What Barcelona Can Teach New York City About Truly Affordable Housing

Op-ed: As the housing market becomes increasingly commodified, Barcelona’s social housing program can offer American cities some lessons.

Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Erwan Hesry / Unsplash)

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Earlier this month I visited Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, where my sister has been studying abroad. We did all of the major tourist hits: we ate tapas, took a cable car to the top of Montjuïc, drank sangria, strolled through Park Güell, one of Antoni Gaudί’s signature works. We were captured by the beauty of the massive, rainbow stained glass windows of the Sagrada Familia church. I babbled to my family about superblocks, Barcelona’s innovative street design model, intended to decrease car use and air pollution while increasing access to public space.

Yet the thing I found most striking about Barcelona was its rapidly growing social and public housing stock. Much like New York, where I live, Barcelona is facing a housing crisis of massive proportions: eviction rates have risen dramatically over the past several years, private speculators have made substantial, harmful investments in the local housing stock, and rental costs have skyrocketed.

But unlike New York, which has primarily used private and public-private sector solutions in an attempt to solve the housing crisis, Barcelona has actually taken substantial steps towards making housing a social good.

In 2016, Barcelona released a 10-year Right to Housing plan that identified four main housing goals the city needed to address. The first goal the city identified was preventing and addressing the housing emergency and residential exclusion, including homelessness. To ensure the housing crisis did not worsen in the city, the government proposed strengthening public grants to help people maintain their homes, implementing eviction mediation programs, strengthening publicly run housing offices, and crafting proactive policies to address the housing needs of the aging. I saw this last proposal in action when I visited a social housing development for the aging in Santa Caterina, located right next to one of the city’s 39 markets.

A social housing development for the aging in Santa Caterina. (Photo by Katelin Penner)

This bright, airy building, which was completed in 2005, is equipped with services on site to help residents of its 59 social housing units continue to live independently. Located on Plaça Joan Capri, a bustling public square in the city’s center, the building gives aging residents of Barcelona easy access to both the Santa Caterina Market and public, open space. It is accessible, well integrated to the street grid, and beautiful – everything social housing can and should be.

The commodification of New York’s “affordable” housing

Back in New York, politicians across the city have spoken about the need for affordable housing, but “affordable housing” is not a particularly meaningful term in a city shaped by real estate and finance capital. Many of these same politicians have spent the last several decades neglecting the city’s largest source of truly affordable housing, NYCHA, allowing the city’s public housing authority to acquire over $40 billion in capital needs. Many NYCHA tenants have been impacted by lead poisoning, prolonged gas outages, vermin infestations and heat outages due to near-universal neglect of public housing by officials at all levels.

Instead of investing in public housing, the city has chosen to privatize many units, converting housing complexes to Section 8 buildings and handing them over to private management through a program called RAD-PACT. As of January 2023, over 30,000 NYCHA apartments had been converted to Section 8 developments through the program, which has been shown to increase eviction rates.

Most new “affordable housing” in this city is financed by the private sector or nonprofits, who raise the money for these new buildings through a byzantine system of private capital, tax credits, public subsidies and property tax cuts. Federal programs such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) infuse “affordable” housing programs with private capital, as developers sell these tax credits to wealthy investors in exchange for investments in their “affordable” housing projects.

In addition to ensuring our housing markets remain reliant on private capital, tax credit programs like LIHTC do not create deeply or permanently affordable housing – “affordable” units created through this program are not designed to serve New Yorkers making under 50% of area median income (AMI), and are only required to remain affordable for a maximum of 30 years. Programs providing developers with a property tax break in exchange for “affordable” housing units, including the 421-A tax break, have similarly failed to create any truly affordable housing, with developers finding a number of loopholes to avoid rent regulations and other measures designed to keep units “affordable.”

As a result, to qualify for many of the new “affordable housing” units New York City is creating, one has to have an income of nearly six figures. At Sunrose Towers, an “affordable” development in Hamilton Heights currently on the city’s housing lottery website, applicants must earn more than $80,000 a year to qualify for a studio apartment. Similarly, at the Brooklyn Tower, applicants for “affordable” one bedroom units must earn a whopping $96,000 a year to qualify for a spot in this new building.

In a city where eight out of 10 rent-burdened tenants make under $60,000 a year, it is beyond clear that the “affordable” housing New York is producing isn’t doing very much to address the true housing crisis we face – one where the forces of capitalism, developers, landlords, the real estate industry and systemic racism all keep people from obtaining safe, deeply affordable accessible housing.

