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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Paris turns pricey landmark into public housing


While many cities often ignore the creeping gentrification of their centres, Paris has just opened 96 affordable apartments offering world-class views in one of its priciest neighbourhoods for just US$500 a month.

The new apartments, all intended for low- to middle-income tenants, are atop the newly renovated La Samaritaine department store, a massive Belle Époque landmark that opened in 1870 on a site overlooking the Seine, barely a few hundred metres from the centre of Paris.

With generous proportions and balconies with views of the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Coeur and the Louvre, such apartments would normally fetch premium rentals on the private market. But their new tenants are paying an average of US$497 a month for a studio to an average of US$1,075 a month for a three-bedroom unit, reports Bloomberg CityLab.

The antiquated and somewhat dilapidated department store has been undergoing a major reconstruction, freeing up space for extra units in an otherwise fully built-up, carefully preserved section of the city. It finally reopened in June 2021.

Costing US$27 million to construct, the new housing is part of an ongoing effort by the administration of Mayor Anne Hidalgo to not just augment the number of affordable homes in the city, but to prevent further social segregation between high- and low-income earners. But the impetus for this drive isn’t coming from local government alone. Since 2000, a national Urban Solidarity and Renewal law has stipulated that French cities whose housing stock does not consist of at least 20% public housing must pay a substantial levy. In 2025, this proportion will rise to 25%. As Urban Institute researcher Yonah Freemark concludes, the law has been effective in improving access to affordable housing across a number of French cities.

Paris is attempting to not just meet its target but “rebalance the share of social housing,” says Paris Housing Commissioner Ian Brossat, so more public units become available in the city’s wealthier west. This drive has already produced some results. As well as the 96 units at La Samaritaine, the city launched two new housing complexes in December 2020, one next to the Luxembourg Gardens and the other in the exclusive 16th arrondissement. As with all cities, housing affordability remains a challenge. In December 2020, there were 260,000 people on the city’s public housing waiting list. With Paris having the highest cost per square metre for new builds in Europe and given the level of need, a few new public units appearing in pricier parts of the city could be considered largely symbolic. However, that doesn’t stop the new tenants being delighted. One renter interviewed by Le Parisien admitted that when she first received her new apartment’s address — located as it is next to Paris’ City Hall — she assumed she’d been sent the address of the Paris public housing department’s head office by mistake. Others have noted their new homes’ location offered them not just secure, affordable housing but access to better schools and public amenities. The new housing may make only a tiny dent in the shortfall of public housing, but it could help prevent the city’s heart from becoming the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

TOP A renovated La Samaritaine

PHOTO Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg

BOTTOM A view from one of the new public housing units in La Samaritaine

PHOTO Paris Habitat

Some new tenants have noted their new homes’ location offered them not just secure, affordable housing but access to better schools and public amenities.

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