Image by Lennart Troebs / Taggespiegel

European capitals are in the grip of a housing crisis. More than one in 10 city dwellers struggles with “housing cost overburden”, meaning they have to spend more than 40 percent of their disposable income on accommodation costs.

Beneath unaffordable housing lies a rarely discussed problem: urban land speculation. Not only are rents and property prices on the rise, but so are the prices of building land.

For months, the Urban Journalism Network has investigated the dynamics of “ground control” — who controls the land under our feet — in European capitals, starting with Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest.

The network of investigative reporters, local journalists and data wranglers has researched price data for building plots and ownership structures of urban land, comparing them across countries to show trends and disparities. Using satellite and aerial images, they aim to show developments in each city and bring transparency to urban politics.

While property market gurus have long argued that housing prices are surging because of soaring building costs, recent studies show that up to 80 percent of the increase in house prices is determined by land prices. This makes the construction of new and affordable housing increasingly impossible.

To put it simply, developers bid for land based on the yields they hope to gain. This creates an upward spiral of prices. More expensive building plots lead to the construction of more expensive luxurious flats, leading to higher rents. And this, in turn, further inflates the land value in the area.

In many cities, the state has accelerated the trend, selling off communal land in deals that are often opaque.

Land speculation changes the very fabric of our cities, with housing pushed further and further to the outskirts, while urban centres are hollowed out by the construction of more offices, shopping complexes, hotels and ever more luxurious apartments that get directly rented out on Airbnb.

As property developers say it no longer makes economic sense to build affordable housing in city centres, EU regulators admit in background interviews that they see an urgent need to regulate land prices and land speculation. But the institutions of the European Union have no comparative data on land prices.

This lack of transparency on a very simple question — “Who owns the ground in our cities?” — makes it difficult for democratic societies to make decisions on future urban development, and to find ways to deal with the housing crisis.

It also makes it difficult to identify the companies buying land for speculation, the politicians responsible for privatising public land and the areas of land that are still owned by the city or the state and could offer ways out.

Strikingly, there has been no systematic journalistic investigation into urban land ownership. Academic research on the topic is equally scarce.

The Urban Journalism Network seeks to fill the gap, asking: What is the building potential of capital cities? Who owns the land that remains unused? And how much valuable land have municipalities lost over time?

Through data analysis, satellite imagery, on-the-ground reporting and expert interviews, “Ground Control” aims to shed light on these questions and more.

The project is a continuation of three years of collaborative European investigations into the housing crisis. It grew from the Arena Housing Network and the award-winning Cities for Rent investigation into corporate landlords, also supported by IJ4EU.

The investigation was shortlisted for Sigma awards and awarded with European Publishing Award.

Visit the Ground Control microsite for more information and to see all the stories. 

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web: KontraBit