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Europe’s housing crisis risks fueling rise of far-right, UN expert warns

Unaffordable rents and property prices risk becoming a key political battleground across the European continent


Spiraling rents and sky-high property prices risk becoming a key battleground of European politics as far-right and populist parties start to exploit growing public anger over the continent’s housing crisis, experts have said.


Weeks before European parliament elections in which far-right parties are forecast to finish first in nine EU member states and second or third in another nine, housing has the potential to become as potent a driver of far-right support as immigration.


“Far-right parties prosper when they can exploit the social gaps that emerge out of underinvestment and inadequate government planning … and when they can blame outsiders,” said the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.


“That’s the situation many EU countries are now in,” Balakrishnan Rajagopal told the Guardian. “The housing crisis is no longer affecting just low earners, migrants, single-parent families, but the middle classes. This is the social issue of the 21st century.”


Protesters march on the street while carrying a small house during a housing demonstration


Shortages of affordable housing have sparked protests in Lisbon, Amsterdam, Prague, Milan and – outside the EU – London, with young people in particular raging against rents swallowing half their incomes and mortgages 10 times an average salary.


The issue was a top concern for voters in last year’s Dutch elections, won by the far-right Freedom party (PVV) of the anti-Islam Geert Wilders, and it played into the rise in support for Portugal’s Chega, which almost trebled its vote share in March.


“It’s a theme that ticks a lot of current boxes” for far-right parties, said Catherine Fieschi, of the European University Institute. “It’s easy to frame it as an elites-versus-the-people issue – and to claim migrants are being treated better than nationals.”


Eurostat data shows that across the 27-member bloc, house prices soared by 47% between 2010 and 2022, with rents rising 18% over the same period. In some countries more than a fifth of households spend 40% or more of their net income on housing.


Recent academic research has established a clear link between rising rents and votes for the far right – even without strong anti-immigration messaging.


Tarik Abou-Chadi, an EU politics specialist and co-author of a study that found rising rents were reflected locally in growing support for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany, said “fear of status loss” was a key factor.


“This data shows housing is now part of a broader package of economic and social threats and insecurities fuelling anxiety,” he said. “The fear you may have to move home because you can’t afford it leads to a rise in radical-right support.”


Political art protesting high rents & housing problems on building in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Rising rents are associated with increasing support for the far-right AfD in Germany, according to research. 


The research combined detailed rental data with local responses to Germany’s annual Socio-Economic Panel household opinion survey to show increasing rents were associated with greater support for the far-right AfD, especially among low-income tenants.


Much of the AfD’s support is in more left-behind rural regions, where rents have stayed relatively low, and the effect was even stronger in urban areas, Abou-Chadi said, providing a possible explanation for the party’s rising vote share in cities.


“What’s interesting is that the relationship is there even when people’s rents may not actually have increased,” Abou-Chadi said. “It’s not just about actual hardship but also about the worry – that threat to social and economic status.”


Thus far, the AfD has made little attempt to play a housing card, while in Portugal, Chega focused more on corruption than on a crisis aggravated – in cities such as Lisbon and Porto – by a huge boom in holiday lets and high-earning digital nomads.


“But the scope for housing to become a highly significant factor in the far-right vote is very clearly there, and will only increase in the future,” said Vicente Valentim, a University of Oxford specialist on Europe’s far right.



The squatters’ collective Mokum Kraakt has squatted a building on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, in late 2022.

The squatters took over the building because of the housing and energy crisis. The collective believes that the municipality of Amsterdam and the government should approach the housing crisis differently.


Mainstream parties are starting to awaken to the threat. In January, big city mayors demanded an urgent focus on more affordable, qualitative and sustainable housing, while MEPs and housing ministers across the bloc called for housing – which is not an EU competence – to be made a top priority.


Rajagopal, who recently reported on the Dutch housing crisis, said a first step should be to enshrine affordable, adequate and secure housing as a legal right.


“EU countries have a long and laudable tradition of social protection, of welfarism,” he said. “But when it comes to recognition of housing as a legal human right, Europe is lagging behind international law. EU citizens cannot go to their national courts over housing. European countries recognise this, but are not doing anything about it.”


Beyond that, the housing crisis in Europe – including the UK – was a product of “treating housing like any other commodity, to be bought and sold”, and of abandoning state planning, Rajagopal said.


“Europe drank the 1980s Kool-Aid … markets were good, planning bad,” he said. “But markets only really take care of themselves. If you also abandon state planning, nobody’s supplying housing. And that’s what allows the PVV, for example, to blame migrants for the Dutch crisis when there is no evidence migrants are to blame.


“If we want to stop the rise of the far right, starve it of some oxygen, things like housing have to be seen as fundamental rights.”

Demonstration of movements for the right to housing in Rome, 2022. 


Sorcha Edwards, the secretary general of the NGO Housing Europe, agreed. “Obviously, we need to build more,” she said. “But supply isn’t the only answer. It’s what kind of housing we build, and with what kind of financing.”


A market-first approach to housing – relying on private, profit-driven capital, and on charities to mop up the mess – now needed to make way for “patient, public-interest financing”, with “social conditionality and strings attached”, Edwards said.


“There’s going to have to be a real cultural shift. The backbone has to be the limited profit sector. Not just municipal housing, but alternative forms of ownership, like cooperatives. We absolutely have to build with the right kind of money.”


Source: The Guardian

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