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Future Cities. Housing affordability and sustainable urban environments in Belgium

Belgium’s cities boast diverse sociodemographics and a mix of cultures. Ensuring affordable housing is critical in shaping better cities for all. It profoundly impacts economic stability, societal fairness, and community well-being. Inclusive policies, sustainable urban development, and citizen-centred planning are needed to address this challenge.

Already high property prices and rising interest rates have raised concerns about the accessibility of homeownership, particularly in cities like Brussels, Gent or Leuven. Over the last 20 years, the gap has widened in homeownership rates between affluent and less privileged households, perpetuating the imbalance in property ownership across the country.

The cost of living consumes a significant portion of people's income. In Wallonia, people typically devote 31,7% of their income to paying rent or mortgage, whereas in Flanders, it’s 33,8%. And while household income has in general increased over the last two decades, it has not kept pace with the soaring prices of residential dwellings. Financially vulnerable households and young families without significant assets face difficulties in securing loans to acquire a home. As a result, they find themselves grappling with too expensive mortgages or settling for lower-quality homes or rentals. The regions offer varied relief measures on registration duties for first-time buyers purchasing their primary residence on the secondary market. However, specific programmes for primary market buyers are largely absent.

Our housing and rental markets are ill-adapted to suit the diverse needs of citizens: what is on offer does not match what young families, the ever-rising number of singles, or newcomers in our larger cities demand. A new census of the displaced population in Brussels also revealed that the capital hosts nearly a fifth more homeless people than in 2020. Various initiatives across Europe are currently in progress, focusing on different aspects such as affordable housing programmes, urban revitalisation, community engagement in housing development, or brownfield covenants.

These initiatives increasingly emphasise inclusivity and sustainability within urban development strategies, but it’s not enough. How should Belgium manage its social housing stock and future-proof its existing housing stock within budgetary constraints? How can we harness private initiatives, fortify local authorities’ roles? How can we adapt our rental markets and create public policy that caters to financially vulnerable households and to a wide range of demographic trends? How to integrate housing policy into urban renewal and social cohesion programmes? Itinera advocates tailored solutions that acknowledge the diverse cultural, social, and economic landscape of our cities. The aim is to entrench housing affordability as a foundational element in creating inclusive, better urban spaces.

Unlike the Dutch, Belgians don't currently view housing as one of the most urgent issues. Our country’s urban development (and culture) stands out due to its 'laissez-faire’ approach, setting it apart from countries known for more active urban planning initiatives ­­­— Belgium had no spatial planning policy until 1962. Sociologist and living expert Pascal De Decker echoed the notorious Dutch architect Weeber in claiming that Belgians are "dwelling wild," alluding to their seemingly uncontrollable desire to build what and where they want, disregarding the effects on society or the environment.

Itinera calls for a comprehensive policy rethink, emphasising strategic, integrated, and spatial thinking to come up with long-term solutions that breaks away from the historical choices we find ourselves locked in. The focus on deregulating planning within housing policy, although theoretical, has not effectively and sustainably tackled the core issues of affordability and accessibility. This theoretical standpoint lacks practical impact on real problems.

Urban policies wield significant influence over the availability, cost, and quality of housing in cities. By strategically configurating cities, optimising infrastructure, and through prudent land management, these policies can reduce construction costs and broaden the spectrum of accessible housing options. Their fundamental objective is the establishment of residential environments that embrace diversity and cater to the diverse societal needs.

Itinera invites you to join us and delve deeper into the issues surrounding urban development with our forthcoming event, "Future Cities: Building Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Environments in Belgium." Can we create a common vision on building and living in Belgium’s cities that is not only economically viable but also socially and environmentally sustainable? It will serve as a platform to bring together policymakers, urban planners, experts on the field, and community representatives to explore inclusive and resilient strategies that durably shape the cities of the future.