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Smart cities get their houses in order

Smart city conversations don’t typically encompass housing. That could be changing, writes Sarah Wray.


Unlike areas such as transport, streetlighting and communications networks, housing is rarely mentioned in smart city initiatives. That seems to be changing, though, as cities broaden their ‘smart’ visions to encompass resilience as well as a more holistic view of quality of life, rather than merely focusing on connected infrastructure or what tech companies are pushing.


The shift also comes at a time when many cities are facing growing pressures on their housing systems and seeing homelessness rise.


At Smart City Expo World Congress in November, Barcelona and New York issued a challenge to find innovative tools and technologies to make housing more affordable. Sidewalk Labs has highlighted below-market and affordable housing as a prominent feature of its high-profile Waterfront Toronto smart city development, and we are also seeing new, early examples of data being applied to housing challenges.


Barcelona taps tech – among other things


Javier Buron Cuadrado, Housing Manager, Barcelona City Council, told SmartCitiesWorld that Barcelona and New York’s joint affordable housing challenge is part of a wider suite of initiatives from the cities to try to improve housing affordability.


Barcelona is aiming to double the number of public housing units in the next 10 years, while New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to building and preserving affordable homes for 300,000 families.


Cuadrado says Barcelona’s housing is particularly under pressure due to a combination of factors: the city’s relatively small size, its success as an attractive place to live and work, and its historic housing structure. Around 30 per cent of people in Barcelona rent their homes, which is higher than the average in Spain. At the same time, most of Barcelona’s rental housing is private, therefore limiting the city’s influence on affordable pricing.


According to the Barcelona Housing Observatory (OHB), rental prices went up around 28 per cent in the Barcelona metropolitan area between 2014 and 2017. The average rent is between €900 and €1,300 per month and 42 per cent of people in the metropolitan area spend 40 per cent of their income on housing.


There are around 3,000 homeless people in Barcelona, sleeping rough on the streets or in shelters each night. Forced evictions among low-income families are also a big concern


This backdrop creates many challenges for the city and its citizens. There are around 3,000 homeless people in Barcelona, sleeping rough on the streets or in shelters each night. Forced evictions among low-income families are also a big concern. OHB data shows that although there has been a slight drop since 2016, there have been 41,782 evictions since 2013, affecting 125,000 people in Barcelona.


‘Silent forced evictions’ are a growing issue too – this is when people with average salaries reach the end of their contract and the landlord puts the rent up higher than they can afford.


Cuadrado says: "This has probably always happened – it’s ‘part of the game’. But nowadays we are facing this as a much bigger phenomenon. It’s affecting middle classes too and it’s jeopardising not only the social and territorial space and cohesion of the metropolis, but it’s also a danger for economic efficiency. If you have a big part of the workforce moving around constantly, it’s an economic problem in terms of transportation and productivity.”


Ageing society


The third challenge for Barcelona is its ageing population – something which many cities globally are facing.


Cuadrado said: “Neither the market or the administration has a structural solution for how ageing will affect the places we live and the type of services that we will need coming in from the market and also from public services.


“We are facing those three not very original challenges – other places are suffering the same problems, but most other cities have had housing policies for decades so they have resources to try to face the problem. We are facing severe difficulties, and at the same time we are trying to develop those programmes and systems in a very speedy way.”


He says Barcelona is investigating or trying “every tool in the handbook” – mainly through its Municipal Housing Trust.


Actions include developing a housing emergency unit, building new social housing (72 blocks are under construction to create 4,600 housing units, representing an investment of over €0.5 billion), as well as buying rental property (more than 650 units have already been purchased and renovated, at a cost of around €75 million) and using subsidies and other vehicles to encourage private owners of empty flats to rent them as social or affordable housing.


Building smarter


Through the housing tech challenge launched at Smart City World Expo, Barcelona, along with New York, is trying to tap even more tools – perhaps ones that aren’t even in the “handbook” yet.


The cities say they are open to new ideas, including the use of technologies such as offsite prefabrication; alternative building materials; building information modelling; virtual and augmented reality; autonomous drones; resource accounting and material flow analysis; 3D printing; and smart devices and mobile-based solutions.


