9. Support for housing self-renovation in Lille Metropolis
9.1. Short description
Within the scope of its second Local Housing Plan (PLMH2, 2008-2012)4 , Lille Metropolis chose to provide support for self-renovation at the beginning of 2011. This experiment is one of the actions contributing to the fight against poor quality and substandard housing (“lutte contre le mal logement”) but also against fuel poverty, especially for low-income residents of run-down private housing stock. After a call for projects, the proposal from the non-profit organisation Les compagnons bâtisseurs (Companion Builders), was selected for managing, training and supervising the implementation of a self-renovation process in a region where such practices remain marginal and unprofessional. After a first phase of information and exploration in 2011, three volunteer local housing organisations (GRAAL, APU Wazemmes and PACT MN) were recruited for implementing the project in three different areas in Lille Metropolis.
This innovation is interesting because it concerns the transfer and reproduction of self-renovation practices, seen as socially innovative by local authorities. In other words, this is not an institutionalised process of local bottom-up practices based on the skills and demands of local actors. According to promoters of self-renovation, this is the first time in France that a large metropolis like Lille has included an action of this kind in its housing policy. This sign of public recognition and support of self-renovation implies a method based on the identification and transfer of skills and knowledge to local practitioners adapted to the local housing context.
Support for self-renovation covers a set of practices that aim at improving the living conditions of low-income households by renovating their homes with their active participation (Rémy, Foulter, 2007). It combines dual objectives and functions. In addition to the material maintenance and renovation facilitated by technical support, self-renovation is also expected to have positive impacts on social inclusion and empowerment of families. This relatively old practice has been the object of renewed interest in recent years in the face of increasing issues of substandard and run-down housing as well as the rise in energy bills for modest households living with fuel poverty.
9.2. Types of services and ways of addressing users
In comparison with other cities, a feature specific to Lille Metropolis is that most self-help renovation has targeted owners and tenants in run-down private dwellings rather than residents of social housing stock. This institutional demand was confirmed in the diagnosis phase and can be explained by the high number of substandard dwellings that form part of the major stock of old working-class houses in the Nord region. Another specificity is the high numbers of owners in comparison to tenants benefiting from the first phase of the experiment, which can be explained by the financial incentive provided by the agency for housing improvement and Lille Metropolis. However, whether owners or tenants, the users targeted could not afford to carry out improvements on their run-down homes by themselves. In addition to insufficient income, the beneficiaries were experiencing different personal, professional and social difficulties (unemployment or an insecure job, family breakups, social isolation, etc.).
Specifically, the types of services provided to users are:
- a technical and social diagnosis on housing improvements and household living conditions;
- administrative support for the establishment of the application of diverse funding including support from the National Agency for Housing Improvement (ANAH);
- mediation between tenants and owners on the repair and maintenance works to be performed and paid for. The presence of a third party is often a factor in easing conflicts;
- educational and technical support to the members of family involved in concrete renovation tasks;
- some collective and technical training sessions were also provided to families on topics such as plumbing, insulation, tenants’ rights, energy savings, etc.;
- potential direction towards other social services and housing benefits.
The principle of support for self-renovation is that renovation works are carried out by at least one member of the household with the support of a technical adviser and in some cases by a self-help network (other family members, friends, neighbours or other volunteer beneficiaries of the programme). This experiment is based on major involvement of the users over a period of time. The users’ involvement is not considered as free but is subject to financial accountability in order to give value to this contribution.
A year and a half after the launch of this experiment 49 people have been referred to the three volunteer organisations for the experiment, mainly by non-profit housing organisations and social workers at local housing improvement institutions. Only 11 buildings have been launched due to the time required (about 5-6 months) for compiling the technical file and obtaining funding agreement. However, according to the director of the GRAAL, one of the three organisations, the demand is growing with, for instance, 20 renovation projects planned. The users are mainly introduced by social workers, neighbourhood and housing organisations. Word of mouth is also starting to work as well as direct calls from households that have seen advertisements by Lille Metropolis or the General Council of the Nord Department.
