On April 1, 2015, a 100-meter-long tent appeared in Place de la Republique, Paris. Installed by French NGO Droit au Logement, the tent was meant raise awareness about the most basic of human rights: a roof over your head.
In 2012, there were at least 40,000 vacant flats in the French capital. Yet, today an estimated 12,000 Parisians are homeless and many more live in one of 800,000 severely overpopulated lodgings that have been declared unfit for living by advocacy group La Fondation Abbé Pierre (FAP). Over the past decade, house prices in Paris have increased by 95%. A 5-square-meter room with no shower can cost up to €350 (US$ 390) per month.
It’s not the first housing crisis that Paris has faced. In the 1950s, immigrant workers, mostly from Portugal and Algeria, rented beds by the hour in the slums immediately surrounding the city. To offer decent housing to them and the upcoming middle class, towers and high-rise blocks were erected further out into the countryside, in the designated zones à urbaniser en priorité (areas to be urbanized quickly.) Sixty years later, those same buildings are undergoing massive renovations.
“This was a place for the middle and working class,” says one of the residents of Cité Michelet, 16 identical towers constructed in the 1960 on the edge of the 19th arrondissement, “Nowadays workers are less and less, and the unemployed more and more.” Since 2002, Cité Michelet has been the object of intense urban renewal, aimed at restoring the value of public real estate. “Before there were no gates, everything was open, you could pass from one side of the neighborhood to the other through our buildings," she says. "Now I have to dial a code three times before getting into my flat.”
Recent renovations have made high-rise buildings safer, but also more expensive for the people who used to live there. “I am not sure we will be able to stay when the works will be finished,” explains Luise, a young mother living in Cité Karl Marx, a housing complex built in Bobigny, North East of Paris, at the beginning of the 1970s. “Do not get me wrong: it is very clean what they did. But what we have to pay per month is much higher than before.” Since last September, Cité Karl Marx has been undergoing a complete renovation, which included demolishing the neighborhood’s iconic double towers.
Demolition became a means of modernization in Paris since the 1980s, when the towers and slabs of Parisian suburbia came to represent France's social problems, with floors of the impoverished and underprivileged stacked high and far from the center of the city. On February 18 1986, it took eight seconds and six hundred kilos of dynamite to blow up Debussy, a 200-meter-long building hosting three hundred flats in La Corneuve in Northern Paris (Seine-Saint-Denis.) Debussy’s neighbors Renoir, Ravel, and Pressov fell one by one in the following decades.
“I do not understand why they destroy so many squared meters in France, while we are struggling to find places for everybody,” comments Jaclyn, an inhabitant of the Leclerc Tower, currently La Courneuve’s highest building with 26 floors.
He has a point. While Paris is so busy reconsidering its borders and horizontal extension into the greater "Grand Paris," the real challenge may be to find a smarter use for buildings in the city's outskirts than blowing them up.
In the meantime, after four weeks of occupation, Droit au Logement left Place de la Republique after reaching an agreement with the region’s prefect. Under a law that guarantees safe housing to any citizen who cannot afford it, around 250 Parisian families who had protested by sleeping inside the tent have been given a home.
It’s only the beginning. There are currently 57,000 families registered for priority housing in Paris. With no plan ready for them, they may soon pitch camp.
Text by Marianita Palumbo
Photos by François Prost