Cuadrado said: "[Smart housing technology] hasn’t been a specific emphasis but it is now, since we desperately need to produce faster, deliver cheaper and be able to maintain the units that we produce – at the lowest cost possible.”


He added: “We want to absorb as much innovation and technology as possible. In the public sector, we are sometimes focused too much on ourselves [and our ideas]. We want to open up and do a very honest call to the market to come and tell us what is going on out there.”


The challenge winner will receive a grant of up to $20,000 to demonstrate their solution at relevant project sites in Barcelona and/or New York City. Further implementation will be explored through a partnership with an affordable housing developer, if appropriate.


"No matter how cheap, efficient and fast it is to produce housing with new technology, at the end of the day, there is a fight out there for space. This key factor is not going to be resolved by technology.”


The deadline for proposals is February 10 (extended from January 31), with finalists selected in March. The winner will be revealed in May.


Technology can help reduce the cost of housing and improve the quality, Cuadrado said.


However, he noted: “No matter how cheap, efficient and fast it is to produce housing with new technology, at the end of the day, there is a fight out there for space. This key factor is not going to be resolved by technology.”


Therefore, he said, attention still needs to be paid to zoning regulations and other legal and policy provisions around how you use the space in the city.


Data-driven housing


As well as technology to help build cheaper and more sustainable housing, data is another smart city staple that’s increasingly coming into play.


In an interview for our smart city profile on the City of San Diego late last year, David Graham, San Diego’s then-Deputy Chief Operating Officer (he is now CIO at the City of Carlsbad) said smart city drives have a real role to play in tackling challenges such as homelessness.


San Diego City and County recorded a homeless population of 9,160 in 2017, the fourth worst in the US. Up to 1,000 of these homeless people are understood to be veterans.


Also in 2017, San Diego was hit by a deadly outbreak of hepatitis. By January 2018, the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency reported 577 cases of hepatitis, including 20 deaths and 395 hospitalisations. San Diego’s homeless population were worst affected.


San Diego’s Mayor Faulconer has called homelessness “the most pressing issue” facing Californian cities. Actions that the city is taking include three Bridge Shelters with beds and supportive services to assist individuals with finding a place to live; a Safe Parking programme which gives people living in their cars a safe place to park at night; and plans to open a Housing Navigation Centre to help provide access to services all in one place.


Data is another tool in the city’s arsenal. As we explored in detail in the city profile, San Diego is turning its streetlights into digital infrastructure. It is deploying the world’s largest smart city IoT Platform in order to get rich, real-time data across the city to develop new solutions.


Graham said: “The more and better data that we have about our communities, the easier it is for us to apply for and win grants or other types of funding to address issues such as homelessness.”


“The more and better data that we have about our communities, the easier it is for us to apply for and win grants or other types of funding to address issues such as homelessness.”


Further, he added: “When we better understand – through things like street lights and data – where people are and how they’re moving, we can design strategies to directly engage and hopefully connect those people with services.”


Graham also explained that San Diego is developing a “first-of-its-kind”, inclusive connected communities strategy and action plan: “That starts in our under-served neighbourhoods with the highest poverty, highest crime and most aged infrastructure," he said. "We know that some of the biggest challenges in being employed and staying employed are housing and mobility. We’re engaging there first about the issues and the smart city solutions that can help to address them. We believe that if you can do deployments like this in places that are the toughest, you can scale it to anywhere in the city.”


Smart cities start at home?


A further emerging trend is better linking smart homes with the smart city.


There are set to be almost 300 million smart homes installed around the world by 2022, according to a recent report from ABI Research. With this in mind, Jonathan Collins, Research Director at ABI Research, said that smart home devices and services will play an increasingly important part in smart city programmes.


Although it’s early days for smart homes to integrate better with smart cities, Collins said: “The key takeaway is that there is sensing infrastructure being deployed across cities already. It is at a consumer by consumer level, but it will build an install base that will increasingly offer a way to collect valuable data citywide and enable cities to better understand the demands and requirements of their residents. It is a data infrastructure that can help cities gain or extend the goals of ongoing or planned smart city projects.”


Building blocks


Housing is something that affects every single person, every day. If these latest initiatives can deliver results, they could provide the building blocks to show what smart cities can really do.


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