FRANCE – COVID-19

French charity warns millions risk losing homes due to Covid fallout

Apartment buildings at a public housing estate in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris, 25 September 2020. A housing report by French charity the Abbé Pierre Foundation released Tuesday warned the coronavirus epidemic has exacerbated conditions for a full-fledged housing crisis.
Apartment buildings at a public housing estate in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris, 25 September 2020. A housing report by French charity the Abbé Pierre Foundation released Tuesday warned the coronavirus epidemic has exacerbated conditions for a full-fledged housing crisis. © AFP/Geoffroy Van der Hasselt

A French charity warned Tuesday that millions of people facing housing difficulties were at risk of being unable to bounce back with any economic recovery from the Covid epidemic. While the government has extended a moratorium on evictions for unpaid rents, the charity warned of a fully-fledged social crisis in the making.

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A week after anti-poverty group Oxfam warned the coronavirus pandemic had worsened global inequality, a French housing charity has published a study on how the health crisis has worsened a social crisis in France. 

In its 26th report on housing for France’s most precarious residents, the Abbé Pierre Foundation found about 4 million people are underhoused in France, including some 300,000 homeless.

The charity found that in all, more than 12 million people, or nearly 1 in 5 French people, are facing difficulties in maintaining a roof over their heads. 

Underhousing tied to rising poverty

The report compiles data from other charities, including Secours Populaire, which saw a 45% rise in applications for food aid in 2020 compared with 2019, and Restos du Coeur, which is planning to deliver meals to 1 million people this winter, up from 875,000 in 2019-2020.

Citing official figures, the foundation noted applications for France’s RSA welfare benefits increased by 10% in 2020, from 1.9 to 2.1 million people, and warned the risk of housing difficulties increased as more people become precarious. 

“Our fear is that people will fall over the edge,” Manual Domergue, who oversaw the publication, told RFI.

“We imagine that even if the economy gets back to normal in the next six months to a year, these people will have difficulty coming out the slump.”

Particularly vulnerable are youth who are unable to benefit from the RSA and who are unable to receive support of parents, friends, education or employment. 

Concern of growing precariousness

Since March 2020, France’s government has responded to successive waves of the Covid epidemic with relief including furloughs to maintain jobs in businesses closed due to health restrictions.

But after nearly a year of health restrictions, many households - especially single-parent and isolated ones - are finding their resources diminished, especially for those working in most-affected industries. 

“People who work in hotels, restaurants, cultural events, and people who work independently - who never had difficulties in their lives - are now finding themselves without resources, or with an abrupt fall in their resources,” foundation jurist Marie Rothhahn told RFI. 

“And we know there are many students who are eligible to eviction at any moment of the year because they live in student residences, unprotected by the winter truce.”

Government extends moratorium on evictions

In response to the situation, France’s government announced it will extend an annual moratorium on evictions known as the winter truce for the second year in a row, from 1 April to 1 June. 

“In a health crisis that became an economic crisis, we’re now at risk of falling into a social crisis,” Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon told newspaper Le Parisien. “We are facing a real risk for househoulds in difficulty.”

It would be the second year in a row the moratorium was extended due to the coronavirus epidemic. It was postponed until 10 July last year, and the French state issued orders to limit evictions even in the summer.

As a result, 3,500 people were evicted in 2020, according to a parliamentary report published Sunday, down 79% from the 16,500 in 2019.

Ticking time bomb

The Abbé Pierre Foundation, however, underlined that the extended grace period itself does not address the causes of underhousing, and that the overall number of evictions has increased 40% over the past decade. 

Instead, the charity warns of a ticking time bomb that will explode when temporary relief measures end, potentially leaving millions with nowhere to go.

“About 13,000 households would have been evicted in normal conditions, and will be subject to eviction when the winter truce ends in 2021,” says Manuel Domergue. 

“On top of that are households that have fallen into unpaid rents and utilities due to lockdown. The risk is an explosion in evictions in 2021, as well as 2022 or 2023.”

A related concern for the charity is a surge in demand for social housing, the construction of which has declined steadily since 2018. 

The government acknowledged this on Tuesday, with Wargon pledging to finance 250,000 new units over two years. The charity said it would watch closely to ensure the pledge was honoured.

 

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