|A mother and child's 4m² apartment. (Photo - Facebook-Fondation Abbé Pierre|
We learned a few days ago that 'Dominique', a 50-year-old man with a low income, lived in Paris for 15 years in an 'apartment' measuring 1.56m², which is about the floor area of a good-sized dog kennel. The miniscule room was under the roof so he could only stand upright within a narrow 20-centimetre strip. Dominique was charged €330 in rent per month.
That story was followed up yesterday with another, similar one, that of a mother in her thirties who paid €200 per month for a cubbyhole of 4m² in which she lived with her small child, again, in Paris.
That this kind of thing should be allowed to happen in the first place in a country which (erroneously as it happens) proudly proclaims itself to be 'the country of Human Rights' is scandalous enough, but worse still is what the authorities did, or rather didn't, do about it.
The degrading housing conditions of both of these people had been known for many months by the Abbé Pierre Foundation, which fights for improved housing rights for the disadvantaged, and both of their cases were brought to the attention of the relevant authorities by the Foundation. But the authorities did nothing for over six months, despite the obvious urgency of the victims' circumstances.
In Dominique's case the authorities only took action very recently to remove Dominique from his lodgings and have them padlocked, with the owner being barred from entering, and it also emerged that three different private flatsearch agencies had rented the 1.56m² space over a long period, thus flouting a law which fixes the legal minimum for a housing unit at 9m², without housing authorities being aware of it. Dominique has been rehoused.
The case of the woman and child was even worse. She had financial difficulties which had led her to fall three months behind with her rent, and as a result the owner changed the lock on the door while she was out and put her meager belongings into plastic bags which she left in a corridor in the building before sending a text message to her tenant to inform her of what she had done. This broke almost every rule in the book, which obliges owners to send warning letters and obtain court permission to evict tenants. Also, she is theoretically liable for 'endangering life' and renting lodgings which are 'incompatible with human dignity'. Not only that, she evicted the tenant just recently, which means that she has also fallen foul of a law which forbids evictions during the cold winter months.
Many people, including myself, lived for a while in Paris (London too, in my case) during their early adulthood because of these cities' bustling lifestyle and opportunities, which young people often crave. And, like most of the others, I didn't earn much money so I had to content myself with about 10 or 12m². It wasn't The Ritz, sure, but there was room for a bed, a table, a small hi-fi system and an armchair or two. It was all part of the growing up game. Nevertheless, although I gladly accepted those conditions in exchange for a chance to live in these cities I just cannot imagine how degrading and soul-destroying it must be to live in 4m², never mind less than 2m².
And it's not only a question of size, it's also a question of extortionate rent. As a comparison, I live in a high-ceilinged apartment of about 90m² near Lyon's city centre. It has a marble fireplace, wooden parquet floors and all mod-cons. Price? In the upper €400s per month. In other words I pay a rate of just over €5 per square metre. The lady with her baby though, was paying €50 per square metre, Dominique was actually paying a staggering €200 per square meter, and it's probably safe to say that they both earn rather less than many people.
High rents and small apartments are an inevitable part of living in a much sought after capital city for many people, but the almost inhuman conditions in which these two people found themselves does no credit to the Paris authorities. They should be forced by law to react immediately in cases such as these and they should also be able to circumvent the long wait for court proceedings which are characteristic of courts not only in France but elsewhere, in order to bring offenders to justice quickly.
This legislation is needed urgently because each day spent waiting for it to be drawn up and enacted is a day on which the poor of Paris will continue to be subjected to this kind of abuse because, as Dominique says, they have no choice. After all;
"It's either that or the street."