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Over 15 million people in Europe experience a high degree of housing precariousness

Poverty crop 3

A new study by Dr Amy Clair, Research Fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, defines a new way to measure housing precariousness in Europe and finds housing precariousness on a massive scale.

The study, Constructing a housing precariousness measure for Europe, co-authored by Amy Clair with Aaron Reeves from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Oxford, Martin McKee from the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and David Stuckler from Bocconi University, is published in the Journal of European Social Policy.

Using this new housing precariousness measure the researchers found that precarious housing affects over half of the population of Europe in some way - almost 260 million people.

Financial burden is the most common problem experienced, often coexisting with quality issues; nearly 10  per cent of the European population (or ~52  million people) are struggling to afford to live in homes of inadequate quality. There are considerable differences in levels of precariousness across countries. Relatively low levels of housing precariousness are found in Northern European countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, while considerably higher levels are found in Southern European countries. Bulgaria is found to perform worst by this measure, with nearly three-quarters of the population reporting at least one dimension of housing precariousness.

The researchers state that this analysis may actually be an underestimate of the problem.

“As with any analysis, however, there are a number of limitations to this work. First, the data used, the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) may fail to capture some of the most vulnerable and precarious groups, such as those who move very frequently, due to its household sampling approach. This would tend to understate the magnitude of precariousness in Europe. Similarly, the reliance on secondary data means that our approach is limited by the variables included in the survey and decisions made during data collection. This is notable, for example, in the inability to include broader measures of housing and location suitability in the access to services component. Similarly, we rely on a subjective measure of housing affordability because of low response rates to questions on housing costs and income. This approach does have the advantage of including all housing costs (including energy costs, for example) but may be subject to variation across respondents and countries.

Second, people can find themselves in objectively precarious positions but not perceive them as such, and this subjective perception is important for the effects their situation has on their lives. There are, however, to our knowledge no such comparative subjective indicators available with the exception of the housing burden variable. Third, our measure does not aim to capture all elements of housing difficulty. For example, Sweden performs relatively well in the country comparison, yet it is known that in many areas waiting lists for rented accommodation are very long. However, in this as in many complex systems, such as provision of healthcare, a single measure cannot include all such issues, and so country-specific problems may be missed in cross-country comparisons. Fourth, our measure of security fails to capture the length of tenancies for renters or other measures of the frequency of past moves.

Despite these limitations, the housing precariousness measure represents a step forward, allowing, for the first time, cross-European investigation into the extent of housing precariousness and who experiences it. Our findings also indicate that precarious housing is clustered among more disadvantaged groups, such as those with lower levels of education and those with limiting health conditions. At this stage, our analysis only considers bivariate relationships; future research should investigate overlaps and interactions among these characteristics.

Across countries, we found that precariousness was consistently higher among renters than owners, although the existence of housing precariousness among owners shows that ownership is not a panacea for precariousness. The cross-country variation in tenure differences demonstrates that precariousness among renters in some countries is lower than precariousness among owners in others. There is also quite considerable variation in terms of the gap between owners and renters. These findings indicate that there is scope to improve the security of renting and reduce tenure-related inequality. Future research should explore these findings in relation to the comparative welfare state literature.

There are a number of further possible future directions to this work. One is a comparison between the results presented here and those for 2007 when the EU-SILC first conducted the ad hoc housing conditions module. This would give insight into the changes in levels of precariousness before and after the recession and austerity periods. However, this would be subject to the same limitations as this analysis due to the reliance on secondary data. Improvements in the quality and quantity of data collected on housing are one way to reduce such problems. Alongside or independent of this possibility is to develop a bespoke questionnaire. Finally, further exploration may provide insight into the differences in housing regimes across countries and the relative position of renters and owners across Europe.

For policy, our results demonstrate, first, the massive scale of precariousness in Europe. Over 15 million people experience a high degree of housing precariousness reporting three or more elements in the scale. Second, it is clear that renters fare worse than do owners, although the extent varies considerably across nations. There are marked international variations to be explained, which cannot solely be accounted for by gross domestic product (GDP). This creates an important opportunity to learn from success or failure in how European nations have sought to secure stable housing.”

Read the article Constructing a housing precariousness measure for Europe published in the Journal of European Social Policy