Housing, the front line defence against the COVID-19 outbreak
With the urgent need for effective urban policies, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) called for a virtual meeting to take the debate on housing forward with partners such as United Nations, European Commission, the OECD, universities, research institutes, international development cooperation agencies and NGOs as well as international finance institutions.
29 April 2020. With much of the region living in various degrees of lockdown, two population groups are at higher risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to UN-Habitat: those living in emergency shelters and homelessness and those facing job loss and economic hardship, which could result in mortgage and rental arrears and evictions. With this in mind, the UfM called a meeting to explore emergency housing responses and take stock of the impacts of the pandemic while facilitating exchange of best practices, encouraging policy transfer, and indicating the possible way forward. In all, 54 participants attended the meeting, including representatives from 20 UfM countries, United Nations, European Commission, the OECD, universities, research institutes, international development cooperation agencies and NGOs as well as international finance institutions.
Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, raised the unique impact of the COVID-19 crisis by explaining how it had “completely exposed the vital importance of adequate housing to our safety, health, dignity, financial security: Never before has the need for universal access to adequate housing been so clear, as it is the first line of defence against diseases such as the coronavirus.” Beyond the crisis, housing will also play a key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, as Farha went on to explain that under international human rights law the right to adequate housing covers measures that are needed to prevent homelessness, prohibit forced evictions and guarantee that everyone’s housing is adequate. She underlined that housing “can only be considered adequate only if it is affordable, has potable water, sanitation facilities, electricity and other basic services”.
Nasser Kamel, UfM Secretary General, highlighted that inclusive, adequate and sustainable housing during the pandemic “will also help build resilience more generally, and in particular against climate change in the Mediterranean, where temperatures are rising “20% faster than the global average”. Finally, the moderator of the meeting, Darinka Czischke Ljubetic, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, added that “while tackling emergency measures to face the pandemic, we should also use this crisis as an opportunity to rethink our housing systems so as to make them more resilient and inclusive”.
In the spirit of sharing concrete examples, keynote speakers contributed on additional specific topics. Konstantin Kholodilin of the German Institute for Economic Research started with an overview of his research on housing policies and responses of governments in 59 countries, including state support for the housing market. Marissa Plouin, Policy Analyst of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) followed with an explanation on the long-term, holistic perspective of OECD’s Horizontal Housing Project in building an OECD Housing Strategy, and finally, Andor Urmos, a Policy Analyst of the European Commission, introduced the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative of the European Commission.
Participants observed that governments around the Mediterranean have taken measures, such as bans and moratoriums on evictions, caps on rents and mortgage payments and social rent. They noted that post-pandemic recovery could be challenging for households that benefit from those measures when payments of arrears are resumed, since several of those measures are only temporary.