The ALT/BAU Transfer Network focuses 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 transfers experiences that proved successful to proactively connect administrations, owners, investors and users to initiate sustainable and resource saving development.
The New Leipzig Charter highlights three forms of the transformative city which can be harnessed in Europe to enhance people’s quality of life: the Just City, the Green City and the Productive City.
URBACT’s latest publication is packed with sustainable solutions to address these three dimensions – all tried, tested and transferred between EU cities, with adaptations for each local context.
To give a taste of the stories told in ‘Good Practice Transfer: Why not in my City?’, here are nine examples of local actions for Productive Cities. We hope towns and cities of all sizes will be inspired to ‘Understand, Adapt and Re-use’ participative solutions like this – from education and entrepreneurship to efficient governance and better use of urban spaces – improving everyday life for residents, and supporting a just transition to a green economy.
To simplify everyday life in Aveiro (PT), the municipality got together with stakeholders to launch a card that will give citizens easy access to public services such as the library, museum, buses and shared bikes, as well as improved online and front desk support. A first step was to issue a student card to access school services across the city, from stationery and meals, to school trips. The idea is to promote a smarter, more open, resilient and inclusive society. Aveiro and four other URBACT partner cities are introducing their local versions of ‘CARD4ALL’ based on good practice from Gijón, a Spanish city that has provided citizen cards for nearly 20 years.
In a project to bring an old playing field back into use, Birmingham (UK) gave local people the power to drive improvements themselves, thanks to a Community Economic Development Planning model, mirroring successful approaches already used in Łódź (PL). Building on this positive start, residents went on to co-produce an alternative Community-Led Master Plan for the wider area — where all council plans had previously been opposed. Council-appointed community ‘ambassadors’ now work with local residents, businesses, service providers and volunteers with a direct stake in the area’s economic health. And the approach is being rolled out across other areas of the city. Birmingham is one of six cities to learn from Łódź’ collaborative model as part of the URBAN REGENERATION MIX network.
The Greek city of Piraeus founded a new ‘Blue Lab’ near its harbour — the first Blue Economy Innovation Centre in Greece. Equipped with state-of-the-art technology, Blue Lab welcomes students and entrepreneurs, providing business mentoring, tech and entrepreneurship training. It has boosted cooperation with businesses and schools, and sparked an array of prototype technology solutions. Piraeus’ further plans now include a new larger co-working space, training facilities to upskill the workforce, and investment in more advanced technologies. Piraeus is one of six URBACT Tech Revolution network partner cities to set up their own start-up support schemes based on the Digital Media Centre in Barnsley (UK), an URBACT-listed Good Practice that has become a successful hub for local creative and digital business.
By involving parents, school staff, local clubs and council departments in ‘Educational Innovation Networks’ (EIN), the city of Halmstad (SE) is boosting local connections and sparking improvements in education. Thanks to the URBACT ON BOARD network, Halmstad learnt from Viladecans (ES) who originally formed an EIN to improve education as part of a drive to reverse rising unemployment and declining growth. Halmstad adopted new ideas, including ‘Positive Mindset and Emotions’ for better learning and methods for improving pupil participation. Communication within the municipality also improved thanks to cross-departmental clusters focusing on: Care and Support; Education and Learning; Growth and Attractiveness; and Infrastructure.
Idrija (SI) transformed an empty shop into a ‘living room’ for the town, with free activities run by, and for, local associations and inhabitants. City administrators, social services and economic departments, local clubs and active citizens, are all involved in the project, as well as the regional development agency, library and retirement home. As a result, the site has become a meeting place open to all, with events focusing on topics as diverse as housing refurbishment, chess, and knitting. It also hosts a municipality-supported free transport service for elderly people and a book corner run by the local library. Idrija’s solution was modelled on the ‘Stellwerk’ NGO platform launched in Altena (DE) as a solution to help manage the town’s long-term decline.
