different meaning to both groups. And, if in the year of the Olympics, rent in Paris is too expensive for almost everybody in France who doesn’t get one of the city’s comparatively higher salaries, buying a place larger than, say, 25 square meters (270 square feet) for under 300,000 euros might be impossible.

Acquiring a nice place in Paris “intra-muros” (in any safe “quartier” inside the Boulevard Periphérique, the ring road encircling historic Paris) is out of the question for anybody except those with high salaries, the ability to provide a 20 percent down payment, no debt and, preferably, another apartment to sell before taking the next step. The city’s median price per square meter dropped 4% last year, although it’s still at 10,423 euros (11,385 dollars). Only London has a higher price than Paris across Europe, at 23,010 euros per square meter; Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Milan, Munich, Lisbon, Frankfurt, and Barcelona, in this order, complete the top 10 major European cities ranked by average real estate price in 2024, according to the Global Property Guide and the Urban Land Institute.

Gentrification squared

Thomas Fuller explains that almost one-quarter of the city’s population can afford to stay in town thanks to public housing subsidies, up from 13 percent in the 1990s, aiming at offering the city’s most vulnerable residents a viable way to avoid being priced out by those who benefit from wealth sources that will be familiar to any global city resident, from access to generational wealth to insider advantage navigating the conundrums of getting loan-approved, which in this case it’s much more than plain having an attractive CDI (permanent employment contract in the local jargon).

Our family knows first-hand how difficult it is to rent an apartment in Paris’ free-market real estate. Even if you’re willing to pay outrageously high prices for European standards, you’ll need to demonstrate your solvency before renting, which is not as easy if your activity and net worth come from outside France.

Just to be considered a viable candidate, you’ll need to either, say, be a professional or own a business (a local store, restaurant, etc.) with enough demonstrable gross income or have an indefinite contract, CDI, high enough to be among the country’s high percentile effectively. The pandemic forced the closure of many small shops, and the local government prioritizes local businesses to preserve the city’s social fabric and identity, explains the New York Times article. In reality, chain establishments, concealed under a different brand or not, are taking over independent stores.

Outside those lucky, minority profiles of ideal renters, only proven family guarantees, insider contacts, or a willingness to deposit half a year to one year’s worth of the monthly rent in an escrow (the complicated to unblock “caution bancaire”) will do the trick. Yet, there aren’t many appealing apartments in the city, which means that only a fortunate minority end up living near where they work unless they aren’t sharing their apartment, either legally and per contract (quite often) or not.

On the streets climbing up to Montmartre

Located in the young, rapidly gentrified ninth district (9ème Arrondissement) of Paris near Place Montholon, not far from the Opera on the Rive Droite (north of the Seine), our first apartment in Paris was a small two-bedroom duplex of less than 40 usable square meters (430 square feet) per floor, which we rented, as it is usually the case in most of France, unfurnished; we paid a little over 2,700 a month on it, though adding the monthly services it was slightly over 3,000 a month.

Our second apartment in Paris was an enchanting Mansard attic in Quai Saint-Michel that had been transformed into a bohemian 78 square meter—839 square feet—apartment with high ceilings and views to the Seine, the bridges Pont Neuf and Pont Saint-Michel, and Notre Dame. The place had previously hosted the owner’s family of five, who had used the roof nooks and high ceilings to create elevated mezzanine-like spaces in two of the three tiny bedrooms. We paid even more there, well over 3,000 euros per month; however, it felt affordable given the high prices in the area.

I’ve created a little chronological photo gallery of us in Paris, check it out here.

You’ll remember many things from where you’ve lived in Paris; among them is the pain of getting your furniture and appliances in and out of apartments. We happened to own an old-school Miele washing machine with concrete internal encasing; it was so heavy that every mover we dealt with from Barcelona to Fontainebleau to Paris would always comment on that little tank of a washing machine. The only time I didn’t get any help getting it out of our last apartment was when I enrolled my cousin’s husband to help me with the move. Without him, it would have been impossible to clear off a mansard without scratching the plaster walls and old wooden steps all the way down.

I gave all our appliances to my cousin, who was living in southern France then, in appreciation, and they’re still going strong. Only one of them, a small fridge I bought to stay a few more days at the apartment after the move while we were finishing wrapping up with it all, remained in Paris. Anybody getting a refrigerated drink at the iconic bistro Le Départ Saint-Michel just in front of the Fontaine Saint-Michel could be profiting from that little fridge: his owner, a neighbor, was the grateful beneficiary.

