Belgium

Historical context

Since prehistoric times (800,000 years ago), Belgium’s current territory has been inhabited by humans. The term “Belgium” is already found in Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars. Yet it was not until 1830 that a Belgian state was born, following a revolution that forced out Dutch occupiers. In 1830 Belgium was founded as a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy. After each election, the king appoints the ministers who become the country’s de facto rulers. The Belgian Congo was a former Belgian colony that became independent in 1960. Rwanda and Burundi became independent, in turn, in 1962. Belgium retains a privileged relationship with these countries.

Belgium is a federal state: it includes three regions (Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia) and three linguistic communities (Dutch, Francophone, and German-speaking). Each federal entity has its own government, ministers, and legislation depending on the matters it manages. Belgium is one of the founding members of NATO and has always been very involved in European integration. It is well-known for its “Belgian-style” compromises in politics. Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is also Europe’s capital. Its city center consists of many European Union buildings.

Belgium’s territory is very small (30,000 square kilometers) and quite flat, with access to the sea in the north. With more than 11 million inhabitations (in 2013), it is one of the most densely populated countries, with nearly 370 inhabitants per square kilometer. This has major repercussions for habitat. Some maintain that Belgium has no truly rural habitat, but only urban and semi-urban habitats.

Habitat in Belgium

Urban History – Heritage

Beginning in the tenth century, Belgian towns began to develop, mainly in the county of Flounders and in Wallonia along the Meuse River. Urban development was closely tied to the textile industry (linens). Between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the population, which was afflicted by war and plague, changed little in size. In the nineteenth century, Belgium became the world’s second largest industrial power. In terms of habitat, this resulted in the simultaneous development, in city centers and surrounding areas, of housing for the prosperous commercial bourgeoisie as well as smaller workers’ housing units.

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Brussels developed in a somewhat anarchic fashion. More recently, its development has been driven by investments from the European Union, which established offices there as early as 1958. Only in1989 did Brussels become an autonomous region, which allowed it to use Regional Development Plans to develop its own urban vision. The term “Brusselization” is used to refer to the very opposite of harmonious urban development. Brusselization means the abandonment of a city to real estate developers (in the sixties and seventies), resulting in anarchic development due to the absence of a comprehensive policy for protecting the urban heritage (art nouveau buildings left in a state of decay, etc.).

Following the division of the country into three regions, Brussels is required to remain within its territorial limits: consequently, urban sprawl is not possible. Instead, there is a continuous process of destruction and reconstruction on the same territory. Affordable housing areas are jeopardized by these constant renovations, which benefit the EU and real estate developers. In the capital, rents have skyrocketed.

Today, Brussels is a typical example of a global city.

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Legal Dimensions

ACTORS

The complex matter of housing is primarily managed by the three regions, each of which has a regional housing code. However, the federal government is also in charge of certain aspects of housing policy: leases, social security, taxation, and so on. Finally, municipalities (the smallest territorial level), too, have some housing responsibilities: they regulate urban development, public housing, and care for the homeless.

The main actors involved in implementing housing rights in Belgium are: public housing companies, Public Real Estate Agencies (see below), Housing funds (a semipublic actor which has historically dealt with large families) and, of course, associations.

THE RIGHT TO HOUSING IS INCLUDE IN THE CONSTITUTION

Belgium provides its citizens with the right to adequate housing as the Belgium Constitution (Article 23, paragraph 3) reads, “Everyone has the right to enjoy a life in conformity with human dignity. Towards this end, the law, the decree or rules established under article 134 guarantees, taking into account the corresponding obligations, economic, social, and cultural rights of which they determine the conditions for their implementation.” These rights include, in particular, the right to decent accommodation.

Belgium ratified the Revised European Social Charter on 02/03/2004, accepting 87 of the Revised Charter’s 98 paragraphs, excluding the Article 31 on the right to housing. It accepted the Additional Protocol providing for a system of collective complaints on 23/06/2003, but has not yet made a declaration enabling national NGOs to submit collective complaints.

(Source : FEANTSA,2012) (1)

The right to housing regularly finds itself in conflict with the right to private property. Social movements seeking to impact housing policy must be able to identify and connect the different levels of responsibility if they are to advance their demands. Why? Because housing assistance and regulations vary depending on where one lives. According to observers, this fact has both positive and negative consequences: on the one hand, it allows each region to propose measures specific to its own situation or according to its conception of habitat and housing rights; on the other, problems can arise from the fact that Belgians have different “rights” depending on where they live.