Chemnitz’s (DE) ‘Housing Agency for Shrinking Cities’ helps transform empty buildings into valuable housing while reducing speculation, channeling grant money, and cutting future costs for both the owners of decaying buildings and the municipality. Initiated and funded by the city authorities, the project is carried out in the public interest by a long-standing private partner. This model inspired Vilafranca del Penedès (ES), partner in the URBACT ALT/BAU network, to review its housing policies and look for private partners with the technical capacity and financial solvency to help the city recover abandoned housing units. As a result, Vilafranca has signed an agreement with a social foundation whose main objective is to identify, obtain and rehabilitate low-priced rental housing in collaboration with job agencies.
The port city of Mataró (ES) is boosting local entrepreneurship and jobs in the maritime economy – inspired by a BlueGrowth initiative in Piraeus (EL). Mataró encouraged diverse public and private stakeholders to get involved, including the City Promotion team, regional ‘Barcelona Nautic Cluster’, local port authority, and a technology park that hosts the University and a business incubator. The resulting Mataró Blue Growth Entrepreneurship competition provides cash prizes, mentoring and access to a business accelerator programme. So far winning projects include a boat repair franchise, a boat propulsion system, and an app linking up superyachts with relevant services.
When Turin (IT) teamed up with private sponsors to launch a competition inviting 10 000 municipal staff to submit innovative ideas for improving the administration's performance, winning proposals included solutions for improving community participation, smart procurement, and lighting in public buildings. This inspired Rotterdam (NL) and five other cities in the URBACT Innovato-R network to draw on Turin’s experience to boost innovation and process improvement in their own cities. As a result, Rotterdam took a fresh approach with its existing innovation network of over 1 800 civil servants and 500 external stakeholders, strengthening links with businesses and academics, introducing new online ‘inspiration sessions’, and co-designing a new innovation platform.
Koszalin (PL) analysed the city’s procurement spending and is using the resulting evidence to shape public procurement practices in order to benefit the local economy, while taking into account social and environmental factors. To do so, they used a spend analysis tool that was originally developed by Preston (UK) and transferred to six EU cities via the URBACT Making Spend Matter network. Koszalin also started working more closely with key ‘anchor institutions’ in the city, such as the hospital and university, exploring how much they spend, and where that money goes geographically. Meanwhile, they improved support for local SME participation in public procurement.
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.
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.
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: https://urbanisme.vilafranca.cat/oficina-local-dhabitatge 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.
Haven't you ever experienced this: You are in a city with beautiful old buildings and many of them are empty and dilapidated? And you ask why?
Many cities in Europe are facing this problem: vacant residential buildings (even in growing housing markets), which start to deteriorate and lose their function, even in inner city locations. This often is due to a shrinking population, suburbanisation processes or legal issues. Often older, outdated buildings are affected, which at the same time are important for the inner urban structure, the cityscape and identity of the city.
Reasons are manifold for the neglect and vacancy of these buildings, among them difficult ownership situations such as unresolved ownership status, limited ability or willingness of owners to invest, multiple changes of ownership, speculation, bankruptcies of real estate developers, large communities of heirs, mortgage debt or ownerless properties.
The neglected vacant buildings become increasingly a problem: Partly they constitute a public security hazard; they effected negatively the neighbouring properties; the demolition of the buildings threatens the inner urban density, the functioning traditional urban structure and the historic cityscape. This also reduces the identity-forming effect of the inner city for the citizens.
However, such residential buildings, in particular with heritage values are increasingly seen as a positive quality, not only in their intrinsic qualities as spacious and valued places to live but also in terms of their potential for modern, accessible and affordable inner-city living and to provide space for needed functions in the city.
Chemnitz (DE) has been facing this problem. More than 18 % of the housing stock had been vacant. It concerned in inner city locations in particular the buildings that had been built during the city’s boom years in the industrial era before World War I. The demand for modern and newly-constructed homes, the oversupply in the historic tenement sector and other reasons contributed to the severe neglect and disrepair of many of those old buildings. This in turn led to the high vacancy rate and even demolition of these buildings. The free real estate and financial markets had failed to give these buildings a second chance!
