“I believe you can develop a policy that is effective in improving affordability in Barcelona without negatively affecting the private market”

Walker Toma (1986, Berkeley, California) completed the University Master's Degree in International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture in 2017. After completing an internship with UN-Habitat's that same year, Walker transitioned into a full-time position with the City Resilience Profiling Programme (CRPP). At the beginning of 2020, he took on another position within UN-Habitat at the Global Water Operators Partnership Alliance (GWOPA). He is also currently pursuing a PhD at UIC Barcelona, researching the potential impact on the city of Barcelona’s housing market and affordability of the inclusionary housing measure adopted by Barcelona City Council in 2018.

1.    Why did you decide to analyse the housing market in the city of Barcelona?

I chose to analyse the Barcelona housing market, and how that market interacts specifically with the city's inclusionary housing policy, as a means of understanding how private market forces coexist with public objectives such as the ‘right to housing’. I’m interested in the complex dynamics of housing affordability and exploring the degree to which policy levers interact with private market forces. As inclusionary housing mechanisms are inherently tied to private developments, they therefore serve as effective lenses through which to evaluate how policies can be effectively calibrated to achieve affordability objectives. 

2.    So far, you have conducted a review of best practices both in the United States and Europe in order to help to inform policy debate on inclusionary housing not just in Barcelona, but across the globe. Which countries and/or cities could serve as good examples of inclusionary housing policies?

In Europe, where there are far fewer established inclusionary housing policies than in the United States, both Paris and London stand out as effective models. In the United States, where the practice of inclusionary housing or inclusionary zoning originated, many major cities on the West Coast and in the northeast have inclusionary policies. A number of bigger U.S. cities feature effective policies such as San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Washington DC, while a number of smaller jurisdictions have also shown that the policy can be effective in delivering affordable housing in an integrative and inclusive manner.

3.     Your research is focused on two neighbourhoods/districts of Barcelona: Sant Martí and Sants-Montjuic. What made you choose these two areas?

These districts were selected based on their recent development (high levels of new builds) and gentrification characteristics (e.g. high rent to income ratios). In other words, these two districts represent areas of the city where the inclusionary policy should be most effective – areas demonstrating demand from private developers (which is necessary for inclusionary housing policies to generate affordable units) while featuring gentrification characteristics and therefore areas in which the production of affordable housing units is needed. By focusing my research at the district scale, I hope to better understand the impact of context-specific policies.

4.    Which elements do policy makers need to take in consideration in order to make inclusionary housing an effective mechanism for leveraging private sector development and generating affordable housing?

Inclusionary housing policy can be an effective mechanism for leveraging private sector development to generate affordable housing in an integrative and inclusive manner. When properly calibrated, inclusionary policies can generate affordable housing units without negatively impacting private developments, at little to no fiscal cost to the implementing jurisdiction, especially during periods of high market activity. Numerous examples of successful inclusionary policies can be found around the world. 
Furthermore, there is great diversity in the models of inclusionary housing policies that have been implemented. However, the most effective inclusionary policies (defined as the extent to which they can generate affordable or social housing in an integrative and socially inclusive manner) are found to be mandatory, flexible (e.g. regarding rental and/or sale price limits, required inclusionary percentage, unit typology, etc.), and well-calibrated to their market contexts.

5.    Does the measure approved by Barcelona City Council and Government of Catalonia in December 2018, promoting VPO housing, contribute to guaranteeing access to adequate housing in Barcelona?

Preliminary findings from this research suggest that, given Barcelona’s residential market context, if properly calibrated, an inclusionary housing policy could be very effective in generating new affordable units in an integrative and inclusive manner. However, preliminary findings from the feasibility analysis I have conducted on new residential development in selected neighbourhoods suggest that current development economics are insufficient to overcome the burden imposed by the requirements of the city’s inclusionary housing measure. It is therefore likely that the measure will limit private development, in turn resulting in lower levels of affordable housing generated by the measure than was anticipated when the measure was passed. The city estimated that between 300 and 400 affordable units would be developed annually as a result of the inclusionary housing measure. These estimates were based on the assumed continuation of residential development trends in the years leading up to the measure’s implementation. 
If properly calibrated to better reflect the contextual realities –such as incorporating development incentives and potentially altering inclusionary requirements in areas of the city with weaker residential markets– underlying development economics suggest that the City of Barcelona’s inclusionary housing policy is well-positioned to achieve its stated policy goal of improving affordability in the city through the generation of affordable housing units in an integrative manner.

6.    In which way do you think the current pandemic can affect the inclusionary housing market in big cities like Barcelona?

While I am indeed analysing how the pandemic and related housing market impacts may affect development more broadly in Barcelona, and in turn, the impacts of the inclusionary measure, this is a complicated question and not one I feel I have the expertise to fully answer. 

While it is still quite early in our quest to understand the breadth of the impact of COVID-19 on housing markets, the short-term effects in Barcelona due to a reduction in tourism (and therefore demand for touristic apartments), job losses, fewer university students etc., are certainly not helping underlying development economics for new construction or significant rehabilitation projects. That being said, changing preferences from higher income renters/buyers (e.g. the desire for more terraces or larger living spaces) is also likely to have an impact on housing products going forward. My research will attempt to better understand how these various factors may impact the broader (and neighbourhood-specific) housing markets, and therefore, the projected efficacy of the measure in generating affordable housing units.

7.    Could this measure approved in 2018 be a good example of a post-COVID housing policy?

I would say, as it is currently designed, no. I am finding that the way the policy is structured (even pre-pandemic) does not reflect the economic realities in Barcelona very well, especially at the neighbourhood scale. In my opinion, the economic complications derived from the pandemic only make the measure's effectiveness more questionable as development economics are less favourable and more uncertain (i.e. risky investments).

8.    The Spanish Government is now discussing how to regulate the housing market to guarantee fair prices, especially in big cities such as Barcelona or Madrid. Based on your research, is it really possible to reach an affordable housing market without negatively affecting private market activity? 

This is a big topic and even reaching an agreement between policymakers on what constitutes an ‘affordable housing market’ is a challenge. I can only speak for my research, which is focused on a particular policy focused on generating affordable housing in an inclusive manner in particular neighbourhoods in a single city (Barcelona) in Spain. With regards to inclusionary housing, yes, I believe you can develop a policy that is effective in improving affordability in Barcelona –through integrative affordable housing development– without negatively affecting private market activity. 

As to the broader question, while my research seeks to better understand whether or not an ‘affordable housing market’ or a ‘right to housing’ can, in practice, coexist with the private market (and if so, to what extent), unfortunately, I have not yet answered that question!  

9.    In 2017 you graduated from the Master’s degree in International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture. How has this programme influenced your professional career? 

Before entering into the master’s programme, I had very little exposure to the humanitarian/development industry. My work experience prior to the master’s degree was as an urban economics consultant in the private sector working mainly on land use and housing policy. So, in that respect, the masters opened my eyes to some of the opportunities outside the public and private sectors. More directly, the internship portion of the master’s degree led me to my current position with UN-Habitat, first with the City Resilience Profiling Programme and then with the Global Water Operators Partnership Alliance (GWOPA). 

10.    What are your main responsibilities at UN-Habitat?

My responsibilities pertain mainly to supporting knowledge management resources and the design and management of an international grant connecting water and sanitation utilities through peer-to-peer cooperation.