A capsule hotel providing inspiration for future accommodation. / © AFP archives
As we turn another page in the never-ending story that is our housing crisis, politicians and decision-makers continue to dream up the most dystopian of solutions.
The housing crisis faced by the residents of this country is hardly news at this point, or at least it wouldn't be if our elected officials didn't continuously fail to do anything about it.
I thought I had written my last opinion on the subject for at least a year when, back in January, I couldn't stop myself from writing about the beautifully toothless rental price cap. But our recent article following the national housing conference held on Thursday this week truly peeved me, so here we are again.
Imagine a room filled with the best and the brightest in the housing industry: dressed to the nines, they have come armed with decades of experience and heads filled with ideas for how we can finally, once and for all, tackle the housing shortage that Luxembourg is facing. Sounds like exactly what we need, doesn't it?
What ideas might they have come up with, you wonder? Something drastic, like forced re-zoning of vast swathes of land on which perfectly planned villages will be built, alongside the concurrent expansion of schools and public transport networks to minimise the impact of cars for all of the future residents to get to work? That would be nice, but perhaps a tad too ambitious: so might it instead be something less drastic like, say, higher taxation on speculative property investment and increased incentives for municipalities to zone for affordable housing? Not quite.
It's all your fault
The main takeaway seems to be what we've seen so many times before: house prices are your fault. Your expectations are the problem, you see.
One professor Florian Hartweck from the University of Luxembourg argued that "three bedroom, two bathrooms and a view of nature" isn't feasible and doesn't meet the needs of today.
Urban architect Christine Muller chimed in that while everyone wants a single-family home, "it is not possible."
Most telling of all, however, was a statement by Minister Kox, who thinks we need to change our thinking. "We need alternatives," he said, and so far I'm with him, "for example, I recently visited a municipality which had purchased a single-family property and turned it into a communicy space to accommodate seven young people." Yikes.
I don't know what the size of this property was, but unless the single-family it was intended for were some form of minor royals, converting it into a shared home for seven people comes exceptionally close to my definition of hell. Referring to it as a "community space" is supposed make it sound a bit more palatable, but if there is one thing I do not want in my home it's a community. I want peace, quiet, and to be able to live according to my own rules and rhythm, knowing that the dishwasher is exactly as full or empty as I left it, and if the shower drain is plugged up with hair, I have only myself to blame.
That's not to say that there is anything wrong with flatshares and the like - I too lived in shared properties for the first several years of supposed adulthood, up until I was about 25. I didn't love it by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fine, acceptable, and essentially my only option. A rite of passage.
But even pretending that this is the solution to our housing crisis is at best questionable, at worst damaging. It's not something that only affects the young and single. The crisis doesn't consist of hordes of 22-year-olds who think they should have the right and possibility to buy a three-bedroom house now. It affects everyone. If a couple consisting of two middle-income earners can't afford to buy a two-bedroom house and start a family, the problem is not one of expectation, and that's the situation many find themselves in.
Looking beyond the problem
Core to the problem is that salaries aren't keeping up with the cost of housing despite indexation. That's in part because we aren't building enough to keep up with the influx of labour, but that's not the full story.
Within five minutes' walk of where I live stand two massive, beautiful houses. They must be 250-300m2 a piece (I'd imagine you could squeeze a community of 20 people in each), free-standing, with large lush gardens (tents, anyone?). Both of them are slowly crumbling to pieces as whoever owns them seemingly has no interest in living there, nor letting anyone else do so. I don't know why that is - it could be a feud over inheritence, it could be that they were bought by a speculative investor for whom the thousands of euro per month that they could get through rent doesn't justify the effort. That doesn't change the fact that these gorgeous houses - and I would happily swap for either of them - are just standing there.
In the same area are at least 5 plots of perfectly buildable land. Plots that just sit there, grass growing taller seemingly by the hour, the only sign of ownership being the apparently compulsory sign proclaiming the land private and establishing that dogs are verboten. Again, I can think of very few reasons for this except pure speculation that so long as land owners don't sell or build, prices will increase.
Well, there is one other possible reason: ridiculous regulation. I happen to know that in this particular municipality, some of those plots can only be used for a single-family home, and not apartments. Why? Because they aren't wide enough to accommodate one garage per apartment. That's right - if you can't ensure that each flat comes with private parking, you can't build more than one home. This in an area where there is a surplus of parking, the tram is a brisk 10-minute walk away, and buses stop by every thirty minutes. If you thought we were moving away from the era of cars, think again.
But of course, I'm naive. Let's not focus on windfall taxes on speculation, nor work on more flexible zoning rules, fast-track re-zoning in key areas, nor incentivise affordable housing. That's 1950s thinking, and we're living in the future.
No, lets instead see if we can't squeeze ten adults into what was once a four-bedroom property. The future is bright for landlords.