A tax on empty house owners in France

A man holds an umbrella in front of houses in Strasbourg, France.


Tess Vigeland: So many homeless people, so many people-less homes. Millions of properties around the country sit empty because of foreclosure or other issues. And it's not just here in the U.S. In France, they're hitting owners of vacant property with what they're calling an empty house tax. Strasbourg, in Eastern France, became the first large city to adopt the tax earlier this year.

John Laurenson went to find out how it's working.

John Laurenson: Banners, musical instruments, a megaphone and a bus. The Caravan of the Badly-Housed, a traveling protest group, arrives in Strasbourg to demonstrate in favor of the homeless.

Alain, an unemployed man in his forties, has already lived a lifetime of lousy housing. He's currently squatting, living illegally in vacant property.

Alain: I prefer to say we've requisitioned vacant homes. There are more and more empty houses in France but also in Belgium and Germany. Five thousand in Freiburg, Germany, 20,000 in Brussels, nearly 200,000 in Paris.

Strasbourg City Council says it has about 6,000 people in Alain's situation. While as many as 10,000 dwellings are lying vacant. In some cases, owners didn't want to pay for necessary repairs. In others, they'd had bad experiences with tenants. And during France's decade-long property boom, buyers snapped up houses knowing they'd make a profit when they sold. Actually using the houses didn't always come into it.

For Petra Tumova of the homeless people's pressure group "Right to a House," that is scandalous.

Petra TUMOVA: If there were not people out now in the streets it would be good, but there are a lot of people who could use those houses, and we don't understand why those houses are empty.

Strasbourg's city authorities agree. They've told the owners of 1,870 dwellings that have been empty for over five years that they have to pay an empty house tax of, usually, between $1,500 and $2,500 a year.

The city's housing chief Philippe Bies says the tax will convince many owners to let out their property. There's evidence of this he says from smaller towns that have tried it out, places like Reims, the capital of the Champagne region.

Philippe Bies: Reims, a town not far from Strasbourg, introduced a similar tax recently, and it had a big impact. We don't have the final numbers because, even there, the tax hasn't been in place for long. But it seems they've managed to get a third of the homes empty for more than five years back on the market.

The Strasbourg House Owners Association declined to comment on the new tax, but out in the streets, some people said they were against a law that contradicts an owner's right to do what he wants with his property.

Woman on street: There are too much taxes now. We don't need another one. Especially in this time of crisis and especially for owners. We also are in trouble, financially speaking, so I think it's not a good tax.

But the folks back with the Caravan for the Badly Housed say the city authorities aren't going far enough. And property owners are getting off lightly. They say fines are good as far as they go but what they'd really like to see would be those properties requisitioned and rented out cheaply to the poor.

In Strasbourg, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.


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