The French government is exploring whether the estimated 40,000 vacant homes in Paris, including in some of the capital’s most desirable locations, can be used to solve a critical shortage of social housing.
With an average price per square metre of 16,000 euros, Place des Vosges, in the heart of Paris’ celebrated Marais district, is one of France's most exclusive residential areas.
But with winter on the doorstep, and more than 130,000 people on the streets or living in inadequate housing, the Socialist government plans to make Place des Vosges – among other parts of Paris – a little more inclusive.
Specifically, the government is targeting properties that have long been kept vacant in the capital city, many of which may be legally appropriated for temporary social housing.
The exact number of vacant buildings is unknown, as no official records have been kept. However, records by EDF, France’s national electricity company, suggest there are around 40,000 homes and offices which have been disconnected from the grid for an extended period. The real number, according to social housing organisations, could even be as high as 120,000.
Occupying prime addresses in Paris, the vacant buildings include apartments, residences and buildings belonging to insurance companies, banks, rich private owners and even the state itself. The sizes vary, though few are as big as the building belonging to a French finance company Société Foncière Lyonnaise, which has been vacant for two years and has an area of 37,000 square metres.
Mansions left in disrepair
Of these properties, the residence at 1bis Place des Vosges is the most symbolic. Occupying a celebrated Parisian location, the private mansion, which measures 1,500m2 and was the birthplace of celebrated aristocrat Madame de Sevigné, has been vacant since 1965.
According to Christophe Driesbach from the Jeudi Noir (Black Thursday) association in support of social housing, the house belongs to an heiress of a former French export bank.
It has been periodically occupied by squatters, but the last of these were evicted in 2010, and the place has since been locked up. Steel panels, scrawled with graffiti, have been installed over the building’s iconic 17th century arched doorways and windows.
Driesbach says the once grand house is now in a state of disrepair, with broken windows, holes in the interior, and tree roots creeping under the walls. A dog is also said to stand guard inside.
A five minute walk up the road, Driesbach points to a building at 80 Rue de Turenne that was abandoned for 30 years, but now, finally, is for sale. A developer’s signboard outside the building promotes its “Exceptional apartments in the private mansion with a French garden”.
There are various reasons that the properties are left vacant. Driesbach points to the soaring price of property in Paris, which took off in the 2000s, with wealthy landowners holding out for prices that consumers are unable to afford.
But in some cases the houses have been vacant for a lot longer, Driesbach said. One house discovered in 2007 had been left vacant since the war. Its owner fled the fighting for the south of France and never returned.
Support for the requisitions is far from universal. Some landowners see it as an affront to their right to own private property. The mayor of Paris’s 8th arrondissement meanwhile has said on record that his super chic area was not suitable for social housing.
Government spurred into action
However, given the high and rising numbers of homeless and inadequately housed, the government has been spurred to act. Specifically, it has looked to amend two existing laws that permit requisitions of vacant properties in certain situations.
One of these was a 1945 order enacted in the throes of World War II, giving governments the right to requisition vacant properties for use by people without adequate shelter, for up to seven years. The order allows for the owner to be compensated to the tune of 5 euros per square metre per month.
A second procedure, introduced in 1998, enables local council to take over properties left vacant for more than 18 months if a gross disparity exists between the number of houses available and those needing shelter in the area.
Until now, both laws have seldom been used. During the 1960s, 120,000 requisitions were made, while in 1995, then President Jacques Chirac used it for 1,200 properties.
Housing associations say the two laws offer too many loopholes for private owners to be forced to comply. These include a rule whereby the process can be avoided if it is proved that works are taking place, for which the presentation of an invoice is deemed as sufficient evidence.
Previous attempts to get rid of these loopholes have failed, but Driesbach is confident that change is in the air.
“It’s not the law that has changed; it’s the political will that has changed. The fact this government has addressed this at the start of its mandate is promising,” he said.