W2 Day 4 - Designing inclusion through CSO practices

On day four of the DESINC workshop, the group was invited to the co-working space in the centre of Brussels, MAD LAB, this time to focus specifically on ‘Designing Inclusion through Civil Society Organisations (CSO) practices’. The morning was an opportunity for the senior partners of the project to come together for a project management meeting, while the afternoon involved presentations from the guest speakers and the KU Leuven team as well as the final walk and talk of the week.

All guest speakers came from CSOs and were asked to present how they enable inclusion in their own organisations. First up was a presentation by Etienne Fabris of Est Metropole Habitat, a social housing association based in the town of Lyon, France. As an organisation they have taken a unique political stance to welcome and house refugees in their housing. They presented to the team a series of partnerships and initiatives they are part of , for example ‘Accelair Programme, A New Start’ and ‘Shared Flats for Unaccompanied Minors.’ They explained how they try to minimise the difference between refugees and the long term residents by housing both groups in the same buildings. They also discussed how their biggest challenge is the negative perception that refugees are taking housing away from the local people who need it, and that, under french law only documented refugees can apply for social housing, which means it is difficult of social housing associations to help the undocumented.

Afterwards we had two speakers from the Startblok initiative based in the south of Amsterdam, Netherlands. This project started two years ago when the Netherlands received about 85,000 asylum applications. Refugees were divided equally amongst the country’s regions and Startblok was one of Amsterdam’s proposed solutions to house their portion, while at the same time addressing Amsterdam’s affordable housing crisis which particularly affects the student population. In cooperation with Socius Wonen and the Municipality of Amsterdam, housing organisation De Key developed this initiative, which is situated at Riekerhaven, a former sports-grounds next to the A10 highway in Amsterdam New West. The resident makeup is 50% refugees (who have obtained a residence permit) and 50% Dutch students, aged 18-27 years old. The majority of rooms available are studio units, which house one refugee and one Dutch student. The intention is for residents to live 5 years in this development, giving them time to study and/or begin a career in a safe, supportive and affordable environment. The speakers explained the self-management structure, where residents are given the opportunity to apply for roles and the whole community is encourage to participate; organising social events and activities amongst themselves. They explained how this management style has led to better interactions and residents learning more about each other.

Additionally, the layout of the accommodation was designed to enhance social activity and interaction, as each floor had its own common room which residents are encouraged to decorate themselves and a separate clubhouse where events for the whole community are held. However, despite the obvious success of this project, which has only seen 3 or 4 drop-outs, they discussed several challenges they faced. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the language and culture barriers which had to be overcome, although language courses and ‘What about Syria/Netherlands/Eritrea?’ days were organised, it was still difficult to completely overcome this, as for example in a country like Eritrea, 10 languages are spoken. In addition, they found that different people become involved in the social programme of the initiative at different rates, with some taking years and others a few days to participate. In became obvious to the Dutch students that for some refugees who have come from truly oppressive countries, the notion of participation requires a huge amount of courage. Finally, the speakers discussed how Dutch students have had to come to terms with the limitation of the support they can offer to their refugee friends, who in most cases have gone through a huge amount of trauma and must take time to go through the healing process. The speakers discussed how they hope to take forward the lessons learnt from Startblok to a similar resident project they are currently developing in the North of Amsterdam.

And finally, our last talk was by a member of the Community Land Trust Brussels which is supported by the European Union. The Sustainable Housing for Inclusive and Cohesive Cities (SHICC) project seeks to support the establishment of more successful Community Land Trusts (CLT) in cities across the North-West European (NWE) region. Over the three-year project (Sept 2017 - Sept 2020) it will invest in four existing CLTs in Brussels, Ghent, Lille and London to ‘prove the concept’, create a supportive local, regional and national policy, funding and regulatory environment for CLTs and build a movement across the region. The speaker explained how in Brussels they currently have 400 people participating with them to develop their own community land trusts. The ethnic makeup of these groups is very diverse, and a key challenge the organisation faces is ensuring clear communication occurs between the different members to enable a cohesive community is formed before the physical working of building even begins.

