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Immigrant Housing in Europe: Overview

Housing is one of the most fundamental human needs. Who lives where and how tells a lot about a society, the opportunities and pathways available for integration, as well as the inequalities and obstacles to social mobility. It has a major influence on immigrants’ employment options, educational opportunities, social interactions, residence situation, family reunification and citizenship rights. At the same time, housing quality is a key outcome indicator of successful societal integration. 

This analysis highlights innovative national initiatives and puts forward experts' policy recommendations. It also provides an overview of the latest European information sources and guides users through the housing-related content on the European Website on Integration.

Growing knowledge base on immigrant housing

Despite the differences in the housing stock across Europe, migrants often find themselves in a disadvantaged situation compared to the native-born population. As is evident from data collected by EWSI national experts in the 28 EU countries, migrants are generally vulnerable on the housing market, disproportionately dependent on private rentals, more likely to be uninformed of their rights and discriminated against. They also face greater obstacles to access public housing or housing benefits and are more likely to live in substandard and poorly connected accommodations, with less space available and at a higher rental cost burden than the national average. 

Monitoring European-wide indicators on housing conditions

To achieve a better evidence base for policies, monitoring systems are being standardised and comparative European indicators are being created. The ‘Zaragoza indicators’, agreed by Member States in 2010, include home ownership as a core integration indicator, since in every country, the acquisition of property is seen as a sign of social upward mobility and long-term settlement. Following the 2013 ESN/MPG report Using EU Indicators of Immigrant Integration, the overcrowding rate (referring to the ratio between household rooms and number of household members) as well as the housing cost overburden rate (i.e. the population share living in households that spend more than 40 % of disposable income on housing) were added to the Zaragoza indicators. Eurostat now includes them in its migration integration statistics, as do the 2015 OECD Indicators of Immigrant Integration. Key findings, based on EU statistics on income and living conditions (EU-SILC) data, include:

  • Home ownership of third-country nationals. Across Europe, third-country national households are 3 times less likely to be homeowners, especially in more recent destinations such as Spain, Italy and Greece, but also in longstanding destinations, such as Belgium.
  • Overcrowding among the non-EU-born. EU-wide, the overcrowding rate among those born outside the EU and aged 20-64 stands at 25%, compared with 17% for the native-born. The levels are highest (40-55%) in Central and Southeast Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Poland) and lowest (<10%) in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and the Netherlands.
  • Housing cost overburden. The housing cost overburden rate for non-EU citizens has seen a significant increase from 2013 to 2014, when 30 % of non-EU citizens in working age belonged to this group, compared to 11% among nationals. While this gap had decreased until 2013 to 16 percentage points, it now again stands at almost 2009 levels (19.5 points). 
  • Positive impact of housing subsidies. In few countries, housing subsidies alleviate the housing cost overburden. While the gap between immigrant and native-born households disappears after adjustment for subsidies in Finland, it diminishes significantly in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. However, available subsidies have no real effect for immigrants in e.g. Belgium, Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal or Spain. 

Mapping the intangible: discrimination on the housing market

Discrimination on the housing market negatively impacts the already disadvantaged position of migrants. It reinforces segregation and undermines social and spatial inclusion. Discriminatory attitudes towards migrants in relation to housing have been reported by the European Social Survey ESS in the 2002 and 2014 rounds. The 2011 EU-MIDIS study surveyed migrants’ discrimination experience at large and found that :

  • North Africans are most affected by housing discrimination. When asked whether they were discriminated against by housing services, agencies or landlords in the past 12 months, 11% of North Africans, 7% of Sub-Saharan Africans and 7% of Turkish confirmed such an experience.  
  • There are differences between EU member states. Among North Africans living in Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands and Spain, the highest rates of perceived housing discrimination in the past 5 years were recorded in Italy (48%) and the lowest in the Netherlands (9%).
  • Reporting rates and awareness of legal redress remain low. Only 10% of persons experiencing housing discrimination reported the incident to the competent body and 44% of respondents were not aware of legislation forbidding ethnicity-based discrimination when renting or buying.

Evidence for policy debates

Public debates around immigrant integration all too often suffer from inaccurate or misleading reference to data. Two typical examples are the extent of immigrants’ uptake of social benefits, including social housing and housing subsidies, as well as spatial segregation. The EC’s 2011 Study on Active Inclusion of Migrants pointed out, contrary to popular belief, that migrants are generally less likely to receive social benefits compared to natives. The study also includes evidence from an EU-wide survey of 156 expert stakeholders and minority representatives. 53% considered that non-EU immigrants face a high or very high risk of exclusion from housing and housing subsidies (rising to 90% for irregular migrants). The study’s recommendations include:

  • Provisions, explicitly or implicitly, disadvantaging migrants in accessing (social) housing should be abolished. This, in particular, applies to waiting lists.
  • Infrastructure development should aim for equal quality standards in all neighbourhoods and take into account connectivity with relevant labour markets.

