Expensive and dirty homes
The difficulty of access to decent and affordable housing is one of the greatest sources of social and environmental injustice both in Catalonia and in the whole of Spain. It already was before the pandemic of COVID-19 and will continue to be so in the immediate future. From the 1950s, when the Franco dictatorship set out to "convert proletarians into owners", until well into the 21st century, when the bursting of the housing bubble left hundreds of thousands of families evicted by a draconian mortgage law while Public coffers rescued banks, administrations at all levels have prioritized private property over public rental. The systematic sale of protected housing, tax exemptions to promote mortgage purchases and the dearth of the public housing stock - ten times lower than the European average - have exposed the Spanish population to one of the highest housing cost overburden rates in Europe.
In an economy excessively dependent on mass tourism and the real estate sector, urban centers are being devastated by gentrification, which expels working classes and new generations towards sprawling peripheries where they depend more on cars. Moreover, despite its considerable weight in the state GDP, the building industry has not been able to refurbish a very deteriorated stock of buildings, with poor accessibility and very inefficient from the energy point of view. Nor has it been able to renew itself to overcome the use of highly polluting materials such as reinforced concrete, responsible for energy waste, waste squandering and 6% of global CO₂ emissions.
Affordable housing as an in-kind Universal Basic Income
Despite being a serious problem, housing can also become a great solution. Innovation in affordable and sustainable housing policies could be one of the most effective recipes to tackle the economic, social and environmental crises that lie ahead. To begin with, public housing can behave as an in-kind Universal Basic Income (UBI). In sufficient quantities - close to European normality - and in a proper territorial distribution - avoiding the formation of peripheral ghettos -, a good rental public housing stock would alleviate the high proportion of income that households dedicate to paying for a dwelling. This would result in the revival of domestic consumption and local retail commerce, in addition to cushioning the social costs of the destruction of jobs that automation may bring in the coming decades. It would also hinder the blackmail of job insecurity and provide workers with more free time for leisure, training or citizen participation.
All of these benefits are already often stressed out in defense of the monetary UBI, but there are others that would only be realized through a residential UBI. On the one hand, the first one entails the risk that landowners could absorb the new liquidity that the population would get by making rents or mortgages more expensive. This would be much more unlikely in the second case, since a large part of the housing supply would be in the hands of the public administration. On the other hand, by easing the urge to crowd into centers of economic activity, the monetary UBI could cause a centrifugation of the population to sprawling peripheries where house prices are lower. This dispersion would lead to negative externalities for the common good, such as an increasing cost of infrastructure and services, energy waste, territorial depredation or the increase in pollution and greenhouse emissions. Instead, the residential UBI would avoid these effects if it was implemented through urban-planning strategies that guarantee the correct distribution of the affordable housing stock in blended and compact neighborhoods, namely, equipped, walkable and well served by public transport.
A Green New Deal for sustainable housing
The building sector is one of the most backward in terms of prefabrication. Just as the automotive industry, that of household appliances or that of information and communication technologies (ICT) have experienced an exponential evolution in the last century, building remains stagnant in desires for excessive consistency and durability that make it more inefficient, unfair and unsustainable in economic, social and environmental terms. The use of heavy and irreversible materials such as brick, steel and, especially, reinforced concrete, generates a large number of negative externalities, both in construction and in the maintenance and demolition of buildings.
On the other hand, the industrialization of prefabricated, light and dry - without consuming water - modules entails innumerable environmental benefits in the field of construction or rehabilitation of comfortable, accessible homes with high thermal and energy performance. Given the high demand for affordable housing, this industry could be a revolution in the reconversion of obsolete, polluting and highly subsidized sectors such as the automotive or tourism. A Green New Deal focused on the industrialization of sustainable construction components would be perfectly aligned with the objectives of the European Green Deal and would justify its financing with EU funds, since it would create added value in social and environmental terms. From a social point of view, it would contribute greatly to the relocation and diversification of productive activity, as well as to the creation of tens of thousands of qualified and stable jobs. From an environmental point of view, it would serve to mitigate to a large extent polluting emissions, waste of water and energy dependence.
Within the field of prefabrication, there are two trends that are especially innovative in ecological terms. On the one hand, the reuse of shipping containers makes the most of its lightness and load-bearing capacity, avoiding the energy consumption of melting steel or the waste of water that the use of concrete implies. On the other hand, the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) modules extracted from local plantations - which have been fixing carbon during their growth - combines high thermal and structural performance in a single lightweight and precise material. In both cases, the work is not only shortened and substantially reduced, but the demolition and management of rubble is also avoided, since the modular components are removable, transportable and reusable in other buildings. After all, an entire industrial revolution based on sustainable construction, the creation of quality jobs and the defense of the right to housing and the right to the city. Is there a better recipe to get out of the crisis?
Article of David Bravo | Architect, member of the ATRI team