Moving forward together

Dr. Orna Rosenfeld B.Arch. (Hons) M.A. PhD specializes in housing and inclusive urban development. The award-winning urban strategist, author and global advisor on housing, brings together the knowledge from architectural engineering, political and social science, and urban and city planning. Dr. Rosenfeld public sector experience is extensive, she advises governments, selected cities and leaders of international organizations such as the European Commission, the European Investment Bank and the Council of Europe Development Bank, the World Bank and the United Nations to advance housing and urban knowledge, policy and investment in pursuit of inclusive urban futures.

D&S: Where do you see the benefits of a European network like Re-Building Europe?

Dr. Rosenfeld: First of all, I think that while we are all positive at the moment, we may have forgotten that we have just emerged from a historically unprecedented global pandemic. A crisis is a game-changer, it accelerates existing trends and causes new phenomena, it also causes hardship and uncertainty. Most importantly in times of crisis, no one person or organization alone can claim to have an answer to the ills observed. However, we may create answers together! After all, we all have been through the pandemic regardless of geography or discipline. Therefore we share a common experience, and that common experience is a strong bonding factor. This is why gatherings like Re-Building Europe and the workshops that will follow are of essential importance. In networks like this, we can create a safe space where we can explore and discuss new ideas, challenge one another, learn from each other and maybe even share that vulnerability we all felt during these historically unprecedented two years. Significantly, at this time, we bring to the equation not only our professional selves but our personal selves too. For me, as a social scientist, that kind of exchange is the information we can build on to create viable and future-proof solutions. After all, today we have an opportunity to look at cities and their regions in a new light. Enabling our future cities to be sustainable and evolve to be regenerative, inclusive and then foster belonging, resilient to the predicted impacts of climate change and responsive to unplanned disruptors will involve a different way of thinking. These complex solutions need unprecedented collaboration by all stakeholders. That is an additional reason why bringing people together in a European network like Re-Building Europe vital at this time.

D&S: The European Union in general is all about bringing people together, it has originally been created because we share the same values and want to advance together. Do you think this has been a benefit or a burden during the Covid-19-pandemic?

Dr. Rosenfeld: I have the feeling that Europe and Europeans grew closer together during the pandemic. After all, COVID-19 has been a shared experience. In other words, we have all experienced very similar pandemic-related challenges across all EU Member States. For starters, we have all been through lockdowns, our borders were closed, and we could not visit our friends or go to work, school or university. We have been separated, at the EU, national, local and neighbourhood levels to survive the pandemic. I believe that this sudden distancing and separation at multiple levels made us re-evaluate and re-appreciate the values of our Union and more aware of the advantages we enjoy being together as Europeans. After all, not being able to exercise some freedoms (eg. free movement, including cross border travel, study or work) makes people realise their innate value and appreciate them more. As the result, I think that we have seen closer appreciation our freedoms and our shared values inlcuding unity and diversity. Most importantly, I believe that that has happened on both personal and political levels.

D&S: Do you think this would have happened without the pandemic as well? During the pandemic, various measures were put into place across the EU member states. Do you feel like there are some countries that managed to get through this crisis better than others?

Dr. Rosenfeld: It is natural that every EU member state would respond differently, especially at the beginning of a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. First, it is important to highlight that the European Union did not have a set protocol on how to react to a pandemic, we had never faced this kind of crisis before. Second, according to the EU Treaty, EU members work together within the Union on agreed issues that ensure their common interests are met within the EU and on the global stage. However, each member state also has significant liberty to decide what to do on the national level. This is the uniqueness of the European Union. If we are looking at urban and housing issues in the EU as an example, it is clear that EU member states have the responsibility to decide what is happening on their local level, and that is good. The European Union is united in diversity, which implies unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation. We Europeans do not strive to be the same, and that is our value and our uniqueness. At this point, we must acknowledge European leadership during the pandemic, as well. The European institutions have done a phenomenal job and set a clear course during COVID-19. Without it, Europe would not have been able to achieve this much during the pandemic and immediately after it. However, the overall enabling environment, which includes EU funds for recovery for all the member states (their regions and cities), is just the beginning. The recovery happens on the ground, locally, in cities, rural and urban areas. This is where the regeneration, or ‘re-building’ as your initiative calls it, happens and where the professionals across disciplines must unite to provide solutions that are fit for urban futures people aspire to following a crisis like this. This is why a network like Re-Building Europe is a great benefit.