Spatial segregation is usually discussed in terms of ‘parallel societies’ with specific neighbourhoods regularly referred to as ‘ghettos’ and compared to the experiences of African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States. Often overlooked, however, is the emerging data on the relatively low levels of ethnic concentration of immigrants in Europe. In their 2015 book Strangers No More, Alba and Foner summarise studies using the standard ‘dissimilarity index’ and point out that segregation rates of major immigrant groups are rather low on the European continent, especially in comparison to the United States. In the Paris area, for example, only 14 out of more than 1000 areal units have non-European immigrant group majorities; and – contrary to public perception – only 5 percent of France’s non-European immigrants lives there. Less research exists on the outmigration from ethnic concentration.

Spatial segregation is the result of many factors, such as limited cheap housing options, discrimination on the housing market and limited access to social housing. A 2014 analysis on Residential Segregation commissionned by the Migration Policy Institute takes a transatlantic perspective and reviews the available policy options, none of which has a proven track record for radically reducing ethnic concentration: 

  • Anti-discrimination legislation that outlaw discrimination in housing-market transactions.
  • Scattered-site programmes that distribute public housing across a range of neighbourhoods.
  • Rental subsidies and vouchers which allow recipients a wider choice of housing options.
  • Allocation procedures which involve quota systems banning further settlement of a group.
  • Housing diversification by new developments that vary in size, quality and prize to attract a diverse group of inhabitants, sometimes after demolition of older housing stock.

Building knowledge on immigrant housing from below

Most data on immigrant housing exist not on European level, but on a national, regional or local level. The following reporting tools have been uploaded on EWSI: 

Housing policies for a diverse society: key factor for successful integration

The social and economic situation of migrant populations is largely the – intended or not intended – outcome of policies and practices of the receiving society. Policy recommendations should build on a thorough evaluation of existing approaches; be it on an EU-wide scale or focused on a local instance.

Policy assessments on immigrant housing

The 2015 Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) which includes housing-related policy indicators found that:

  • In only 8 member states do temporary workers, family members and long-term residents have the same access to housing benefits as nationals, while in 12 member states, equal access is denied to all 3 groups.
  • Housing discrimination is prohibited on grounds of nationality in 14 Member States and on grounds of only racial, ethnic and religious origin in another 11 Member States.
  • Family reunion applicants generally have to meet higher standards for their accommodation than the regular health and safety standards that normally apply to the general population.

The Conditions for Family Reunification were further examined in 9 member states by a 2011 study of the European Policy Centre. Pointing to the lack of evidence on whether accommodation conditions, like requiring proof of sufficient living space for the joining family member, produce the desired effect, the study warns that these requirements may simply be used as an additional obstacle for applicants.

Good governance for housing integration

Policy recommendations to improve integration governance in the area of housing are put forward in the second edition of the European Handbook on Integration and the CLIP Cities for Local Integration Policies report on Housing and Integration of Migrants in Europe. Their recommendations call for joined-up and partnership-based policies, bringing together fields as diverse as urban renewal and planning, anti-discrimination or legal rules on access to public housing and housing benefits. They include: 

  • legal framework conditions that allow cities and public authorities to take an active role in the housing market, for example as building contractors, landlords or property owners;
  • conditions for access to publicly supported and organised housing that do not indirectly discriminate against migrants,
  • legislation banning discrimination in the field of service provision, including housing, effective enforcement mechanisms and awareness-raising;
  • soft urban renewal and public spending that curb local processes of devaluation and support re-investment, while avoiding the crowding-out of the local population through gentrification;
  • achieving social balance and mitigation of spatial segregation through spreading public housing around the city and fostering mixed neighbourhoods;
  • intercultural opening of all relevant institutions and organisations in the housing field, and introduction of diversity management tools like multilingual services and intercultural training sessions;
  • evaluation and monitoring of policies, including on the housing situation of migrants and social cohesion in urban neighbourhoods;
  • facilitated access to bank loans and tax incentives for low-income families.

