A shrinking housing stock leaves Parisians in exile

The latest study of France’s national statistics institute, INSEE, on the French population revealed a severe assessment: in the past few years, Paris has been swiftly emptying of its residents.

The survey highlights the extent of this inversion: “From 2011 to 2016, the city has lost an average 0.5% of its population each year (-11,900 residents a year), when it was increasing by 0.6% a year (+13,700) between 2006 and 2011. It is subject to a clear degradation of its negative net migration rate, which is no more compensated by the rate of natural increase.”

In just five years, the population of the French capital decreased by almost 60,000 people. The exodus is sizeable: nine of its twenty arrondissements (districts) have a population equal or lower than that. So what explains the depth and hastiness of this phenomenon?

Housing-related costs are a clear driving factor. In the space of twenty years, the value of Parisian real estate has surged fourfold. The record inflation registered in the capital even exceeded the rates observed in similar global cities, such as New York and London. As a consequence of its seemingly endless value maximization, real estate in Paris became much more than just a safe haven — an investment like any other for those who can afford it.

An increasingly large share of the housing stock is now monopolized by owners who are either already living in another Parisian apartment, or rarely in town. According to Paris Deputy Mayor for Housing Ian Brossat, there are currently “100,000 secondary residences” in the city. “Half of [the apartments] on Île Saint-Louis are secondary residences!” he states, evoking one of the two Parisian islands in the historic center of the French capital.

Among the winners of the Parisian Monopoly, some multi-owners benefit from a relatively recent phenomenon: the quick growth of short-term rental platforms, with Airbnb in the front row. The city is not just another profitable market for the company. Its founder Brian Chesky hailed Paris the “top destination in the world for home sharing,” with the city holding records on the platform for both the number of stays spent by users and number of lodgings offered. In 2017, close to 60,000 housing units were available on its website.

Paris authorities estimate the total amount of multi-property landlords using the platform to be around 20,000. The numbers are easy to work out for speculators: it is indeed 2.5 times more profitable to keep one’s apartment available for short-term rentals than opting for long-term tenancy, a gap which deepens further in the most central neighborhoods of the French capital. Even areas with few tourist attractions are not spared, with locals now deprived of 4% of the housing stock in Eastern Paris’ 10th and 11th arrondissements.

The Paris municipality has taken actions to contain the impact of the phenomenon: among them implementing a mandatory registration process for landlords, limiting short-term rentals to 120 days a year, and increasing taxes on secondary residences. However these measures have proven insufficient and illegality remains the norm. The lack of control does not deter unscrupulous users, making the requirements still largely theoretical. “An increasing number of owners are buying entire buildings and turning them into illegal hotels”, denounced the Deputy Mayor for Housing.

The process in which local communities are chased out of tourist areas is not a Parisian exception, having already significantly modified the demography of other capitals and destinations around the world. The same phenomenon tottered the bohème and exiled communities of entire neighborhoods in San Francisco, Barcelona and Berlin. In Paris as well, it is unfortunately too late for too many.

The monopolizing of the housing stock to the detriment of the vast majority of Parisians is all the more questionable as affordable housing remains a major concern across the capital. With the end of rent control policies in 2017, widespread substandard housing, and more than 25% of total lodging in the city qualifying as overcrowded housing, difficulties are piling up for working-class Parisian and are now largely affecting the middle class as well.

Others don’t have the chance to have a roof over their heads. A year ago, the “Night of Solidarity” census enabled volunteers to estimate the number of homeless in the French capital to 21,185, including 3,000 people sleeping outside in the middle of February. A quick stroll down Parisian streets is enough to glimpse the ubiquity of extreme poverty and its unjustifiable dimensions, with whole families and children lying on the pavement.

With the combined housing and migrant crisis in recent years, Parisian sidewalks have become home to many more. Prior to the evacuation of the Millénaire refugee camp in May 2018, at least 2,500 migrants lived in dire conditions in northeast Paris. Since then, repeated police operations have pushed some outside the capital to bordering cities such as Saint-Denis, and left the others in a situation of increasing vulnerability due to the lack of beds in welcome centers and shelters.

Yet there is room, even in dense Paris. On January 6, 2019, around 200 homeless people, Parisians living in substandard accommodation and activists of the association Droit au Logement (“Right to Housing”) took a symbolic action to prove it. For a few hours, they occupied a massive office building which had stood empty since 2017 – before they were forcibly removed by police. The activists aimed to denounce the obscene housing inequalities in France, demanding that empty buildings be used to shelter those living in the streets.

There are a total of 350,000 empty apartments in Paris — 11.7% of the city’s housing stock. In the four central arrondissements of the capital, more than a quarter of apartments are currently vacant. While some are speculating, others can only lament the switched-off lights and closed windows from the cold sidewalk.

“The first battle is to house everyone with dignity. By the end of the year, I do not want to have women and men sleeping in the streets, in the woods, abandoned,” stated President Macron in 2017. That same year, 137 homeless people died in Paris. Despite the depth and absurdity of the housing crisis, priorities seem to have changed.

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