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Covid-19: Could empty office buildings help solve France’s housing crisis?

Covid-19 has emptied office buildings and business districts, and with working from home expected to be the norm after the pandemic, some want to convert them to residential use to help solve inner-city housing crises.

Covid-19: Could empty office buildings help solve France's housing crisis?
Image: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

France has already begun to experiment with such conversions and “the significant rise in remote working encourages scaling up” such projects, French Housing Minister Emmanuelle Wargon said recently.

She wants to accelerate the transformations to respond to both the need for housing and to fight against urban sprawl.

A recent study concentrating on the Paris region, home to nearly a fifth of France's population, found that if around 40 percent of firms adopted two days of remote working per week following the pandemic, they could reduce the office space they occupy by almost 30 percent, or 3.3 million square metres,
over the coming decade.

Such a scenario is a nightmare for the commercial real estate industry – a favourite of investors as it is easier to manage, with slower turnover of clients and fewer unpaid rent bills.

But even before the pandemic more than six percent of Paris region office space was vacant, according to the study from the IEIF research institute.


'Mythical creature'

“The conversion of offices into housing is a bit of a mythical creature”, said IEIF's director Christian de Karangal.

Although years of discussion have never amounted to concrete actions this time may be different, said de Karangal – even if the extent of remote working's impact on office space occupancy is still unclear.

That is because – in addition to public authorities encouraging such conversions – some buildings are becoming obsolete for use as offices, and institutional investors are now interested.

But the changes are not always straightforward. “Not all buildings can be converted,” said Sebastien Lorrain, a senior director for residential, healthcare and investment properties at international commercial real estate group CBRE in France. “Only around 20 percent of assets studied showed a real potential for conversion,” he said.

One of the greatest problems is natural light, said Carlos Alvarez, a project leader at the Moatti-Riviere architectural firm, which co-won an industry prize in 2019 for transforming offices into apartments.

Commercial buildings often have much greater floor space, making it difficult to ensure all rooms have windows to let in natural light. “Most of the time, this results in demolitions,” said Alvarez.


Fantasy into reality

Another issue is buildings constructed in the 1970s – which account for the majority for sale – often contain asbestos, resulting in millions in additional costs to remove hazardous material.

For Norbert Fanchon, director of the public housing group Gambetta, the idea of conversions is “a fantasy as old as property developers”.

He believes to jump-start such projects, the ball is in the court of local authorities, who need to deliver building permits, as well as the French state which needs to “reduce the technical and administrative constraints” that make such redevelopments particularly expensive.

There is some time to resolve the issues holding back the transformations. “The deflationary impact on the Paris region's office park will take time” to be felt, said the IEIF.

Employers will first need to define their post-pandemic remote working policies and see how much they can reduce office space. With some commercial rental agreements lasting nine years, the effect on the market will be gradual.

“There is inertia on the markets… (but) the volumes will accelerate,” said Alexandre Chirier, who heads up a conversion division at Action Logement, a public-private group that builds and operates public housing.

Created last year, it aims to invest 1.5 billion euros over three to four years to acquire office buildings and convert them into 20,000 apartments.

Chirier said care must be taken to “build a balance where accessibility, green spaces, open spaces and the quality of accommodation make people feel good.”

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HEALTH

French government calls on over-60s to get second Covid booster as cases rise

As Covid cases show a significant rise in France in recent weeks, the government is calling on all eligible groups to get a second Covid vaccine booster shot.

French government calls on over-60s to get second Covid booster as cases rise

After a 40 percent rise in Covid-19 cases in the last week, the French Health ministry is calling all eligible people – including over 60s and those health conditions – to receive their second booster (fourth dose) of the vaccine.

“It is necessary to redouble our efforts to protect vulnerable people, this is done through vaccination and this campaign of second boosters is absolutely necessary,” said the ministry of health.

The Covid incidence rate is increasing in more than 50 départements across France. Currently, there are an average of 50,000 positive tests per day, which has also been accompanied by an increase in hospitalisations. 

“This is very clearly a reprisal of the epidemic linked to the arrival of new variants of the Omicron family, which are called BA4 BA5,” said infectious disease specialist Anne-Claude Crémieux to Franceinfo. Crémieux added that these variants are faster-spreading.

Therefore, the government is calling on vulnerable people to take their second booster dose (the fourth dose of the vaccine).

So far, only a quarter of eligible people have taken their second booster dose, with an average rate of 25,000 to 30,000 injections per day for the past two months.

“This is not enough, and it is not going fast enough,” urged the Ministry of Health on Tuesday.

The Haute autorité de santé also recently released its recommendation for a vaccination campaign to give a second Covid vaccine booster shot for the wider population, starting in October. 

The HAS recommendation advises starting France’s annual flu vaccine campaign in mid October (mid September for the French overseas territory of Mayotte) and combining it with a campaign to give a second Covid vaccine booster ahead of a possible new wave of Covid in the winter. 

At present although the great majority of the French adult population is vaccinated against Covid with two doses and a booster, a second booster is only recommended for people in high risk groups such as the over 60s and those with long-term health conditions.

The HAS recommendation reads: “At the end of May, the HAS recommended preparing for a booster shot campaign for people most at risk of developing the most severe forms of Covid, and envisaged a booster shot for healthcare workers.

“Those parts of the population most at risk are also those for whom the seasonal flu vaccination is recommended, therefore for logistical reasons the HAS recommends combining the two campaigns.”

The flu campaign is advised to go ahead as normal, starting in mid-October.

The HAS only makes recommendations, the details of policy are up to the government, but it usually follows HAS advice.

The usual seasonal flu campaign in France offers a vaccine for free to anyone in a high risk group, which includes the elderly, people with underling health conditions, healthcare workers and pregnant women – full details HERE on how to get the vaccine.

Those who don’t fit into those categories can still access the vaccine, but must pay for it – €6-€10 for the vaccine and the standard appointment charge to have it administered by a doctor (€25, with 70 percent reimbursed for those with a carte vitale).

The flu vaccine is available from family doctors, midwives and participating pharmacies once the campaign officially launches.

The Covid vaccine is also available from family doctors, midwives and pharmacies, but most of the vaccine centres set up in 2021 have now been closed down.

There is currently no suggestion a return of the health pass, so a second booster shot would be entirely voluntary, but the government has the power to re-introduce such measures if a major wave of Covid hits France over the autumn and winter.

Currently, there are no plans to lower the age minimum (as of now set at 60 years old) for receiving a second booster. Health authorities believe that the immune response after a first booster “continues to sufficiently protect” younger adults.

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