In focus: refugee housing

Housing for refugees poses specific challenges due to the conditions of their arrival, their often preliminary stay in reception centers or accomodation, prolonged insecurity until final recognition as beneficiaries of international protection, and their limited resources and networks. First-line reception policies, which are increasingly common in response to large numbers of arrivals, must be able to manage fluctuating numbers over time and avoid homelessness for people often arriving from distressing or traumatising events. Depending on national asylum policies, second-line reception may either provide individual housing solutions or still rely on reception centres. In second-line reception, refugee housing must find solutions for people who are to gain a first foothold in the country, while taking into account their specific integration needs in dispersal and responsibility-sharing concerns. Recent ECJ case-law, based on Germany’s dispersal system for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, rules that a residential dispersal system can only aim for better integration based on individual criteria—and not simply aim for burden-sharing among municipalities.

Tracking refugee accommodation from the reception phase to settling down for the long term

An increasing number of studies are examining the housing trajectories of beneficiaries of international protection. The EMN produced national reports and an EU-wide report on the Organisation of Reception Facilities for Asylum Seekers in 2013. ECRE’s AIDA Asylum Information Database and Annual Report are also prime source of information on reception conditions. The OECD’s Making Integration Work policy booklet compares, among other things, reception and dispersal policies across OECD countries. As of 2015, among the 21 assessed EU member states: 

  • 13 have a deliberate dispersal policy for asylum seekers.
  • 16 provide for or allow asylum seekers to stay in individually arranged housing (in 4 of them this, however, goes along with a loss of financial assistance and 5 countries attach conditions).
  • 9 provide assigned housing for beneficiaries of international protection in a specific region or municipality after recognition of their status.

 Female Refugees and Asylum Seekers: The Issue of Integration, a 2016 European Parliament study re-examines reception and housing issues as experienced by women. Based on UNHCR guidelines and other recommendations, the study calls in particular for: 

  • clear designation of women as being vulnerable, especially when they flee alone or with children, to ensure their access to encampments, reception centres and housing;
  • separate accommodation (with the exception of families) and access to basic commodities for women in encampments and reception centres, to prevent gender-based violence, among other reasons;
  • alternative and safe housing solutions for victims of domestic violence, as a way out of abusive relationships and to ensure access to healthcare and psychological treatment;
  • targeted support in finding a proper and stable housing solution after recognition, taking into account disadvantages in finding a job/income and their exposure to discrimination;

In the long term, housing strategies must ensure that – beyond recognition – refugees’ equal rights under the law are translated into practice so that their housing opportunities are not significantly below the situation enjoyed by the native-born population. Among comparative studies of refugee integration, the EMN 2015 study on Integration of Beneficiaries of International Protection provides national data on access to housing and housing support and include related good practices. The 2013 UNHCR publications A New Beginning. Refugee Integration in Europe and Refugee Integration and the Use of Indicators examine the amount and type of housing access and in-kind/in-cash support for beneficiaries of international protection. The analysis emphasises that refugees are strongly affected by the general quality of the country’s existing public and private housing stock.

National intiatives in Review

Housing issues in refugee reception and integration have been a dominant topic over the past year and received much attention in the EWSI news section. The following topics have been covered:

  • Refugee housing incorporated into national integration strategies. A variety of Member States, including new countries of asylum and relocation such as EstoniaSlovakiaCroatiaFinland and the Czech Republic, have been or are currently discussing housing within new, comprehensive integration policies in response to the new refugee arrivals.
  • Legal amendments for more housing capacity. Building housing capacity has become a major concern. One of the countries reforming its dispersal system, Sweden, went so far as to impose an obligation on all municipalities to settle beneficiaries of international protection. This came after a severe housing shortage crisis and a highly controversial political debate.
  • Incentives. A more incentive-based approach was chosen in the Netherlands through the introduction of subsidies for landlords to make premises suitable for habitation, funding for local authorities for new buildings and a possibility to use government buildings. In Bulgaria, EU funds were required to move recognised refugees out of reception centres into rent-subsidised accommodations, while Finland chose to directly support refugees by offering two months rent, with the aim of encouraging them to settle near reception centres. 
  • New focus on peripheral regions. In Germany, a national debate was sparked on how to reform the traditional distribution of refugees among the federal states. One proposal was to deliberately settle refugees in structurally weak regions where ample and cheap housing space is available, with the aim to regenerate and revitalise these areas.
  • Voluntary initiatives from below have been a hallmark of Europe’s refugee governance crisis. The creativity set free by grassroots led to innovative solutions, such as a free Airbnb-style website for refugees looking for short-term housing run by social start-ups in Germany, the Netherlands and several other countries. In Belgium a NGO-led campaign targeted landlords and addressed their fears, while in Slovakia, churches become increasingly involved in public promotion of refugee accommodation.
  • Urban leadership. In Spain, Barcelona and Madrid were the driving forces behind the creation of a network of refugee-friendly cities and regions, committed to accepting and welcoming relocated asylum seekers. In Portugal, Lisbon city council kick-started the capital’s hosting programme.
  • Ensuring the minimum. Some member states, however, struggle to ensure the most basic standards. In Poland, where the situation is particularly strained, a dedicated Integration Housing Programme is implemented with the help of NGOs, trying to obtain accommodation from municipalities. Similarly, with a patchy asylum system in Greece, the government proposed a housing plan for migrants who leave detention centres.