THE REQUISITION LAW

A requisition law (the so-called “Onkelinks” law) was adopted several years ago, but has been little used due to difficulties implementing it. Governments have preferred what is known as “soft requisition,” which consists of offering proprietors incentives to place their properties back on the renting market.

EVICTION PROCEDURES

Article 1344 of the legal code lays out procedures for eviction. It is noteworthy that public services (the Public Center for Social Assistance) are required to provide help to the evicted and that eviction noticed must be made in writing or by citation. According to grassroots social movements, the two major causes for housing evictions are:

  • eviction for breach of contract: the renter is not paying rent;
  • eviction for inadequate health standards: the housing unit is not deemed healthy and livable without endangering the tenant.

Social movements have protested the latter cause, as many mayors use this strategy to “cleanse” city centers of their poorest residents.

SOME INTERESTING PRACTICES

THE PUBLIC HOUSING AGENCY

Belgian authorities have created housing agencies working in the public interest. They mediate between the proprietor and the tenant. These agencies locate through the market proprietors who want to put their properties up for rent without having to manage them, knowing that they will have underprivileged or low-income renters. The Public Housing Agency (L’Agence Immobilière Sociale) sublets the property to renters and takes responsibility for all related issues (renovation, non-occupancy, unpaid rent, etc.).

SLIDING LEASES

This is a slightly more complicated version of the procedure discussed above: if the “public” proprietor determines that the renting arrangement between the tenant and proprietor is working well, it may choose to withdraw from this three-way relationship, “sliding” the lease to the de facto tenant. This procedure requires acquainting proprietors with the challenges their tenants may face.

RENTING PERMITS

In the Walloon Region, proprietors who want to rent out communal housing units or small individual units must obtain a renting permit from the appropriate government authority. The latter ensures prospective renters that their housing units are healthy and in good condition. However, health standards are increasingly strict and the cost of renovations can be passed onto the tenant. This can even lead to evictions when the housing unit does not meet the standards required to obtain a renting permit.

THE COMMUNITY LAND TRUST

This new access to land and property modality comes in line with the United States. The subprime crisis has shown that this model could purchase housing through financial crises. It is a very social promote ownership by implementing three important mechanisms: the separation of land and buildings, the land remains the property of the “trust” that has a right of first refusal on the property with each movement resale – a model of tripartite governance, enabling residents to weigh in the decision concerning them – an anti-speculative mechanism in case of resale to keep a “social” ownership. Read more: Community Land Trust.

Social and Economic Standards

A HOUSING MARKET FAVORING HOME OWNERSHIP

Belgians, it is said, have bricks in their stomachs. Indeed, 68% of them own their homes (source: CECODHAS Report, 2012), while two-thirds of tenants aspire to become owners. While rent leases are generally favorable to tenants, rent levels are such that, in the absence of regulation (which associations have pushed for), they continue to skyrocket. 25% of Belgians rent on the private market and 7% on the public renting market. Citizens receiving an income replacement benefit (such as a social integration income) must devote half or even two-thirds of their income simply to paying rent. There is also a financial penalty for cohabitation. It is worth noting, however, that young people, upon completing their studies, can receive a small income replacement benefit. Finally, there is almost no assistance to individuals for acquiring housing. Belgian housing policies emphasize assistance to buildings rather than assistance to individuals.

Real estate purchases benefit from the fact that the residential market receives strong legal protection: “Generally speaking, the residential real estate market is relatively protected in Belgium: reduction of registration fees, deductibility of housing mortgages, and the absence of value added tax on home sales.” Source: Revue Trends Tendance (February 2012).

According to a recent study by the OECD, the Belgian housing market has the following characteristics: it is one of the most inelastic in Europe (in other words, it reacts poorly to variations in supply and demand) and it has some of the highest transaction costs in the Euro zone—costs that are paid exclusively by the buyer. This may explain why, over the course of their lives, Belgians are unlikely to move. What the OECD sees as a lack of mobility, Belgian observers see as a reason for the housing’s relatively high quality, since families, once they become owners, have an incentive to invest in their homes. We should temper this optimism, however, by pointing out that according to the federal anti-poverty agency, 31.5% of Belgians (in 2008) live in housing that is deficient in at least one respect.

