What Barcelona Can Teach New York City About Truly Affordable Housing

Backyard, KATELIN PENNER, APRIL 20, 2023

Op-ed: As the housing market becomes increasingly commodified, Barcelona’s social housing program can offer American cities some lessons.

Earlier this month I visited Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, where my sister has been studying abroad. We did all of the major tourist hits: we ate tapas, took a cable car to the top of Montjuïc, drank sangria, strolled through Park Güell, one of Antoni Gaudί’s signature works. We were captured by the beauty of the massive, rainbow stained glass windows of the Sagrada Familia church. I babbled to my family about superblocks, Barcelona’s innovative street design model, intended to decrease car use and air pollution while increasing access to public space. 

Yet the thing I found most striking about Barcelona was its rapidly growing social and public housing stock. Much like New York, where I live, Barcelona is facing a housing crisis of massive proportions: eviction rates have risen dramatically over the past several years, private speculators have made substantial, harmful investments in the local housing stock, and rental costs have skyrocketed

But unlike New York, which has primarily used private and public-private sector solutions in an attempt to solve the housing crisis, Barcelona has actually taken substantial steps towards making housing a social good. 

In 2016, Barcelona released a 10-year Right to Housing plan that identified four main housing goals the city needed to address. The first goal the city identified was preventing and addressing the housing emergency and residential exclusion, including homelessness. To ensure the housing crisis did not worsen in the city, the government proposed strengthening public grants to help people maintain their homes, implementing eviction mediation programs, strengthening publicly run housing offices, and crafting proactive policies to address the housing needs of the aging. I saw this last proposal in action when I visited a social housing development for the aging in Santa Caterina, located right next to one of the city’s 39 markets.

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