D&S: You have researched the impact of the pandemic on the housing market. We also know that there will most likely be another crisis at some point, and we should be able to learn from our experience. How can we organize the market to enhance its resilience to another crisis?

Dr. Rosenfeld: From a scientific and policy point of view we need to invest in building the evidence base to inform the present and future urban policy-making, which also includes the housing market among other urban issues that are evolving at the moment. Crisis changes the status quo, they challenge existing policy frameworks and render parts of them obsolete. I have witnessed multiple times now that a crisis is also an accelerator of trends and trigger of new social phenomena. Let me give you an example from this recent crisis. There is one trend that was quite easy to spot during the past three years, this is accelerated digitalization. There is much work going on at this moment to adapt to this specific trend in the EU (which is quite a new policy field, in comparison to urban matters for example). However, this is the only one trend that emerged due to the pandemic that will inevitably affect many other areas of development. The social, economic and resulting urban trends are not always as clear-cut or easy to spot as the example of digital acceleration. For starters, the world of work has changed dramatically and this trend has been aided by digitalisation. This change will affect the future of urban migrations, living preferences and fundamentally consumption and production of housing. We have to remember that teleworking used to be completely unacceptable in some industries and companies at the very beginning of 2020.

However, at the moment companies are changing their work practices and policies to allow people to work remotely. A fundamental question that is asked in urban policy circles is: What does telework mean in terms of urban-rural migration and housing market evolution? We have to engage with this trend and research it comprehensively to understand its impact on the future of urbanism, this includes the housing markets as well. But these are only quick examples, it is important to remember that a crisis like the recent pandemic, inflicts multilevel societal changes that reshape the ways societies function. We will probably need another two to three years to fully process and understand how COVID 19 pandemic changed our society and how we can learn from that change. Most fundamentally,  the changes of this significance are always reflected in the built environment (eg. remember the new planning practices after the plagues in old Europe). For starters, we will need to recognise that the assumptions that have worked before the pandemic are not necessarily true now, and we will need to question and research, rather than assume and act based on past experiences. To illustrate,  at the beginning of the pandemic, it was widely assumed that telework will result in urban to rural migrations and that as a result of these migrations housing prices in cities will drop. But that is not what happened, housing prices in cities have risen. Prices did rise in rural areas as well. We are now just beginning to learn which part of the population will wish, to be able to migrate and where to.

If we are thinking about the housing markets, in particular, it is important to note that the people who could telework during the lockdowns had a tremendous advantage in that they could keep their jobs and sustain their income. This also meant the ability to cover housing costs. People whose jobs require physical presence, (typically lower-income groups) suffered disproportionate job loss which resulted in a loss of income. This group is now in danger of never being able to buy their own house and may remain in the rental sector for life. This is a shift in social compass that was built on premises of social mobility and home ownership since WWII Europe. These phenomena have just begun, so we will have to understand them (and others) to give viable and relevant policy recommendations and responses. We will, in many cases, need to unlearn what we have been trained to assume before the pandemic and create new relevant knowledge and practices to built viable urban futures. However, high level research in silos is not an answer either. We need multi disciplanry collaboration and exchange in order to design policies that are responsive to the present and future disruptors, and effectively enable and underpin integrated urban development at the local evel.  We need solutions with system-level coherence. This will require long term commitment and collaboration across disciplines.

D&S: You are known as the social and affordable housing expert internationally. We would like to pose a question related to this sphere. In an ideal world how would you solve the problem of social housing?

Dr. Rosenfeld: It depends on what scale we are talking about, the housing market is not homogenous. It is more correct to be thinking about housing markets in the plural. Let me elaborate, the national housing markets are characterised by high- and low-housing demand areas and prices in the private market differ accordingly. Therefore, the social and affordable solutions need to be adjusted to the reality of the local housing markets and the population in housing need in those very markets. This requires a comprehensive approach on every scale. Let me pause here at the moment and share with you some of the key trends that emerged during the pandemic in the European Union. The research that I conducted for the European Investment Bank during the pandemic showed that the crisis changed the way the housing markets operate. Residential real estate (or housing) prices have risen in all European countries except two. This is a stark contrast to the impact of the global financial crisis that caused the housing prices to drop.

