European governments give huge tax benefits to real estate investors and owners - a policy that is common in many member states despite all political differences. Over the past months, Investigate Europe’s team analysed the taxation and loopholes for real estate investments in several European countries. This lures billions of euros to the overheated real estate market.
Rising property prices. Difficult access to affordable homes. Evictions. Displacement of local communities. All are symptoms of the current housing crisis in Europe. Across the continent, various initiatives are fighting for housing rights and better living conditions. From Madrid to Berlin to Edinburgh, Investigate Europe talked to citizens on the frontline of the fight for better housing for all.
Patricia Machmutoff, 26, is a member of Deutsche Wohnen & Co enteignen, a movement that in 2021 collected enough signatures in Berlin to force a referendum. The issue was whether to expropriate properties owned by real estate companies with 3,000 or more units, through purchases by the city government. It is estimated that at least 240,000 flats would be expropriated. The movement’s aim was to turn them into affordable housing for Berliners.
In Germany, real estate is favoured with tax exemptions schemes, as Investigate Europe has revealed. The profiteering ambition of real estate owners inflates the housing crisis by driving up prices that in turn price out citizens. In Berlin, it would take someone on an average salary more than 12 years to be able to buy a 75m2 flat if no money were to be spent elsewhere. According to Eurostat, house prices in Germany have risen by 84.3 per cent from 2010 to 2021. Rents have seen a slower increase of 9 per cent over the same period. Outside the city centre, the rent of a one-bedroom flat would take 33 per cent of an average salary.
Berliners voted on 25 September 2021, and the expropriation movement won, with 59.1 per cent of the vote. Since then the city government has set up an expert commission which confirmed the financial and legal feasibility of the referendum.
“They will be working towards the concrete prospects of implementation until April and then present their final report.”, Patricia told Investigate Europe.“In the meantime, rents are still rising and renters are being evicted every day. This is why our campaign keeps being present in the streets”, she added.
Trisha Mendiratta, 22, Eilidh Keay, 25, and Aditi Jehangir, 27, all live in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. They are members of Living Rent, Scotland’s Tenants’ Union.
In Edinburgh, students like Trisha make up a fifth of the total population, and many struggle to find affordable accommodation.
The Scottish government introduced a rent freeze in October 2022. This prevented private and public landlords, as well as universities, from increasing rent prices until March 2023. For campaigners this was not enough. They are calling for current rent prices to be lowered, and for the government to improve energy standards and prevent energy leaks in housing. They also demand higher penalties for landlords who fail to carry out repairs, which cost tenants extra on top of already high rents.
According to a study by Scotlands’s National Union of Students and Unipol, in 2021 the average annual rent for student accommodation amounted to £6,853, an increase of 34 per cent since pre-covid times.
In Madrid, Ricardo Rodriguez’s middle-income family lost their jobs and could no longer afford the rent. Outside the city centre, a family needs to spend 45 per cent of an average salary to rent a one-bedroom flat, according to Eurostat. This family’s solution – after months of struggle – became to squat in a bank-owned property that had been left empty after the previous tenants were evicted.
There were 28,552 registered homeless people in Spain last year, up 24.5 per cent in a decade. There is no lack of empty houses, however. The latest census data available, albeit from 2011, had 3.4 million empty properties registered. Squatting is illegal and controversial, but a widespread phenomenon. Between January 2021 and July 2022, there were 9,949 complaints of squatting, 58 per cent of which corresponded to empty properties, according to the Spanish ministry of the interior. The Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca estimates that there are 90,0000 squatted properties in the country. This represents 0.4 per cent of the total number of houses in 2011, as the latest available census data from Spain’s National Statistic Office shows.
Rafael Pinheiro’s rent rose dramatically after a real estate investment company bought his flat in Sintra, near Lisbon. Reacting to this, he launched a petition calling on the Portuguese government to end tax benefits that favour property speculation, and to invest in policies that ensure the right to decent housing for all, such as rent controls. So far, more than 5,000 people have signed it.
There is no evidence of how much money is lured into real estate with these tax privileges. But based on expert calculations, Investigate Europe estimated that in Portugal, this is between €700 million and €2 billion per year – four times more than the current public investment in “affordable housing”. House prices rose by 57.3 per cent between 2010 and 2021. It would take almost 15 years for someone on an average salary to be able to buy a 75sqm flat in Lisbon if no money would be spent elsewhere. Rents increased by 12.8 per cent in the same period.
In Italy, Giacomo Negri, together with other members of his neighbourhood, set up Via Padova Viva, an association to save Via Padova, a community in northeast Milan plagued by real estate investments.
Milan is an attractive city for real estate investors – the city attracted €4 billion out of the €10.4 billion invested in real estate developments in the whole of Italy. But residents are driven away by high prices: they have grown by 30 per cent since 2013. Rents increased 37 per cent from 2021 to 2022.
To fight the real estate development of Via Padova, the association launched a petition. Among its proposals is that the municipality should acquire and restore old and abandoned houses, and put them on the market at subsidised prices.
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Cross-border stories from a changing Europe, in your inbox.