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International Exchanges to Understand Social Housing Opportunities

Message From PD&R Senior Leadership
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International Exchanges to Understand Social Housing Opportunities

Brian J. McCabe (left) and Victoria Brown (right).
Brian J. McCabe, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development in the Office of Policy Development and Research (left) and Victoria Brown (right), HUD Deputy Chief of Staff.

In May 2023, HUD Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman led a small departmental delegation to the International Social Housing Festival in Barcelona. Held biennially at sites throughout Europe, the festival showcases innovative housing developments and designs from across the continent. 

The festival offered us the opportunity to rethink the housing paradigm in the United States. Affordable housing in the United States is made possible through a combination of tax credits, private- and public-sector investment, rental subsidies, and mortgage loans. Local policies, including zoning laws and regulations, further complicate the production of affordable housing. In Barcelona, we were able to learn from our peers in other cities and countries, many of whom are experiencing similar affordability challenges. Attending these events serves as an important reminder that, although many of the housing challenges our nation faces are shared internationally, the policies and systems available to address those challenges vary. 

Adrienne Todman stands behind a podium.HUD Deputy Secretary Adrienne Todman provides remarks at the closing Plenary of the International Social Housing Festival.

The conference opened with an address from the former mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, who discussed the city’s efforts to build affordable housing outside of the private market. Colau highlighted the ways in which social housing promotes stability, ensures affordability, and staves off evictions. Throughout the festival, we heard from architects, planners, academics, and policymakers about the strategies European cities are adopting to address the challenges of housing affordability. 

The HUD team toured several examples of social housing in Barcelona, during which Deputy Secretary Todman and our team engaged with officials from the city government. We saw examples of modular construction designed to serve as transitional housing for families experiencing homelessness — a model echoing the Housing First philosophy at the core of HUD’s policy approach. Modular construction, which is increasingly common in Europe, can be constructed and adapted quickly. By stacking shipping containers, these buildings can be disassembled, moved, and reassembled at a new site, making these housing investments flexible and retaining adaptable use for the site. 

Victoria Brown (left) and Brian McCabe (right) stand behind a large poster with text advertising the International Social Housing Festival in Barcelona.
HUD Deputy Chief of Staff Victoria Brown and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development Brian McCabe attend the opening Plenary of the International Social Housing Festival.

The tour also highlighted a mixed-income development serving formerly homeless families that used distinct architectural features to redefine preconceived notions of belonging. The development placed the entrance to the supportive housing within the market-rate housing building and the entrance to the market-rate housing within the supportive housing building.

As part of HUD’s involvement in the festival, our team met with Spanish housing officials, including the Secretary General of the Urban Agenda and Housing from the Ministry of Transportation, Mobility and the Urban Agenda. The meeting underscored many of our nations’ common challenges. We are all wrestling with supply chain challenges, the pandemic’s effect on consumer preferences for housing, the growing crisis of homelessness amid rising housing costs, and the urgency of climate change adaptation. Noting these common challenges, Deputy Secretary Todman’s remarks during the closing plenary emphasized the ways in which the Biden-Harris administration is tackling affordable housing, including our work to increase housing supply, expand affordability options, and combat homelessness through a Housing First approach. 

Although HUD focuses primarily on housing challenges in the United States, international exchanges offer important opportunities to broaden our perspectives and ask questions about our own policies. In Barcelona, we learned that market-rate developments are required to donate a percentage of their land value for public use — a tool that increases the availability of land for affordable housing and drastically reduces development costs for social housing. Similarly, collaborative housing developments showcased throughout the festival showed how groups of households can collectively invest in their communities, often emphasizing the power of community over the financial aspects of housing. These increasingly popular approaches showcased at the International Social Housing Festival will enable us to more creatively solve the housing challenges in our own country. 

Published Date: 11 July 2023

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.