I wonder where the little stories go when things get too expensive to everybody.

Cost of living vs. real salaries

Like the inhabitants of other global cities, Parisians compete with real estate offers coming not only from locals but families and investors from across the world. Like Londoners, New Yorkers or San Franciscans, locals feel the strain: according to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), the average gross salary in Paris is 54,100 euros, or 4,300 euros above the rest of the country, though the cost of living is way higher. Such averages are misleading; do some research or ask around, and you’ll find that the median gross salary in Paris was around 3,500 to 4,000 euros per month before taxes, and that’s for full-time employees.

Entry-level full-time contracts, even when they are CDI, can be significantly less, sometimes as low as a gross salary of 35,000 euros a year, which isn’t that low within the context of the European Union’s youth employment. Of course, it’s viable to share a lovely apartment in Paris, having such a salary while keeping a decent lifestyle, especially considering quality of life and universal health care. Yet, none of the young professionals attracted by Paris’ life will get their rent subsidized if they want to stay in Haussmannian Paris, the one inside the Peripheric road belt.

A more gentle vision of Paris: Mathieu Kassovitz (“La Haine” director) is Nino Quicampoix in “Amélie” (2001)

Families raising children try to live in desirable school districts, sometimes missing the opportunity of buying a place somewhere less expensive and renting instead. Those trying to build equity and buy their first apartment or those searching for more space opt to go to nearby safe areas with metro and train access to the city core, like Pantin and La Villette, both north of the city. The expensive neighborhoods and towns east of the city contain the best schools and are as costly as central Paris.

We had friends who bought a place in Pantin right outside the road belt and decided to bring their children to a Montessori school in the 9th Arrondissement; formerly affordable areas within Haussmannian Paris like the districts to the east, among them the hills of Belleville and Ménilmontant in the 20th Arrondissement, have attracted the young and bohemian displaced from the formerly-affordable-enough 9th and 10th districts. But no area can be considered affordable anymore. After moving back to Paris from abroad (he lived in Brazil for some years), actor Vincent Cassel settled in the 20th Arrondissement, still working class and multicultural but rapidly gentrifying. The exodus from the already-too-expensive 9th and 10th districts has also benefited the family-friendly area around the gentle Parc Montsouris, about half an hour of promenade straight down from the Jardin du Luxembourg.

The lottery of subsidized housing (and business)

In the New York Times article, we meet Marine Vallery-Radot, a single mum with a teenage son, who was among the 253 fortunate lower-income families chosen to rent the apartments built at l’Îlot Saint-Germain, not far from the National Assembly and the Musée d’Orsay; she pays 600 euros (about $650 a month) for her place. It’s great news for the few fortunate ones who, after years of paperwork and waitlists, get lucky enough to be among the minority living in an excellent location for an artificially low price; in the grand scheme of things, it solves little.

Having lived for many years in Paris, we know first-hand how misleading this take of Paris’ public housing policies can be seen from afar; within the French context, Paris is hardly an example but an aberration to the inhabitants of Grand Paris, to the region île-de-France —and the country as a whole.

Talk to any Parisian family who has been on any of such public housing application lists, and you won’t hear the perspective of the very few who got lucky enough to pay 600 euros for a two-bedroom apartment in central Paris with views to the Latin Quarter, the Tour Eiffel or the Seine, but the cynical resignation of those waiting years to hear about such opportunities.

The term used by Thomas Fuller to explain the policy, that of “mixité sociale,” tries to illustrate how lower-income Parisians from different backgrounds get a chance to stay in the city and be a part of its vibrant fabric of a global city, a “ville monde.” You don’t have to live in Paris for years to realize that Paris has experienced rampant class and racial self-segregation for decades, albeit the phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Île-de-France.

Parisians are conscious that there are only two truly global cities that can be called such in Europe, the other being London, though Brexit increased the attractiveness of Paris and, to some extent, second-tier cities like Amsterdam, Much, Vienna, Milan, or Barcelona as cities to live and invest, as rankings like Mercer’s or the Economist’s Intelligence Unit suggest. No wonder Paris has been consistently on the top-ten list of the most expensive cities in the world for a while now.

Long precarity: les enfants de l’Abbé Pierre

Public housing policies like the widespread HLMs (Habitations à Loyer Moderé, or “Moderate Rent Housing”) have a long history in France; already a sordid background of Émile Zola’s novels, socially subsidized apartments were first built to house the rural population from the rest of France, Italy, or Poland moving to the city during the industrial revolution.