Between 1980 and 2008, the price of housing doubled. This is one of the most dramatic price increases in all Europe. But this must be offset by the fact that, previously, Belgian housing costs were lower than those of their neighbors. On average, mortgages are paid off in around 25 years.

Public Housing in Liège and Brussels Four-façade villa typical of the Brabant

PUBLIC HOUSING

Definition and situation in 2012

Since 1980, social housing has been a regional competence in Belgium. Each of the three Regions (Brussels-Capital Region, Wallonia and Flanders) has established its own Housing Code, which establishes the right to housing and defines the concept and scope of social housing provision. Social housing accounts on average for about 7% of the total national housing stock, with differences between the regions (around 6% in Flanders and Wallonia, 8% in the Brussels). Social housing in Belgium is pro- vided both for rent and for sale in Wallonia and Flanders, while in the Brussels it includes only rental dwellings.

How does it work ?

Unlike in the majority of member states, where rents are designed to cover costs, the level of rent is related to the income of the tenant/household. Faced with the need to increase the availability of affordable housing Belgian housing policies are looking at ways to mobilise private resources to answer housing needs. For instance, there have been several examples of successful public-private partner- ships in urban regeneration projects as well as new construction. Moreover, most recently in Flanders new legislation was introduced aiming at making private developers participate to the construction of social housing.

Acces conditions vary across regions. In general, allocation policies in Belgium are based mainly on income ceilings, combined with the household size and on the condition that the applicant does not own a property. Other priority criteria (determining the urgency of the application) also influence the order in which dwellings are allocated.

Source : CECODHAS Report 2012

HOMELESSNESS IN THE MIDST OF VACANT BUILDINGS AND FINANCIAL SPECULATION

According to Feantsa, Belgium, in 2010, had 17,000 homeless or people with no fixed residence. Social movements like the Common Homeless Front (Front commun des sans abri) and Daklooze Actie Komiteit (DAK) actively support the mobilization of the homeless. This figure has apparently skyrocketed: in late 2011, the DAK announced that the number had risen to 50,000 people, with only a minority consisting of the “visible” homeless. The remainder—including many young people—is the submerged part of the iceberg.

Yet unoccupied housing units do indeed exist: there are at least 15,000 vacant units in Brussels itself. More astonishing still is the fact that since 1993, a law (the so-called Onkelinx) allows mayors to requisition empty buildings to house the homeless. There are two reasons why this is law is rarely enforced: on the one hand, government authorities would first have to handle their own properties (i.e., “their” vacant buildings); on the other, requisition requires additional financing, to renovate the buildings before they are distributed to the homeless. This measure, in short, has had little impact. This is why the Human Rights League concludes that, given the explosion of homelessness in Belgium, the time has perhaps come to enforce the law.

Finally, major Belgian cities have been prey to financial speculation. Speculation in turn leads to gentrification. This has been particularly true in recent decades of Brussels (one of the European Union’s capitals), the proprietors of working-class housing having every interest in selling their property to housing developers. To limit speculation, a tax of over 15% is levied on properties that are bought and resold at a profit within five years: This is known as the “tax on surplus housing value.” Many residents’ committees have been created in Brussels in the wake of evictions of entire urban neighborhoods for the purpose of massive developments.

Precarious Habitats in Vacation Areas Solidarity Renting in Ottignies Squat IN Bruxelles

“ALTERNATIVE” HOUSING HAS EMERGED IN THE MIDST OF THE HOUSING CRISIS

New ways of living, which are more or less tolerated by the government, have emerged both as a response to the limits and constraints of the housing market and as experiments in “living differently.” Examples include:

  • Living in residential camping grounds, in chalets, and camping cars. It is estimated that in southern Belgium10,000 people live in this kind of housing, whether by choice or by necessity. Associations offer support to these families, who are often harassed by local authorities.
  • Living in groups or with roommates. This can take multiple forms: intergenerational habitat, “solidarity habitat,” etc. Clearly, the need for communal bonds in a hyper-individualistic system has once again become fashionable.
  • Squats continue to attract young people, as well as individuals of immigrant origin. Some have established procedures to ensure they can hold on to their habitat for longer periods of time. These squats are also home to people waiting for their asylum requests to be processed.
  • One could also include “self-building,” “habitats plumes,” yurts, sheds, etc.

