Prague housing crisis highlighted in CAMP exhibition

Prague is currently home to one of Europe’s hottest real-estate markets. Real estate prices have soared, subsequently  triggering higher rent prices for those who can no longer afford house ownership. An exhibition in the Centre for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning highlights the housing crisis that many residents are facing.

Štěpán Bärtl | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

CAMP (Center for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning is a multimedia gallery and urban planning hub funded by the city of Prague that focuses on the future of urban planning. In their current exhibit titled Prague Tomorrow? Houses and Apartments, CAMP is working to put emphasis on the fact that the city's housing situation is far from ideal, and addresses the housing crisis that many residents are facing. Štěpán Bärtl, head of CAMP, says it’s a complex problem, with no easy solutions.

“The idea of the exhibition is fairly simple. We try to monitor and figure out what is happening construction wise in Prague. So when we opened CAMP 5 years ago, we asked all the developers to tell us what they were building and what it would look like to get an idea of the construction situation. With this specific project we are focusing on housing, because it’s an important issue we are dealing with here in Prague.”

Photo: CAMP

“This is also something that is not specific to Prague, housing is a problem in many European and North American cities. Basically, in Prague, we have more people coming in than there are apartments being built. Right now the prognosis is that by 2070, another 400,000 people will move to Prague, and that’s roughly the size of the city of Brno. So there aren’t enough apartments being built, and the ones that are aren’t always completely accessible, especially since the city of Prague does not own much land itself and doesn’t do a lot of its own construction. So this doesn’t have an easy solution, it will take a long time to actually do something about it, but this exhibition shows some of the things we can do to alleviate this problem.”

When it comes to who is affected directly by the housing crisis, the group is quite broad, but to Štěpán, there are two main groups affected the most.

“I think it’s all of us who are affected in a sense, all of us who haven’t been given houses or apartments from our parents or grandparents. Right now it’s about 150,000 Czech crowns per square meter, so getting a loan or a mortgage for an apartment or house is quite hard. In Czechia right now, you need 13 full years of salary in order to be able to buy an apartment, compared to 5 years in Belgium. It’s an expense that most people can’t justify or even afford. There are two main groups who are affected more, younger people up to 30-35, and disproportionately the older generation who do not own their own places.”

Photo: CAMP

While apartment ownership may be a far-fetched goal for many, Štěpán explains how he believes the obsession with ownership here in Prague and within broader Czech society comes from the country's socialist past, leaving many residents unwilling to rent due to the societal taboo.

Photo: CAMP

“I think it’s something about our culture and owning things which is extremely specific. It’s almost this post-communist fetish with owning things, which we are experiencing here. So it means that more people will have to rent, and will have to get the idea that there is nothing wrong with renting, it’s a completely reasonable way to live anywhere around the world. It’s just something that we’re getting used to, especially in Czechia where we have these post-socialist connotations of wanting to own rather than share.”

Exploring the complexities of the city's housing situation is not an easy task, and with many different stakeholders involved, it can be difficult to reach an objective solution. In order to remain as objective as possible, when Štěpán and his team were designing the exhibition, they tried to ground it largely in statistics about the housing landscape in Prague, and two important documents.

“Five different people would approach an exhibition on housing in five different ways. What we tried to do was look at it from a statistical point of view, without judging- because that’s the first thing you have to do in order to create policy, you have to know what is actually happening. We took two documents, the first being the Census which was done in 2021 in Czechia, and it gave us a broad idea about what is actually happening in the country: who owns what, what are the typical ways of living, and what neighbourhoods are experiencing an increase in price. The second document was the Strategy of Housing for Prague for the next five years. So based on this, the exhibition is very statistical, it doesn’t give you easy solutions because there are no  easy solutions to a housing crisis. But it also says what we can do as a city, and there are several things we can do to mitigate the problem.”

Photo: CAMP

When it comes to solving the problem, Štěpán and his team have presented several solutions, but at the core, more affordable construction to meet the growing population of Prague is essential.

Photo: CAMP

“One solution is the establishment of the Prague Development Agency, which works as a developer, but owned by the city and would be tasked with creating more low income housing, which is something we desperately need. According to the strategy that we came up with, we need 9,000 apartments being built every year in order to accommodate the people moving in. At the moment, it’s only 5,500. So we need to increase the supply of housing, and shorten the process of getting permits to build. And again, having the city being an active player in this process, so building housing on city grounds, focusing more on threatened target groups and more low-income housing.”

When it comes to gaining insight and inspiration for combatting the housing crisis in Prague, Štěpán and his team have often looked to other cities within the EU as an example of how to change the landscape here in Czechia.

“I think we all look to similar cities when it comes to urban planning, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I think when we talk about housing Vienna is an example which we would love to copy, but it’s not so simple because the City of Vienna owns 50% of the housing stock, whereas Prague only owns 5%, and it can’t really tell the private developers that they need to build low income housing because the market is so heavily privatised, the City just doesn’t have that leverage. Munich has similarities to Prague, and they are also trying to build more housing by the city and state.”

Photo: CAMP

While the team at CAMP may not be able to provide immediate solutions to the housing crisis in Prague, what they can do is promote and stimulate discussion between the public, the city, and private developers, something Štěpán believes is fundamental in every city.

“Everybody has an opinion about living in a city, you don’t have to be an architect to experience first-hand whether you like spending time in your city or not. Prague has a long way to go in many ways, but each city that I have visited overtime has a type of CAMP, a place where you can come and ask a question about the future of the city - what is going to be built in my neighbourhood, what is going to be built next door. CAMP is like a mediator, or a base-camp between the public and the politicians and between the public and private developers.”

Prague | Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

While the road may be long to properly address the housing crisis in Prague at its roots, Štěpán is happy if folks can come out to simply learn more about the complexity of the housing situation in Prague, and the many players and societal taboos that must be addressed in order to improve the landscape for all.

“I think it’s important to show that in the city you need a variety of actors that provide housing, but it’s always going to be private development that is most dominant, it’s 80% at the moment, and it’s probably never going to change. The city has to be a very active player, but the public has to see that private developers are here and are here to stay. The other thing I hope people take away from the exhibit is to rethink house ownership and renting, and the idea that it is completely reasonable to rent. We need to de-stigmatize the sharing economy and the idea of ownership in that sense.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the housing crisis and potential solutions posed by Štěpán and his team, the exhibit Prague Tomorrow? Houses and Apartments, is running at CAMP until April 30th, 2023.