The main and visible outcome is the maintenance and improvement of housing such as glazing, painting, minor plumbing, insulation, replacement of switches, plugs or light bulbs, ventilation, etc. All these improvements also have a positive impact by reducing obligatory expenses, such as energy expenditure. Beyond the visible housing improvement and financial gains, the promoters of support for self-renovation insist on the social impacts for the household. Self-renovating one’s own apartment has a strong impact on personal self-esteem and progressive awareness of one’s own capabilities. Some users rediscover the pleasure of taking care of their home and develop basic handiwork skills. Moreover, the renovation period can also be an opportunity for socialisation, with the mobilisation of personal or family networks focused on a specific project but also sometimes with meetings of volunteers. Compared to external maintenance, self-renovation is also seen by owners as well as social landlords as a guarantee against rapid deterioration because works have been carried out by tenants.
Convincing families to commit themselves to the housing self-renovation method is the first obstacle to overcome because this practice is still unfamiliar, takes time and often leads to more comprehensive housing improvements than those initially projected by the household. Convincing arguments for the benefits of self-renovation are cost reduction for the families, the quality of work done at official standards as well as the energy and financial savings. Although users have priority of access to financial support from housing programmes, a minimum of self-funding is required, which could exclude the very poorest or indebted households.
9.3. Internal organisation and mode of working
The self-renovation team is generally composed of three people:
- an administrative and project coordinator who contacts, negotiates and draws up the contract with owners and tenants as well as prepares applications to housing institutions for funding;
- a technical advisor who technically diagnoses the restoration works, advises and supports the household in the renovation of their home and negotiates materials or minor interventions by external tradespeople;
- a volunteer involved as a civic participant and in professional training processes. Her/his role focuses much more on the relationship with families.
The first part of the experiment included several training sessions with the local operational teams because there were no organisations qualified to support self-help renovation in Lille Metropolis. Here we can identify a clear process of transfer and adaptation of skills and expertise coming from outside the experiment’s area. Training consisted in particular of a two-month immersion session for future technical and social advisers with experienced technicians from Les compagnons bâtisseurs working in other cities (Marseille, Rennes).
The profile of the technical advisor is particularly specific and quite rare because it combines technical skills from different building trades with educational and social interventions similar to social workers. These dual skills make it more difficult to recruit technical advisers, taking into account that the wages provided remain attractive in relation to the responsibilities required. This explains why technical advisers present atypical career paths, with engineers who have the choice of moving into the social profession or social workers who want to get away from administrative and work routines. However, the requirements for such work could be a future obstacle for answering the growing demand for self-renovation.
9.4. Embeddedness of the project in the local welfare system
One of the Les compagnons bâtisseurs’ tasks has been to inform and convince a large number of stakeholders in the housing sector of the usefulness of support for the self-renovation method. Beyond overcoming potential indifference or sceptical viewpoints, the objective is to build a network of institutional partners able to direct potential beneficiaries towards this kind of solution. This means that social workers, non-profit housing organisations and local authorities need to assess if support for self-renovation meets the needs of the families they are used to advising. The process has culminated in the creation of a local committee for guiding and assisting potential users.
Another key component in the reproduction of self-renovation methods in other urban contexts consists of preventing potential conflicts and regulating relations with building tradespeople as well as small- and medium-sized construction companies. The fear of unfair competition, especially in a time of building and housing crisis, is a frequent objection expressed by trade organisations. To prevent it, the head of Les compagnons bâtisseurs generally points out that self-renovation is not a market because the families involved are usually low-income households.
As already noted, this initiative is a top-down experiment originating in an institutional demand from Lille Metropolis rather than inhabitants or local not-for-profit housing organisations. To a certain extent, institutional recognition comes before the emergence of professional organisations, skilled workers and active promoters. A first issue in the transfer is the integration of support for self-renovation within the objectives and frameworks of local authorities and housing institutions other than Lille Metropolis. The General Council of the Nord region and the family allowance office have already become funding partners. The ability to finance support for self-renovation on a larger scale remains an open question. In the event of growing demand, the extension of the experiment to social landlords is another challenge. The second main issue is the emergence of local leaders as well as active and competent organisations able to promote and disseminate such practices once Les compagnons bâtisseurs’ work ends.
In conclusion, we would like to underline that the experience in Lille Metropolis could represent an important step forward in a context characterised by the absence of national self-renovation programmes. Lille Metropolis explicitly included support for self-renovation in its housing policy, whereas such practices have tended to be supported within social policies (family support, inclusion pathways, community development programmes) in other urban contexts. The Lille experiment is even more likely to positively influence the national political agenda given that the present deputy in charge of the future housing law is a former municipal councillor for housing in Lille and is very familiar with the housing organisations involved in support for self-renovation projects.