More EWSI news items relevant for immigrant housing are gathered on a dedicated up-to-date housing page.

Good Practices

On the ground, housing practices primarily aim to ensure equal access to affordable accommodation, with a focus on decent standards, mainstreaming services, targeted information and orientation services. They can be divided in 8 categories:

1. Welcome services and helpdesks. Welcome services for newly arrived immigrants are being organised in numerous places across Europe. By consulting these services, migrants can get information about housing issues, such as the functioning of the local housing market, entitlements or access to public housing, alongside other relevant topical information (health system, education etc.). Examples on EWSI include centers and low-threshold services in Finland, Poland and Romania. In Portugal, a project provided for visiting services to agricultural migrant workers. Information booklets are in use in Austria and Belgium for example, while Sweden has opted for a multi-lingual website.

2. Services to facilitate the search for accommodation. An active role in the house-hunt is taken by dedicated support organisations, such as the Volkshilfe Wien in Austria and the Spanish Federación Rasinet. Their aim is to counterbalance the disadvantaged position of migrants on the private housing market by helping them individually in their search. An innovative model was tested in Hungary, combining a rental programme with a series of docu-videos showing how celebrities and migrants live together. The goal was to alleviate the fears of potential landlords.

3. Legal information. An information tool on housing rights and entitlements, including guidance in cases of discrimination, is available in the United Kingdom. The tool provides quick access to concise and legally correct information, presented from the viewpoint of migrants who may have just arrived. In another section, more detailed and policy-related information is available for professionals in housing advice. A practical guide in France has a similar objective and offers guidelines on how landlords can comply with anti-discrimination law in the housing field.

4. Anti-discrimination activities. Examples of support organisations claiming and enforcing housing rights can be found in France and Spain. Also in France, a specialised institution is focused on avoiding discrimination, specifically in the public housing sector. Typically, these platforms do not only support individuals when they experience discrimination but are also active in preventive awareness-raising on discrimination issues targeting landlords, the media and the public at large.

5. Intercultural mainstreaming in the housing sector. Housing efforts for migrants can lead to comprehensive diversity mainstreaming of housing policies and related institutions, such as public housing corporations or housing associations. One model project in Italy aims to combine intercultural strengthening and training for service providers with a structural widening of housing supply and support outreach.

6. Housing for elderly migrants. Diversity-sensitive care and housing services for the elderly is growing in importance as the first generation ages into the elderly care system. Established systems for assisted accommodation and the care sector must adapt to elderly migrants’ specific needs and cultural differences, which tend to matter more in old age. While Denmark recently opened its first home dedicated to elderly immigrants, multicultural homes have been developed in the Netherlands and Belgium respectively 3 and 7 years ago to proactively promote interaction between immigrant and non-immigrant elderly.

7. Social mediation and community work. Mediation and community work in mixed neighbourhoods or residential blocks is the goal of many housing activities. It is the case in AustriaItaly and Portugal. Typically, these activities bring old and new inhabitants together, try to instill a feeling of community and mediate in neighbourhood conflicts, or take the form of intercultural events like in Lisbon.

8. Specific challenges for refugees. Housing for beneficiaries of international protection entails specific challenges. Among them, the particular demands of vulnerable groups and the avoidance of homelessness. Access to housing is, for instance, the focus of a project in Romania providing for legal/social counselling and rent subsidies. In Poland, a project provides sheltered housing to beneficiaries of international protection as part of a social integration programme. Models for creating more reception capacity through awareness-rising among municipalities and public/civil society/private cooperation respectively can be found in Finland and Portugal.

The European Website on Integration contains a wealth of recent good practices that evaluations suggest are efficient and somehow effective to improve the housing conditions of migrants. An up-to-date list of housing practices is accessible on a dedicated page

All EWSI content relating to immigrant housing can be found here.

Expert knowledge for policy development

A number of European and international networks, and policy platforms provide housing analyses relevant for migrant integration in Europe:

Source: EWSI Editorial Team