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Deal seeks end to Geneva's housing crisis

Finding somewhere to live in Geneva can be a nightmare because of the high rents ("loyers")

(Keystone)

A historic accord has been struck in Geneva aimed at solving the city's chronic housing shortage.

The deal is expected to result in the cantonal government investing SFr300 million ($250 million) over the next decade in affordable public housing.

The accord, signed by an array of actors from the canton to property companies and campaigners, is designed to revitalise the city's residential housing sector, which has been stagnant for years.

Significantly it does away with a 50-year-old law widely seen as a major impediment to new building projects. This forced property developers to set aside two-thirds of new stock for subsidised housing.

As a result many chose not to construct at all. Over the past decade the proportion of subsidised housing in the city has shrunk from 14 per cent to ten per cent, and the overall vacancy rate for all properties stands at just 0.15 per cent. In 2004 the average for the country was 0.91 per cent.

Developers will in future only have to allocate 15-50 per cent for subsidised or cooperative housing, depending on whether building is in a residential or greenfield area. Failing this, they must sell a quarter of the site to the local authorities for public housing.

The canton wants public housing to account for at least 15 per cent of rental stock within a decade.

Announcing the deal on Friday, Pierre-François Unger, president of canton Geneva, said he hoped it would put an end to the "extremely crippling" housing crisis.

Home ownership

Under the accord, building restrictions will be relaxed, home ownership encouraged and housing assistance maintained. In a break with the past, the canton will also invest SFr30 million a year in public housing, pending approval by the local parliament.

"All these measures tied together represent an important step in the right direction and will make Geneva a more attractive place to live," said Unger.

He added that more houses would see fewer people living in neighbouring canton Vaud or across the border in France, meaning less commuter traffic and more income from taxes.

Mark Muller, head of the canton's construction department, said the agreement signalled the end of a problem that had been "poisoning" Geneva for more than 20 years and even represented a threat to the city's economic appeal.

He said the aim now was to ensure the right housing mix across the canton so as not to create ghettos.

According to Geneva's property owners' association, the accord should see the construction of 2,500-3,500 flats a year – double the current number.

Christophe Aumeunier, the organisation's general secretary, called for more property to be made available for sale. He said there were 10,000 potential buyers waiting for homes.

"I hope in the future we will avoid further sclerosis [of the housing market]," he said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

Currently 10% of the canton's housing stock – 21,500 homes – is made up of subsidised housing. Footing the bill for this cost the cantonal government more than SFr44 million in 2005.

Geneva wants to scrap this system and invest in public housing, which it hopes will make up at least 15 per cent of rental stock within a decade.

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