Like Jacob Riis’ photographic document of New York’s poorest tenements and slums in the 1880s, How the Other Half Lives, Zola’s portrayal of the desperate living conditions and descent into poverty and alcoholism of the most vulnerable inspired improvements in early subsidized housing. But New York’s and Paris’ former working-class neighborhoods hardly preserve the traces of their sordid past, let alone the affordable housing.

The first public housing agencies and “projects” for low-income families appeared in the interwar period, though the post-war economic miracle, boosted by the Marshall Plan and a rapid increase in industrial production from 1945 to 1975, the Trente Glorieuses, caused such a housing shortage that Paris had to deal with giant “bidonvilles,” shanty towns that would have dwarfed Central Park’s Hooverville.

The housing shortage was so dire that architects like Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé, among others, were appointed to provide regional and even state-wide proposals to house those who had lost their homes during the war, those moving to the city, and a new wave of immigrants from the soon-to-be independent Algeria hired to work at automobile, appliance and heavy industry factories.

A photographic document of New York’s immigrant slums: Jacob Riis, “How The Other Half Lives,” 1890

Even with the construction frenzy of the often-monstrous social housing high-rises beyond the Périphérique belt, many remained vulnerable. In that context, Henri-Antoine Grouès, a Catholic priest known as Abbé Pierre who had fought with the French Résistance, became a symbol in the Paris region.

Abbé Pierre advocated for the unhoused living in shanties and kickstarted several successful public housing projects financed by mass-philanthropy donation campaigns and public funding. His radio and press ads became so successful and pervasive that Emmaus, the organization he created to fund communities for families living in the few remaining shanty towns, became a Movement, mainly as he fought to keep people warm during the especially harsh winter of 1954:

“My friends, help… A woman has just frozen to death, last night at three o’clock, on the sidewalk of Boulevard Sébastopol, clutching the paper with which, the day before yesterday, she had been evicted…”

Beginning of Abbé Pierre’s call to action, News Magazine at 13h, Radio-Luxembourg, February 1, 1954

Watching Vincent Cassel in “La Haine” in 1995

At the end of the post-war growth period, many people living or moving to the Paris region were eligible to move to newly built HLM buildings. The neighborhoods where the new buildings went up were socially and ethnically diverse, hosting inhabitants from rural France, working families from Southern Europe, racially diverse French citizens from the Caribbean and other French overseas territories, and also families originally from Northern Africa and the old French colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa.

When the 1973 oil crisis ended three decades of unprecedented growth, social alienation, youth unemployment, addiction, and racial tensions started an exodus of better-off families from social housing neighborhoods, which became socially and racially homogeneous. My first take on France’s problematic banlieues came in 1995 when I was in my first year of college in Barcelona. As a student of the faculty of Communication Sciences, there was always somebody playing an exciting movie and colloquium at the school’s Aula Magna; some students had grabbed at some festival a subtitled copy of the 1995 social thriller La Haine (Hate), filmed in black and white and starring, among others, a much younger Vincent Cassel, and decided to play it for us.

The film, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz (later known for his role as Nino Quicampoix in the global blockbuster Amélie), portrayed a perception of the neighboring country I had little knowledge about. Most of us didn’t go to class that whole day and remained there discussing the movie; it had blown our minds, both as a film and as a testimony of how powerful movies can be as artifacts of social denunciation. In that sense, La Haine was probably Europe’s equivalent of Do the Right Thing (1989) or Boyz n the Hood (1991).

It also depicted a story that would cyclically reverberate in France’s banlieues in the decades to come: the difficulties for the children and grandchildren of immigrants to consider themselves—and be perceived—as legitimate members of France’s self-representation. Interestingly, when we moved to Paris, we learned some of the reality it depicts.

Orwell in Paris

We had friends living in Barbès, the neighborhood in the 18th district in the foothills of Montmartre that has avoided gentrification to this day, keeping its working-class, multicultural fabric that goes back to the early twentieth century. Our kids went to one school not far from Barbès that allowed us to meet one of many creative parents there: a French director and screenwriter of Tunisian descent who was friends with the crew of La Haine.

Divorced from a famous Belgian actress with whom he shares a son, this acquaintance was conscious of being a member of a minority of highly successful descendants of extra-European immigrants in Paris. As such, he felt some sort of responsibility, so he made sure to mentor friends from childhood and people he had met along the way who hadn’t been as lucky as him.