If government authorities are currently more open to such alternative forms of housing, to the point of occasionally granting them legal recognition (in the Housing Code), one must be wary that this does not become a right to second-class housing for second-class citizens, but rather a right to be different and to find one’s own housing solutions, particularly in the midst of a housing crisis.

Cultural, Religious, and Symbolic Dimensions

The presence of textile factories, coal mines, and metallurgy in Belgian cities attest to the country’s industrial. Towns and villages developed historically around the church, the religious symbol of a nation that is historically Catholic, as evidenced by its political parties and social movements (such as the Christian workers’ movement). Today, Belgian cities also have synagogues and mosques. Brussels is particularly cosmopolitan: some neighborhoods have areas where businesses are mostly run by people from different cultures.

Among the actors promoting urban culture, one should mention Recyclart, which has been active in Brussels since 1997. Its goal has been to regenerate a relatively abandoned working-class neighborhood through urban creativity, organizing artistic and cultural activities that involve neighborhood youth. Graffiti and anti-establishment drawings are found throughout Belgian cities, particularly Brussels. Government authorities have even specifically set aside urban spaces for young graffiti artists.

Graffiti Graffiti

Ecological Dimensions

Belgium has generally been a poor student of environmental policy. However, this fact is partially explained by its population density, leading to air pollution rates in the north and center that are among the highest in Europe.

On the other hand, in terms of waste management, Belgium has implemented selective waste collection (paper, cardboard, glass, metal, organic matter, etc.) across its entire territory.

Residents must thus be able to store this sorted waste on their own until collection trucks arrive. This is often a challenge for the smaller housing units. Containers for the bulkiest kinds of waste are often located near cities.

Urban mobility is generally a matter of concern. Government authorities often limit themselves to half-hearted incentives to encourage citizens to take public transport instead of cars. Polls taken among city dwellers (Local Agenda 21) often cite the negative effects of cars in the city as the biggest problem, along with the lack of green areas and a sense of urban insecurity.

Brussels and Flanders timidly initiated the Local Agenda 21, while Wallonia is currently trailing. Government authorities in these two regions have proposed incentives to municipalities. The theme of habitat has reappeared in many action plans.

Finally, in terms of habitat and in keeping with the 2002 European directive on energy availability in buildings, Flanders since 2009 requires a certificate on energy availability (energy availability and inner climate) for the buying and renting of buildings. An energy certificate is also required in Wallonia. As with each new set of regulations, this measure has positive and negative consequences for the poor. It is positive because rent levels are fast becoming secondary compared to energy costs. Cost controls could benefit the poor. But it is also clear the some housing will not meet the requirements and that renovation costs will be so great that small proprietors will opt to stop renting their properties, further reducing Belgium’s already limited private rental market.

Bibliography & Sitography

  1. FEANTSA Network

PROBLEMS AND RECOMMENDATIONS (ACCORDING TO SOCIAL MOVEMENTS)

MAJOR PROBLEMS :

  • 35% of renters live below the poverty level.
  • Two out of three individuals receiving a social integration income (an income replacement benefit) must seek housing in the private sector and devote 50% of their income to housing.
  • 39% of workers have problems paying for housing. 56% of the unemployed and 66% of single-parent families face the same challenges.
  • 18% of renters live in homes of poor or very poor quality.
  • More than 10,000 people in the south live in residential camping grounds (which began as vacation areas).
  • There are a large number of people on the waitlist for public housing.
  • The right to housing does not always benefit the most vulnerable populations (cf. evictions resulting from poor sanitation and energy certificates).
  • More and more of the underprivileged (including the homeless) suffer from mental illness, which is both a cause and a consequence of their poor housing situation.

MAJOR DEMANDS:

Major demands made by social movements include:

To assist the underprivileged:

  • Eliminate cohabitation penalties (the “roommate rate” of income replacement benefits).
  • Distribute assistance and services for the homeless more equally between cities, to ensure that the same cities do not always bare all the costs.
  • Improve the most vulnerable population’s access to public transportation (since mobility is a necessity).
  • Increase the number of “transitional”—i.e., temporary—housing units.
  • Give the homeless access to water fountains, sanitation, and showers to allow them to maintain a level of hygiene and personal appearance sufficient to find a job.