These talks were a great opportunity for the team to ask about the challenges and limitations CSOs feel with regards to inclusion, but also for the guest speakers to gain an insight into the research KU Leuvan and Housing Europe team have worked as part of the ‘Designing Inclusion’ project, which focuses on the review of 60 European case studies of CSOs practices. KU Leuvan team coordinator Viviana d’Auria presented a summary of their research, and the current groupings they have established based on the patterns between the case studies:

-Open(ing) camps & improving live-in centres

-Information exchange & social incubators (integration is a two-way street)

-Facilitating access to provide housing

-Social economics & mentoring

-Mixing publics & global housing

-Transcending status (Not considering the individual’s legal status at all)

-Artistic practices & co-creation framework.

Viviana also explained how the research has suggested three key challenges facing CSOs with regards to inclusion:

-Hostile political environment

-Continuum of support (It is difficult to work with transient communities)

-Spaces in needed for emerging alternatives

-Relationship between the refugees and the local neighbourhood

The team and guest speakers agreed on the comprehensive nature of these groupings, and the guest speakers commented on how the publication of the case studies together can give CSOs the opportunity to learn from each other. In addition it was suggested that the overall theme that has come out of this afternoon is how can social housing providers help in other social needs which at the moment are beyond their area of expertise.

The last session of the day involved a walk and talk to 123 Logement in the centre of Brussels. Here long-term resident and urban anthropologist Marianita Palumbo explained the history of the group, who first took over the building over 14 years ago. She explained how a constellation of different actors, a ‘right to housing’ group, ‘undocumented rights’ group and a squatting movement made up of architects and artists, who had previously worked parallel yet separate from each other came together to take over this building. One night of squatting led to negotiations with the owners of the building, which was publicly owned and led to a temporary agreement, where the local authorities agreed that the building can be inhabited by up to 63 people, who will be responsible to pay for water and electricity and any work that needs to be done on the building fabric, but do not need to pay rent. This negotiation took 11 years to settle completely, and since then the group have expanded to take over two more buildings. For Marianita, inclusion must first start with a safe space to live and engage. Every week the group of permanent residents meet to discuss the management of the building where each person must play a role. This active negotiation and debate is especially useful for the undocumented and migrant residents, who learn comprehensive French and confidence from the process. Marianita gave the example of a woman from Kazakhstan, who had trained as an architect in her home country but had no papers. After some time living in this building, she grew in confidence and now is settled in Brussels with a family, and personally attributes her settled life to her start at 123Longements.

As well as contributing to the management and upkeep of the building, residents pay rent, but the amount is dependent on their circumstance. The undocumented (currently a total of 15 residents) and those who are unable to work, do not need to pay. While the rest of the group pay either, €60, €90, or €120, depending on their financial circumstance.In addition to the 63 permanent residents, there are several temporary stay rooms throughout the building. Rest rooms provide a space to stay to anyone for up to three nights. During their stay they are allowed to use all of the buildings facilities and resources for free. Longer-term guest rooms are provided for anyone from outside of Brussels who has a project to develop, in this case they are allowed to stay for up to 6 months where their situation is reviewed at the 3-month mark. Such an array of different users at different times means that flexibility of space was vitally important for residents, so different rooms change in size and use depending on the needs.

In addition, to raise money for the building and engage with the public, the management team runs a whole host of events. Examples of this include a bicycle workshop, which 3 times a week is open to anyone to use their tools and space, and a concert hall and bar which is very well known and hosts monthly events. In addition, the group strive towards an alternative way of consuming, focusing on recycling and accepting collections from supermarkets and green markets on a daily basis. Lastly, the building hosts a series of artist workshops, which can be rented out.

Despite the brilliant work this group of people are doing and the support they are giving to those who are pushed to the very margins of society, the group is currently at a very serious crossroads. The building has recently been sold to a student housing provider, and the group have 4 months to move out of the property before renovation begins. They have decided not to fight this, and to look for another building to take over instead. At the moment they are working on a social media awareness campaign - please check out their website and facebook pages.