But the City of Chemnitz reacted: In 2006 based on a research project for the cost-effective renovation of old buildings through user-owner cooperation in Chemnitz, the ‘Agentur StadtWohnen Chemnitz’ (CityLiving Agency Chemnitz) was found. The goal was in particular to coordinate relevant stakeholders and support alternative housing projects in order to enable the sustainable development of unused historic apartment buildings in need of repair.
In fact, the ‘Housing agency’ is a consulting service (project) for interested owners of neglected and/or vacant properties, potential investors and users with an interest in common forms of living and creative ideas for the subsequent use of buildings. From the outset of the ‘Housing agency’, its task was to function as a coordination body, which connects owners, potential users, investors and local authorities and provides them with free-of-charge consulting services for the reactivation of the vacant apartment buildings in the extended inner city where the free real estate market had failed.
The services are carried out by a local private urban development company, which received this task through a public tender by the city. The ‘Housing agency’ fulfils tasks that had not been foreseen within the city administration. At the same time through the private company (WGS mbh) additional know-how and work capacities are obtained.
Given the fact that the City of Chemnitz usually does not directly get involved in the housing market, the privately run ‘Housing agency’ presented the possibility for the city administration to informally influence the development of buildings that are a priority for different reasons for the city.
7 key activities
To fulfil the task of the ‘Housing agency’ they concentrate on seven key activities:
Identification of focus areas and buildings in need of investment
Collecting relevant data of the buildings/ monitoring
Contacting the owners of buildings
Marketing the building
Site visits with interested people
Connecting owners and potential buyers
Accompanying buyers to liaise with municipal departments and other relevant stakeholders
Although the services are free of charge, the Housing agency “pays off” for the city as through the reuse and revitalisation of the buildings modernised living space is created, neighbourhoods upgraded, tax revenues increased and substitution measures by the city avoided.
Over the past six years, the ‘Housing agency’ has become the central collector and distributer of information on vacant tenement buildings in the extended inner city of Chemnitz. It has helped, disseminated and connected in ways that neither public authorities nor private actors alone could have achieved – through continuing communication with official partners from different segments of urban government and the informal, pro-active approach of the owners, local initiatives and players in the real estate market.
Thus, in June 2017, the ‘Agentur StadtWohnen Chemnitz’ was labelled as “URBACT Good Practice” under the title “Housing agency for shrinking cities”. The URBACT programme justified this as follows:
“Many cities face the problem of deteriorating built heritage with vacancies and functional loss. The ‘Housing agency’ as a public project carried out by a private company offers a flexible and proactive approach to connect owners, potential investors or users and public authorities for the revitalisation of those buildings. Positive effects are the activation of owners or the change of ownership and the channelling of public grants to places where they can be used most effectively”.
This Good Practice represents therefore not only a topical improvement for cities which are suffering from inner-city vacancies, but also a good example of new forms of cooperation and intermediate structures between government bodies, civil society and business which can be transferred to a variety of contexts.
The URBACT Transfer Network ALT/BAU
Six cities in Europe (Constanta, Riga, Rybnik, Seraing, Turin and Vilafranca) have join the URBACT Transfer Network ALT/BAU, lead by the good-practice city of Chemnitz, to transfer and adapt the good-practice model of Chemnitz’ housing agency to their local context. For this, the city partners will develop and implement within 24 months Transfer Plans of the good-practice model to their city. The intention is to help reactivate empty residential buildings in need of repair, located in or close to the inner city. This by connecting and coordinating owners, potential investors, users and public authorities through innovative partnerships.
So in 24 months to come at least 6 more cities in Europe will be ready to give unused residential buildings a second chance to:
increase the building stock for affordable housing and inner city living;
support a social mixture and integration of inhabitants,
prevent further degradation and loss of cultural heritage,
reduce the negative impact on the cityscape and neighbourhood by neglected buildings.
In the context of high poverty, exclusion and the increasing number of empty housing units, accentuated by the crisis, the Vilafranca (ES) Inclusion programme deals with the renovation and rehabilitation of vacant housing while reusing them for social purposes.
