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  • Writer's pictureDavid Bravo

Dirty and Expensive Houses


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 the Spanish State. It already was before the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be so in the immediate future. From the 1950s, when the Franco dictatorship set out to "turn the proletarians into homeowners", until well into the 21st century, when the bursting of the real estate bubble left hundreds of thousands of families evicted by a draconian mortgage law while the Public coffers rescued banks, administrations at all levels have prioritized private property over public rent. The systematic sale of subsidized housing, tax exemptions to promote mortgage purchases and the small size of the public housing stock - ten times lower than the European average - have exposed the Spanish population to one of the highest rates of residential overexertion in all of Europe. . In an economy excessively dependent on mass tourism and the real estate sector, urban centers are the pasture of gentrification, which expels the popular classes and the new generations towards dispersed peripheries where they depend more on the car. In addition, despite its considerable weight in the state GDP, the construction industry has not been able to rehabilitate a very old built park, 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, which is responsible for wasting energy, wasting water and 6% of global CO₂ emissions.

Innovation in affordable and sustainable housing policies can be one of the best recipes to face the social and environmental crises that lie ahead.

Affordable housing as Universal Basic Income in kind Despite being a serious problem, housing can become a great solution. Innovation in affordable and sustainable housing policies can be one of the most effective recipes to face the economic, social and environmental crises that lie ahead. To begin with, public housing can behave as a kind of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in kind. In sufficient quantities - close to European normality - and with a correct territorial distribution - avoiding the formation of peripheral ghettos - a good public rental park would alleviate the high proportion of income that households spend on paying for a roof. This would result in the reactivation of domestic consumption and local commerce, apart from cushioning the social costs of job destruction 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 frequently used in defense of the monetary UBI, but there are others that would only be achieved through a residential UBI. On the one hand, the first involves the risk that landowners will absorb the new liquidity available to the population through higher rent or mortgage prices. This would be much more unlikely in the second case, as a large part of the supply is in the hands of the public administration. On the other hand, by relaxing the urge to agglomerate in the centers of economic activity, the monetary UBI could provoke a centrifugation of the population towards the peripheries where house prices are lower. This dispersion would lead to negative externalities for the common good, such as the increase in the cost of infrastructures and services, energy waste, territorial depredation or the increase in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, the residential RBU would avoid these effects if it were implemented through urban strategies that guarantee the correct distribution of the affordable park in mixed and compact neighborhoods, that is, equipped, walkable and well served by public transport.

A Green New Deal for sustainable housing The construction sector is one of the most backward in terms of prefabrication. Just as the automotive, household appliances or information and communication technologies (ICT) industries have undergone an exponential evolution in the last century, the building is still stagnant in desires of 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 modules —without water consumption— entails innumerable environmental benefits in the field of construction or renovation of comfortable, accessible homes with high thermal and energy performance. Given the high demand for affordable housing, this industry could represent a complete revolution in the conversion of obsolete, polluting and highly subsidized sectors such as automotive or tourism. A Green New Deal focused on the industrialization of sustainable building components would be perfectly aligned with the objectives of the European Green Deal and would justify its financing with Community funds, since it would create added value in social and environmental terms. From the social point of view, it would contribute greatly to the relocation and diversification of productive activity, as well as the creation of tens of thousands of qualified and stable jobs. From the environmental point of view, it would serve to largely mitigate polluting emissions, waste of water and energy dependence. Within the field of prefabrication, there are two particularly innovative lines in ecological terms. On the one hand, the reuse of maritime containers takes the best advantage of their lightness and bearing capacity, avoiding the energy consumption of melting steel or the waste of water that the use of concrete implies. On the other, the use of cross-laminated wood modules (CLT) extracted from local plantations - which have fixed carbon during their growth - combines in a single lightweight and precise material high thermal and structural performance. In one case as in the other, not only is the work substantially shortened and cheaper, but also the demolition and management of debris is avoided, since the modular components are removable, transportable and reusable in other buildings. At the end of the day, 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 by David Bravo | Architect, ATRI team member




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