How Barcelona protects residents

Barcelona has proposed a number of policies to protect individuals who are at risk of losing their homes, including mediation services, subsidies and grants for those struggling to pay their rent or mortgages. The city has also crafted plans to quickly rehouse those who do face eviction, through its new Proximity Provisional Accommodation Program (APROP). This program seeks to minimize the impacts of gentrification on local communities by building new housing units intended to rehouse individuals who have experienced the violence of eviction.

The APROP program is also focused on keeping people in their own communities, intending to rehouse people in the neighborhoods they have historically lived in. This innovative program has the potential to greatly reduce the harm and trauma of eviction, though the ultimate goal should be to abolish evictions altogether.

While in Barcelona, I had the opportunity to visit the city’s first APROP development, in Ciutat Vella. The building is modern, sustainable and pleasant, and it plays an important social role in housing some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Barcelona is also actively building public housing, something New York City has not done for several decades, due in part to the Faircloth Amendment. The 2016 Right to Housing plan called on the city to build 8,000 new public housing units, a goal the city is progressing towards; the city has constructed 4,000 new public housing units, with more under construction, since 2015.

The city’s choice to actively strengthen its social housing stock helps to insulate Barcelona residents from market pressures, protecting those in public housing from speculatory rent hikes, evictions and displacement. The city is also seeking to improve energy efficiency in its existing public housing stock, increasing the health of public dwelling space and promoting sustainability in home construction.

New public housing in Barcelona. (Photo by Katelin Penner)

Barcelona is also using another tactic we could learn from in the United States: seizing vacant apartments for social housing. Since 2016, a law in the city has allowed the municipality to temporarily seize apartments that have been vacant for more than two years for use as social housing, while also charging landlords hefty fines for warehousing apartments. In 2019, this law was strengthened, and Barcelona now has the ability to permanently acquire these vacant buildings and apartments for use as social housing by purchasing them at 50% of their market rate.

In New York City, where it’s estimated that over 88,000 rent regulated apartments sit vacant due to warehousing by profit-hungry landlords, the idea that vacant apartments could be seized has been tossed around, but it has often been discredited, as some argue it is not in line with the takings clause of the Constitution.

But let’s remember that eminent domain has frequently been used to condemn and demolish the property of Black Americans, including in the Atlantic Yards project in Downtown Brooklyn. If building a private basketball stadium with land obtained through eminent domain is seen as a “public good,” seizing vacant, warehoused apartments is absolutely a public good. New York City should follow Barcelona’s lead in aggressively acquiring vacant apartments and buildings to convert them into social housing.

Barcelona has also begun to invest in cooperative housing, a housing model that was once used extensively in our city with substantial success. New York City has largely stopped building limited equity co-ops, where the resale value of the unit is limited to ensure housing remains permanently affordable, a barrier to our city’s potential for social housing production.

In Barcelona, however, co-ops are building steam; La Borda, possibly the city’s best known social housing development, is cooperatively owned. La Borda uses a non-speculative housing model to ensure it remains isolated from the pressures of the private market, ensuring the costs of living in the building are low enough for “humble people”. It was developed on the site of a former factory in the Sants neighborhood, using renewable materials and solar panels to ensure it does not contribute to the climate crisis. The design of La Borda seeks to promote community and togetherness, many of the principles upon which cooperative living is based, and the space feels warm and welcoming.

Ultimately, the fundamental difference between the housing futures of New York City and Barcelona is that the municipal government of Barcelona has actively begun planning against capital. The city’s drastic actions to scale up its public and social housing stock will protect residents from potential gentrification, housing market fluctuations, displacement, and evictions in the future.

On the other hand, New York City’s government is generally planning for capital, creating “affordable” housing developments that still enrich the real estate industry and prominent investors. To change course, New York City’s political leaders just need the political will to resist the power of real estate donors, and prioritize the urgent housing needs of everyday people.

This piece is adapted from “What we can learn from Barcelona,” originally published in Katelin’s newsletter.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Katelin Penner is a master's student in Urban Planning at Hunter College and an organizer based in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her academic work focuses on the intersections of municipal austerity, gentrification, land use, social/public housing, community resilience and the influence of late-stage capitalism on the urban landscape. Her organizing work focuses on housing justice, tenants' rights and land use.

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Tags: new york citypublic housingbarcelonasocial housing

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