Bringing together the municipality, social actors, NGOs and house owners, the programme is built on a multiannual approach. It uses the renovation process for occupational training and boosting employment among the people risking social exclusion or long-time poverty.
So far, more than 250 houses have been renovated and offered on preferential lease to poor or homeless families, and 500 persons have gained professional skills through the training programmes. The Vilafranca Inclusion practice has already been recognised by Un Habitat Europe and the Pi i Sunyer Foundation.
The solutions offered by the good practice
Rehabilitate vacant homes and reuse them with a social purpose • Use the process of rehabilitation for occupational training and boosting employment of unemployed. • Provide homes to families and / or people with a low income and on a situation of emergency residential risk. • Improve housing park standards: prevent the progressive deterioration of buildings and parts of the city. • Reduction of empty housing. • Using housing as a tool for socio-educational work. • Promote employability.
Building on the sustainable and integrated approach
Vilafranca Inclusion exemplifies the three pillars of the URBACT principles: Horizontal integration: incorporates the cross-work of various municipal services for the analysis and implementation in different phases. Carried out in the period 2013/2015, it has a direct relation to the tasks performed at the C.R.I.T. (Resource Centre for Inclusion and Employment) aimed at people at risk of exclusion. It deals with the subjects of: urban planning, improving degraded areas of the city; environmental, upgrading homes to optimal levels of energy efficiency; new economies creation, area of housing rehabilitation, specialized training; promotion of cooperative economics, etc. Vertical integration: its development involves promoters and beneficiaries. There are three lines of work in parallel: A) Urban Planning: properties to be rehabilitated are evaluated, designed and valued. Also, private foundations, the Town Hall itself and financial institutions can provide housing to be included in the rehabilitation programme. B) Social Services: selection of participants and the design of the employment plans. C) Training and Employment: training options. From there begins the execution phase of the work, and training of participants is done through a company (cooperative) of social integration. Territorial integration: rehabilitating housing in degraded areas helps the greater integration of the whole town, reducing the risk of having marginal areas.
Based on a participatory approach
Among those involved has woven a network of co-operation. Whilst Caritas supports the training of the participants in the project, the insertion cooperative insert Nou Set does the contracts. Moreover, the Town Hall, through C.R.I.T. manages the program, partly funded by the Diputació de Barcelona. The partnership also extends to the active participation of property owners and end users. Apart from the three lines of action involved in the project (Social Services, Town Planning, and Training and Employment) parallel tasks of development are established.
What difference has it made?
The impact of Vilafranca Inclusion is multiple and has benefited its citizenship as a result of the change that occurred in the mechanics of the programme from 2012, when - as a result of the economic crisis - rehabilitation and social integration were put at the same level as axes. Since its implementation in 1992, it has allowed the family core to have a regular income, it has standardised the employment status of participating workers, has allowed us to train them in professional skills, and also, significantly, it has equipped them with the capacity to be able to find a job in the present circumstances of the labour market. Otherwise, participation has been opened to members of the family who are unemployed. The profile of participants and attended has changed in line with social changes experienced in the types of families: for example, in 2015, 84 families were assisted (a total of 243 people), of which 49% were single-parent families and 42% of users were under 16 years of age. 250 dwellings have been rehabilitated, of which the Town Hall still manages 90 through Social Housing. The rest - leased to the town council - have already been returned to their owners. • People trained: approximately 500 (data from 1992) • Families inserted: 50 since 2013.
Why should other European cities use it?
From its beginnings in 1992, the practice has been adapted to the current social context, characterised by the strong economic crisis that has forced many municipalities to adapt expenditures allocated to social issues. Vilafranca implemented "Vilafranca Inclusion" aiming to rehabilitate and reuse dwellings for social purposes. The 2012 programme is reoriented and focused on the social and labour inclusion of unemployed people and families at risk of exclusion. The impact of the practice is satisfactory and strengthens their impact on policy and management of the municipality. We believe that this course of action can be useful and interesting for any European city facing these issues.