Furthermore, in 2021 residential real estate has been the number one type of real estate investment, due to the uncertainty related to the future of offices and retail during the pandemic. The investment of large actors in housing has increased to secure their assets. For those who already own their home(s), this development is positive. But for those people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, this is detrimental. Without a job, this population is no longer eligible for a mortgage, all while housing prices keep increasing. The same goes for people whose income has been significantly reduced during the pandemic, the young population and the first-time buyers. The surge of refugees from Ukraine adds to this matter. The challenges I note will long term political commitment and comprehensive multi-level, multi-disciplinary and multi-scale strategies with a comprehensive set of short, medium and long-term solutions, but most importantly accountable governance structures with the capacity (and long-term funding) to implement them. 

D&S: Since there are different situations in every country and sub-markets within each country, should affordable housing be discussed at the EU level or should this be an individual discussion in each country?

Dr. Rosenfeld: Both are important. According to the treaty of the European Union, the EU does not have a mandate on housing, housing is the responsibility of EU member states. However, following the detrimental effects of the Global Financial Crisis the European Union took more interest in housing and issued numerous policy, regulation and funding initiatives directly or indirectly affecting the housing sector. Before the pandemic, I supported the European Commission to tackle these issues and help the implementation of the EU Urban Agenda - Housing Partnership. In that capacity, I served as a special advisor to the Housing Partnership Coordinators and writer of the EU Urban Agenda Action Plan that was included in the EU Parliament report, and was employed to inform EU ministerial meeting on housing in 2022 on housing among other achevements. Among other issues, I looked at the ways to harmonize existing EU regulations, and policy and optimize funding to achieve improved results. Policies constantly evolve, so their systematic monitoring, update and collection of relevant data is of crucial importance at the EU, national and local levels as relevant.

D&S: Since we are talking about policy, the EU Taxonomy will also include a social part in the future. Is this an opportunity for social housing?

Dr. Rosenfeld: In social affordable housing there already are certain standards and regulations organizations have to abide by. It is certainly a great opportunity for investment in housing. But social part of EU taxonomy is not only about social housing; it is (and should be) much wider and it is a part of the EU Taxonomy has to keep evolving. The EU social taxonomy is a revolutionary idea that supports what Europe is about, the social economy with a strong welfare element. The social element of taxonomy is more challenging to define (agree on) and measure than an environmental one and I believe that this work will be evolving for some time to identify the relevant and common issues as well as the way these are measured. As in any policy area, this will require adjustment over time. What is interesting to highlight is that the private real estate and investment industry is calling for more regulations and standards in this domain. For instance, while the commitment to ESGs has been on the rise in the recent year, it is still very unclear what “S” in ESGs stands for, what the common standards are or how they can be measured to prove positive impact over time (given that the common standards are agreed). A simple example: positive social impact can mean agreeable indoor temperature in housing for some, and for others addressing much more complex issues like inclusion and diversity. At the moment, there are several challenges related to understanding and measuring social impact. First is the lack of understanding and common agreement of what is meant by positive social impact, what are the important issues to address (and for who whom, which ones are of shared relevance, what are the issues to measure and how to collect that data. In short, there is a lack of in-depth knowledge about these issues in the real estate and investment industries coupled with a lack of deep expertise. These are the issues that need to be addressed by applied scientific research and can be helped by evolving EU social taxonomy. However, an important note to add here is that the second will also need social science research to evolve and be responsive to the evolving noted shortcomings. 

D&S: So there is a huge demand for ESG experts?

Dr. Rosenfeld: Yes. There is great pressure and a lot of job openings for those positions. But as I mentioned previously, there are no set standards on what it means to be an ESG expert yet. What I see at the moment is a critical lack of training and true in-depth expertise that guarantees results – in this case – a positive impact of investment on a society. The mere lack of standers for what “S” in ESGs stands for calls for what we in social science refer to as exploratory or primary research. This is an evidence base upon which the standards are built, a basis on something to agree on. In fundamental terms, standards and their measurement are what the training for “S” identification and measurement must be based on if any viable results are expected. 

D&S: To conclude this interview, if you had a wish that Drees & Sommer could fulfil, what would that wish be? 

Dr. Rosenfeld: From my perspective, as a scientist specialising in urban matters as well as a long-term policy advisor for international organisations it is very positive to see that a private sector organization such as yourself is opening up space and venturing into multi-disciplinary exchange, networking and community building across disciplines and geographies. I think that is a really positive and truly innovative step ahead. It would be very interesting to try to combine our strengths and work together. Let’s see what the future brings.