La Haine is a day-in-the-life film following the lives of three young friends in a poor immigrant suburb of Paris, who see how a previous violent encounter of a local with the police leaves him in critical condition, sparking riots. This peek into the feeling of disenfranchisement and alienation in the high-rise housing projects of Paris’ outskirts shows to what extent “the miracle of social housing” in Paris is not such.

Vienna’s affordable, well-maintained public housing supply keeps prices convenient for everyone, no matter the income; the displayed modern architecture is inspiring to some, and dystopian to more traditional housing advocates; in the image, an aerial view of the Alterlaa terraces, built between 1970 and 1985; the several terraced buildings are 94 meters high (designed by architect Harry Glück)

One thing is clear, however: just the same way the Village in New York is too expensive to host the artists and beatniks of yesteryear, Paris intra-muros is too costly to welcome the bohemians of today. There’s little in the Latin Quarter that young Ernest Hemingway would recall, nothing from Montmartre familiar to young Picasso or Modigliani. Today’s protagonists aren’t the eccentric hobos described by George Orwell in 1933:

“The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people — people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from normal standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.”

George Orwell, Down and out in Paris and London (1933)

On the contrary, life in the banlieues seems to track the movie dangerously close: ten years after Kassovitz’s movie, in 2005, the Banlieue Riots set fire to Paris’ poorest HLM suburbs, triggered by the death of two teenagers of North African origin who were electrocuted while hiding from police. Similar incidents have sparked similar social unrest across France in 2007 (Villiers-le-Bel, near Paris), 2009 (Montreuil, also near Paris), 2016 (Viry-Châtillon, again just outside Paris), 2017 (Aulnay-sous-Bois, not surprisingly just outside Paris again), and 2021 (Dijon, a provincial city).

More public housing, less affordability overall

I’m unsure if I’d title an article about public housing in Paris like the New York Times did. Anyone with basic notions of French can also search for information regarding alleged irregularities in how social housing is assigned or managed by tenants. The phenomenon isn’t widespread but includes a few cases involving bribes and illegal subleasing to third parties at market-rate prices.

Even if one-quarter of Parisians live now in public housing compared to 13 percent in the late 1990s, not all public housing in the French capital is aimed at the same public —and, if anything, the city has become less socially diverse, and much, much more expensive since after inflation and cost of living adjustments.

The increased housing supply in the outskirts of Paris, with subsidized rent or not, has done more to accommodate lower and middle-class young families than the program discriminating who should get a 600 euros per month apartment in central Paris and who should get a more expensive, also subsidized apartment near the Periphérique, which also took 10 years on a waitlist to get.

There are much better examples of successful programs that not only provide affordable apartments to a few lucky inhabitants but also help stabilize market-rate offers more effectively than London and Paris, the two only European global cities.

Over 60 percent of Vienna residents live in social housing, yet this huge public stock has managed to keep housing affordable compared to salaries and inflation. Quality seems to have prevailed as well. The amount of rent supply also guarantees easy access to housing for every income bracket.

Old Parisian camaraderie

Unlike most prominent cities in Europe and North America, Vienna’s generous supply of social housing keeps costs down for everyone: in 2021, those living in market-rate apartments in the city spent only 26 percent of their post-tax income on rent and energy costs, only 4 points more than the amount paid by social-housing residents (22 percent).

Now let’s do Paris: how much is expected to pay of any Parisian living in the 7th Arrondissement next to the single mom paying 600 euros for her subsidized apartment? Being conservative, at least five (that’s 5) times more for any difficult-to-find bargain that anyone would need to work their way to get at advantageous conditions.

Regarding rent burden relative to post-tax income and inflation, the most vibrant cities in North America are closer to Paris than to Vienna. In New York, 1 in 3 tenants spend half their income on rent, and 55% need to dedicate a third of their earnings to avoid being evicted, according to data from Community Service Society.

Meanwhile, 49% of American renters pay more than 30% of their pretax income on rent, though this figure increases in expensive cities. The alternative, buying a property at interest rates of 30-year fixed mortgages well over 6 percent, is currently out of reach for many first-time buyers.

Is it time to prevent investment funds and corporations from buying apartments in bulk to sell to other investors or rent by the day? When is it enough? The most appealing cities are too expensive to keep the artists that gave them an aura; are people also losing the solidarity of other eras, the benevolence and camaraderie that inspired Georges Brassens to write his song Chanson pour l’auvergnat?