Against empty housing units:

  • Improve public administration law so as to allow government authorities to requisition and renovate empty buildings while limiting financial risks.
  • Create an agency in city centers that can turn office space into housing.
  • Improve the management and renovation of vacant public housing (there are 2,340 public housing units in Brussels that are vacant due to unsanitary conditions).

To ensure a right to housing for all:

  • Fight gentrification caused by eviction orders due to unsanitary conditions.
  • Create integrated public housing in urban neighborhoods.
  • Promote “self-building” and other ways of living.
  • Create a tax structure that taxes proprietors for the real income they receive from rents.
  • Take into account especially the housing situation of young people.
  • Develop a housing rights “enforceable” as in France and Scotland, that is to say that the state should implement the right enshrined in the Constitution.

A FEW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS:

  • RASSEMBLEMENT BRUXELLOIS POUR LE DROIT A L’HABITAT (RBDH) = The RBDH is a bilingual group comprising some fifty associations which, each in its own locality, defends the right to housing and works for greater access to affordable quality housing. Website. – They can be contacted on their website.
  • MINISTERE DE LA CRISE DU LOGEMENT (An activist movement) = A national associative project that seeks to create a network for exchanging information and experiences, in order to launch initiatives that will make the right to housing a reality and appeal to politicians in original ways. Website – They can be contacted on their website.
  • ARAU (Atelier de Recherche et d’Actions Urbaines) = ARAU is a residents’ group organized as a not-for-profit association. It analyzes private and public urban development projects and seeks to improve them as a way of improving urban life: more housing, greater social and functional diversity, and more space for active users of urban space. Their goal is to promote the city as a place where one chooses to live. WebsiteContact them.
  • BRAL (Brusselse Raad Voor Leefmilieu) = is a Brussels-based Flemish-speaking association which brings together organizations and residents who share the same commitment : a “livable” city, where one can freely move, dwell, and live in an ecological, affordable, and pleasant way. WebsiteContact them.
  • SOLIDARITES NOUVELLES = A Wallonian union for tenants, permanent camping ground inhabitants, and the homeless. They are mainly concerned with housing issues relating to the vulnerable populations. They work with several activist organizations, including action groups in Liège, Mons, and Charleroi. Their goal is promote a more critical and responsible social consciousness. WebsiteContact them.
  • PERIFERIA = An association that seeks to restore the place of the collective in today’s society. It does so by recreating bonds between various forms of civic engagement; by building strong citizens’ initiatives, capable of proposing, interfering with, and negotiation with government authorities; by giving credit to the genuine openness of certain territories, bureaucracies, and executive authorities; etc. WebsiteConcat them.
  • VLAAMS HUURDERPLATFORM – VHP = The Flemish tenants’ initiative. For the public as well as the private sector. Among other things, they help private proprietors to contribute to public-style housing; offer legal advice; and coordinate low-cost furniture stores. WebsiteContact them.
  • SAMENLEVINGSOPBOUW = The East Flanders Development Community. A social organization with 30 paid employees and 95 volunteers. It promotes community work and development projects. WebsiteContact them.
  • HABITAT ET PARTICIPATION = An association founded in 1982, which seeks to promote participatory processes in the realm of housing. It supports groups that seek to create collective housing alternatives. Websitecontact@habitat-participation.be.
  • SYNDICAT DES LOCATAIRES and Belgian DAL = An association offering free consultations to help tenants defend their rights. It takes a stand on many public issues and participates in major public debates so as to advance renters’ rights. Their blog
  • FRONT COMMUN DES SDF = A pressure group operating at the federal level to support the housing rights of the homeless and squatters. WebsiteContact them
  • DAKLOZE ACTIE KOMITEIT = An association for the homeless that has taken a series of initiatives to support them. They also contribute each year to the General Report on Poverty, which is updated annually by the King Baudouin Foundation. Contact themphilippe.decraene@gmail.com.
  • RESEAU BELGE DE LUTTE CONTRE LA PAUVRETE = (Belgian Network against Poverty) network which includes movements fighting against poverty in various regions of the country and advocates for the rights of the poor, including through lobbying and visibilisation issues. Website

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