Better Housing for Refugees Means Better Housing For All
Improving living standards for refugees helps normalize the refugee settlement experience for everyone, turning strangers into neighbours.
Waves of migration are no longer isolated events. They’re the norm. It makes sense for cities to be ready. The upside? Being ready means better services, infrastructure, access and inclusion for all in the city. In Münster, Germany, this is being put to the test.
Building resilient cities to weather catastrophic shocks and stresses is not new. Including human migration, fueled by massive human movements into Europe, is a newer phenomenon. Urban planning can’t solve the refugee crisis. But it can better take into account increasing mobility and the opportunities diversity brings.
According to the 100 Resilient Cities project, “resilience has never been more compelling and urgent in Europe and the Middle East than it is now. Common challenges—including civil wars and a need to expand city capacities to support growing numbers of refugees and immigrants—bridge the two regions while also creating opportunities for collaborative problem solving.”
As cities start a conversation on migration and housing, Münster has some things to teach them.
A new concept of housing for asylum-seekers:
Over 10 years ago, discussion of Germany’s treatment of refugees recognized that it was, at best, controversial: “Despite having taken great strides to improve the chances for asylum-seekers, there is no minimum standard for the living quarters provided by the state for displaced persons.”
Already then, Münster was challenging the German status quo.
Adequate housing is a foundation of resiliency. Layer vulnerable asylum-seekers with precarious housing on top and you have the makings of a potential humanitarian crisis.
In 2000, Münster leadership set out a refugee housing policy based on “principles of good living,” made up of a balanced mix of people across the city. In many cities, asylum-seekers end up in segregated camps for too long. In Münster, they’re in group housing for no more than 3 weeks before moving on to family housing and apartments.
No more than 50 asylum-seekers would be housed in any housing facility (ideally no more than 8 people per apartment). No communal kitchens or washrooms. Rather, the policy outlined the importance of private spaces for families to settle, that existed within the community. No refugee/migrant segregation and ghettoization. Certainly no precarious refugee camps.
City leaders recognized that inclusion meant access to green spaces, childcare, and input from local residents, neighbours and community groups. Support in the community is not unanimous, but is strong. Over 800 Münster volunteers have pitched in. It’s a community effort.
According to Jochen Köhnke, previously Münster Councillor responsible for Migration and Intercultural Affairs: “In contrast to the large-scale, institutionalized housing, we notice that the new apartments allow for a sense of civil society to develop. We have volunteers from within the immigrant community supporting the social work of our office, and quite a number of immigrants have been adopted by the local community. We are seeing promising developments in the schools, too. Children are not just going more regularly to school, they are also able to enter the class appropriate for their age and thrive there.”
The city recognized that stable housing provides an important foundation for refugees. Additional supports and programs are needed in order to ensure their successful inclusion into the community.
Political pressure and resilience:
Not all asylum seekers will not be accepted as refugees. Providing housing support to asylum-seekers became a contentious political issue in Münster. Whether or not people would be accepted as refugees, treating people humanely is simply the right thing. According to Köhnke: “Knowledge of German and German culture can never be taken away from the asylum-seekers. Even if their bid for amnesty is not accepted and the families must return to their homeland, the immigrants will have profited from their time in Germany.”
Building a broad, inclusive housing strategy was strategically important for Münster. Panning and systems in place meant that the potential refugee-resettlement crisis could be lessened.
Urban resilience focuses on how to build systems to manage crises. Münster provides an example of how sudden demographic shifts via rapid migration as a stress factor/point needs to be integrated into the resilience framework. Early, innovative, inclusive, humanitarian investments over time have resulted in good work with asylum-seekers and refugees who settle. In turn, it benefits the community.
Münster’s 2008 immigration and integration mission statement builds these connections into the city’s goals (PDF): “It is our aim to provide residents on low incomes with reasonable accommodation also in non-segregated areas. In this context, we also plan to strengthen the willingness of the housing sector to continue investing in low-cost housing.”
More and more refugees arriving each day over the past year increased the pressure for housing in Münster. The city will make use of temporary housing, in the form of shipping container-sized portable homes. For now, Münster “has to say goodbye for now of the ideal of a maximum of 50 residents per location. The pressure is too high. Köhnke says, ‘Maybe we will end up at 100. Clearly at least not at 1,000 people as in other cities.'”
Integrating waves of migrants into a city is a challenge. It is not new, and will not stop being a challenge. But, it is one that resilient cities like Münster are up for.
Making it Work for You:
- Building a municipal housing policy requires input from all actors in the community and must involve them.
- Building a resilient city means looking broadly at all potential crises, but also recognizing how solving one crisis can contribute to creating better solutions for the entire city.
- Recognize that housing issues facing asylum-seekers and refugee-resettlement are faced by others in the city. Creating solutions for what might be perceived as an emergency can allow you to work on social housing improvements for all residents and neighbourhoods.
For this Good Idea contact:
Jochen Köhnke Dezernent für Migration und Interkulturelle Angelegenheiten, Stadt Münster