Connecting owners of empty properties with private investors

Revitalising decaying historic apartment buildings by connecting owners, investors/users and public authorities

Labelisation date : 10/06/2021

  • Vilafranca del Penedes , Spain

  • Size of city : 40 100 inhabitants

  • Contact

    Carme Ribes Porta

    Head of Department International Relations


In Vilafranca, a city of 40 thousand residents, there are 951 (6,5 % of the stock) vacant apartments and five vacant residential buildings are listed. Ownership: 1% public authority, 74% Individual owners, and 25% commercial housing enterprises.

In the context of high poverty, exclusion and the increasing number of empty housing units, accentuated by the crisis, the city developed the “From empty housing to social inclusion” programme. The aim for this inclusion programme is the renovation and rehabilitation of vacant housing while reusing them for social purposes. In this programme the council does the construction work with public investment, and in return for the public investment, the owner transfers the use of the building to the council for a period of time proportional to the investment. When the constructions work finishes the Social Services select beneficiary families. This programme required 300.000 € per year in the city budget. So far, more than 250 houses have been renovated (appr. 10 flats per year) and offered on preferential lease to poor or homeless families, and 500 persons have gained professional skills through the training programmes. More renovation could be done if there would be more public money.

This GP of Vilafranca:

Vilafranca was very satisfied with its project which was considered a Good Practice by the Diputació de Barcelona first and then by URBACT in 2017 because it not only affected the recovery of empty housing but also improved the social level of the unemployed workers who participated in the rehabilitation, considering to close the circle. This practice, despite the good results obtained, proved to be insufficient when large homeowners got out of their properties in anticipation of future price increases. This abandonment of entire buildings has led to the disorganized and mafia occupation of housing throughout the country and also in Vilafranca.

Facing this new situation, and also due to financial limits (the city budget cannot afford big investments) the search for a more wholesale intervention has become more evident. This is why the city decided for the transfer of the Chemnitz good-practice case, aiming for connecting owners with private investors instead of making the renovation from public budget.

The Good Practice of Chemnitz has important advantages: a public project carried out by a private company, offering a flexible and proactive approach for the revitalisation of the historic housing stock of the city, and over time becoming the central collector and distributer of information on the buildings.

Solutions offered by the good practice

The specific objectives the city would like to achieve with transferring Chemnitz good-practice case are:

  • To connect owners with private investors as the city budget cannot afford big investments.
  • To connect and coordinate the different stakeholders for the reactivation of the vacant buildings in a right and efficient way.
  • Setting up a body/institution to support reactivation of vacant/derelict building/flats.
  • Contacting, activating and supporting owners.
  • Identifying, contacting and supporting potential buyers and investors
  • Connecting & coordinating public & private stakeholders

The challenge is how to achieve this funding without compromising the budget and municipal action, so that the collaboration between the administration (the ‘Housing Agency’, the Urban Planning Office and building Control Department) and the private initiative should be normal practice in a 21st century society.

To approach the problem from this perspective, it became necessary to expand the original social orientation and start looking for private partners with enough technical capacity and sufficient financial solvency. In this sense an agreement has been signed with Habitat3 (housing for social inclusion) foundation and 10 housing units have been recovered so far.

The Habitat3 Foundation is a social rental housing manager whose main objective is to search for and to obtain rental housing at prices below market prices. Habitat3 is a benchmark in Catalonia in the housing sector, being recognized in 2019 with the Gold World Habitat Awards by UN Habitat.

The relation between the City Council and HABITAT3 is a win-win relation: the City council searches the building and the tenants, and once a building has been found, HABITAT3 is contacted for its assessment. Usually HABITAT3 spends around 2 weeks to see the state of the building, the rehabilitation that should be carried out and the investment that would be necessary. Then HABITAT3 decides to invest part of their budget for social housing in Vilafranca. HABITAT3 isn’t paid for this collaboration.

Sustainable and integrated urban approach

The project helps to mitigate effects of urban processes that are unsustainable. By strengthening the inner city through the concentration and support of developments in the existing central neighbourhoods, the urban structures are valorised. This way, the reuse of historic housing stock helps to save resources instead of promoting suburban sprawl. Dense and mixed-use urban structures reduce distances and encourage alternative means of transport. What is more, the successful outcomes of the project help to preserve the intrinsic qualities of those quarters and help to overcome the negative image of neighbourhoods. The provision with moderately priced and appropriately equipped housing for families, elderly people or marginalised population groups strengthens social coherence and reduces the ground for conflicts of different sorts.

Participatory approach

The scope of the project is to activate owners, private and public stakeholders to save, restore and reanimate buildings. It can be described as a networking hub between persons, groups and authorities that have an interest in this goal. Starting and keeping communication going around the objects is the core of the project’s activities.

According to the experiences of Chemnitz, the agency is the only instance that connects the threads from all different sides:

• the relevant departments in the city government (e.g. urban planning, fund management, building control, preservation, finance and tax, public relations),

• the different owner constellations (private owners or ownership groups of different sizes and local/national /international backgrounds, public housing company, unappropriated),

• the potential investors and users (professional real estate developers, grass-roots housing initiatives),

• additional stakeholders in the neighbourhoods and civil society.

It was important to bring relevant stakeholders in the field of housing together through the ULG. Before, the housing commission was responsible for this issue. It consisted only of representatives from each political party. Based on the work of the ULG work has been done to convert the housing commission into a housing council in which not only political parties will participate, but also agents and entities of the housing sector (such as real estate agents or tenant unions).

What difference has it made

The Municipal Housing Agency has been relaunched, as a one-stop destination for all issues related to housing with the desire to provide comprehensive services and local housing policies: It is located in an office in the city centre and will be the referent point to attend all matters concerning vacant buildings in Vilafranca.

The relaunching of the Municipal Housing Agency allows to improve the capacities

  • to identify buildings in need of refurbishment in the future and
  • to establish a steady collaboration framework for their refurbishment, beyond the micro work the City Council already does
  • to have a unique access point for citizens, where they can meet experts to help them solve their housing problem / find a solution.

After having the database updated, the agency will contact owners proactively and will connect them with investors, explaining the advantages to participate in the public program “From empty buildings to social housing” that deals with the renovation and rehabilitation of vacant housing while reusing them for social purposes. To achieve a better collaboration the town hall has created a round table about housing policies, bringing public and private stakeholders together.

VISION - Through the new housing agency and the grown cooperation among public and private stakeholders through the round table, the outcome will be a decrease the number of empty flats and buildings and there will be new spaces for social purposes like affordable rental flats. Expectations are: increase the number of rental flats in the city center, improve flats and buildings increasing their energy efficiency and reducing the CO2 footprint.

Transferring the practice

A strong demographic decline and thus numerous vacancies in the old neighbourhoods are typical for former industrial hubs and towns distant from the economic centres in their countries. The lack of communication between the public authorities, often unavailable or unable owners, and the very diverse group of potential investors and users, is a problem that is visible to different extents in almost any city.

The ALT/BAU Transfer Network focused on alternative strategies in central and historic districts of European cities to activate unused and decaying housing stock resulting from demographic, economic and social change. Based on the experiences from Chemnitz’ URBACT Good Practice “Housing Agency for Shrinking Cities” (Agentur StadtWohnen Chemnitz), the network transferred experiences that proved successful to proactively connect administrations, owners, investors and users to initiate sustainable and resource saving development.

Under the leadership of Chemnitz the following partner cities were involved in the ALT/BAU Transfer Network: Riga Latvia, Constanta Romania, Vilafranca del Penedes Spain, Turin Italy, Seraing Belgium, Rybnik Poland.