National Assembly Passes Landmark Public Housing Law

Hanshui — The National Assembly passed the 21st Century Social Housing Act on Saturday, enshrining a right to housing in Laeralian law and fulfilling a key campaign promise of President Liu’s to establish a nationwide public housing authority and improve conditions in social housing complexes. Supporters of the legislation say that wide-ranging reforms are necessary for Laeral’s aging public housing, which is home to roughly 18 million Laeralites yet has become associated with low standards of living and dilapidated surroundings.

Social housing complexes, also known as ”Habitation à Loyer Modéré” (HLM, or “Housing at Moderate Rent”), are subsidized public housing available for long-term rent by those in need. Consisting primarily of large-scale apartment blocks in urban areas, HLM makes up around 24% of housing in Laeral, and is a key factor in providing affordable living spaces in cities such as Laeralsford and Hanshui, where for many, home ownership is out of reach.

Social housing complexes, however, are often in poor condition. While HLM buildings vary greatly nationwide, apartment complexes such as the Shizuiliang Estates in Meilinis have thousands of residents living in squalid conditions. A 2019 study by researchers at François Guiraud National Open University found harmful substances, such as mold infestations or lead paint, in nearly 30% of the 3,000 HLM apartment units surveyed. Researchers also found that living in HLM residences built before 2000, or roughly 70% of HLM premises, was associated with lower life expectancy and greater risk of fire and infectious disease.

Efforts to improve these conditions have been hampered by the wide array of authorities operating HLM complexes at the provincial or municipal level: a patchwork of around 45 public and private organizations. The new 21st Century Social Housing Act creates the new Laeralian Housing Authority to oversee and coordinate social housing nationwide, as well as writing and enforcing uniform standards for HLM complexes. The Laeralian Housing Authority will also have the power to seize and operate directly any public housing complexes which fail to meet standards or fall empty.

“This is an entirely new approach in the way social housing has been approached in this country,” says President Liu Mei-han, a major proponent of the legislation. “It’s difficult to believe, but in the six decades of the Allied Provinces’ existence, there has never before been a meaningful federal body charged with managing social housing nationwide.”

President Liu is a long-time advocate for increased government investment in public housing. Her childhood home was the Jiaoyuan Estate housing complex, a massive apartment building located on the outskirts of Hanshui and built during the 1950s to house several thousand families, many of them Rén workers moving from the countryside in search of jobs in the city.

As governor of Neidong from 2013 to 2016, she oversaw major investments in HLM refurbishing and renovation, and during her presidential race, she frequently referenced her upbringing at Jiaoyuan Estate. Her appointment of Yang Wanzhou, New Democratic representative and former director of the nonprofit Fair Housing Coalition, as Housing and Urban Affairs Minister was taken as a signal that broad public housing reform was ahead.

Minister Yang and the Fair Housing Coalition had long advocated for a federal right to housing, which appears among the first lines of the legislation: “It is declared the policy of the federal government that the right to adequate housing is an essential and fundamental human right for all Laeralites.” The right is legally enforceable for as long as the legislation stands, meaning that the judiciary could in future find a law in violation of the right to adequate housing, although the exact impact of this right on future cases is uncertain.

As proposed in Liu’s campaign platform, the 21st Century Social Housing Act also creates the new Tenants’ Purchase scheme, which allows HLM residents to purchase their apartments at subsidized prices, as well as the Path to Ownership scheme, intended to allow first-time homebuyers such as college graduates to buy their first homes inside new and refurbished HLM complexes. According to the bill’s backers, the legislation is intended to promote home ownership and increase standards of living within social housing estates.

“For decades, long-term rentals in public housing has been a means for our nation’s most vulnerable to stay out of shelters and off the streets,” said Progressive Delegate Sophie Meng, who co-sponsored the bill in the General Assembly. “This act allows these vulnerable Laeralites, from elders to working-class Laeralites to single parents raising children, to save up and one day attain their goal of homeownership.”

The bill passed largely along party lines, with no members of the governing coalition breaking ranks to vote with the opposition. People’s Party lawmakers and local housing authority trade groups roundly criticized the bill, calling it an inflexible bureaucratic imposition on local housing authorities.

“President Liu and her allies in government are calling for another overbearing federal board that will do nothing but flood local housing authorities with red tape and stifling housing innovation at the local level,” said LPP Rep. Ye Qingshan. “Poll after poll shows that ordinary Laeralites trust their local governments far more than they do the unelected bureaucrats in Laeralsford. So why is it that this administration’s first impulse when dealing with local problems is to centralize power and stop local authorities from adapting to conditions on the ground?”

The parliamentary left-wing also criticized the bill, citing concerns that the four-year prohibition on reselling homes bought under the Tenants’ Purchase scheme would be insufficient to prevent gentrification within HLM communities. “Tenants’ Purchase has absolutely none of the safeguards necessary to stop predatory property developers from buying homes straight from the tenants as soon as the four-year limit expires,” said Rep. Karine Paillard, a Socialist. “This program may be well-intentioned, but it opens the door to opportunistic developers buying up residences within HLM communities and gentrifying low-income Laeralites out of the very communities meant to be their own.”

Having passed the National Assembly, the 21st Century Social Housing Act will go into effect August 1st, the date when the Laeralian Housing Authority begins operations. Under the guidance of Yang Wanzhou’s activist Housing ministry, it’s expected that new regulations will be swiftly forthcoming. “It’s the responsibility of the LHA to turn today’s social housing estates into the safe, welcoming, and hospitable housing communities of tomorrow,” said Minister Yang. “A lot of HLM residences are lacking in health, safety, and general tenant well-being. In some cases, the LHA may have to step in to turn around HLM estates that aren’t meeting these standards for their residents.”

Public housing community advocates, meanwhile, have generally praised the legislation, but say that more could be done to better the lives of those in social housing. “This is a tremendous step forward,” said Solène Auffret of the Fair Housing Coalition, “but it can’t take the place of the major investment in public housing that’s essential for the well-being of the 18 million Laeralities living in HLM estates.”

Emeline Lesage

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