#5 How public policies worsen vulnerable situations

Chloé Deligne (ULB), Pernelle Godart (ULB), Jacques Moriau (ULB), Pauline Bacquaert (ULB), Jean-Michel Decroly (ULB), Pierre Lannoy (ULB), Alexandre Leclercq (UCLouvain), Alain Malherbe (UCLouvain), Valentina Marziali (ULB), Xavier May (ULB), Adèle Pierre (UCLouvain), Jean-Paul Sanderson (UCLouvain), Eva Swyngedouw (VUB), Mathieu Van Criekingen (ULB), Bas van Heur (VUB)

Editorial coordination: Céline Gautier

Residents evicted from their homes in Brussels. ©Front anti-expulsions

Translation: Jane Corrigan

Comment les politiques publiques aggravent les vulnérabilités

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The BSI Position Papers reflect the opinions, thoughts and recommendations of the authors, and are not attributable in any way to Brussels Studies and the Brussels Studies Institute (BSI). The authors assume full responsibility for them.

Public action contributes to keeping the most vulnerable populations in an insecure situation. This happens due to three mechanisms in particular: the establishment of intrinsically inegalitarian regulations, the variable application of these regulations by state officials, and the lack of institutional data production. Awareness of the state’s responsibility in maintaining and reproducing poverty is a first step towards building a society in which fundamental rights are guaranteed for all.

In the 2018 call for its “Prospective Research for Brussels” programme, Innoviris sought to gain a better understanding of the “hidden populations” present in Brussels. Our teams have thus focused on people who do not have access to water for hygienic purposes (Hyper project), who have been evicted from their homes (Bru-Home project) or who have been removed from the national register (Measinb project) – three issues for which there is only a small amount of quantitative and qualitative data.

At the end of our projects, we highlighted the mechanisms which lead to a deprivation of basic means of existence and the scale of these phenomena. We estimated that at least 8% of the population of Brussels have difficulty accessing water for their hygiene needs (showers, laundry and toilets)1, 1.3% of tenants in Brussels receive an eviction order each year (an average of 11 judicial evictions per day)2 and approximately 1.3% of the population of Brussels are removed from or disappear from the national register each year3.

Behind these estimates lie shattered lives, often with an accumulation of obstacles (family breakdowns, loss of bearings, lack of income, debt, foreign status, lack or loss of housing, stress, mental illness and loneliness). This is a reality in Brussels and elsewhere4. But our research also highlights the role of public policies in producing and exacerbating these unfortunate situations. For the most vulnerable, safety nets are often inoperative or inaccessible. This is a reality in Brussels and elsewhere5.

Our research has therefore led us to examine both the structural effects (regulatory dimensions) and the circumstantial effects (practical application of regulations) of public policies on non-access to fundamental rights and non-take-up of rights6. They have also raised questions regarding the way in which housing now plays a central role in making people’s lives more secure, while at the same time preventing a view of the city as a shared place providing amenities7 and public resources8.

Housing: at the crossroads of rights and deficiencies

In Belgium today, lives are conditioned by two necessities, namely having a home and a national registration number. Housing is a prerequisite for access to certain fundamental resources such as water and heat. Without housing, it is difficult to have an address, and without an address, it is impossible to obtain a national registration number. This number is a prerequisite for access to many rights, including health care reimbursement and certain social benefits.

In Brussels, access to housing is almost entirely dependent on the market9. 61% of the population of Brussels are tenants, and in practice have no real means of opposing the arbitrary decisions of landlords, especially as the tools designed to defend them often turn against them.

Tenants who wish to report that their home is unfit for habitation, or that their landlord has failed to comply with the housing code, must provide proof. It is therefore up to the most vulnerable party to assert their rights. In many cases, no rehousing offer is made. In these conditions, why would tenants take administrative steps which would put them in conflict with their landlords? Not to mention that the procedure lacks transparency and has an uncertain outcome. In practice, reporting the non-conformity of one’s home amounts to depriving oneself of a home. In a true policy of defending fundamental rights, the logic should be reversed: landlords should prove that their properties are compliant before they are rented out. In other words, by favouring the stronger party in the landlord-tenant relationship, public policies reinforce situations of non-take-up of rights – a phenomenon which has been on the rise for several years in Brussels10.

More generally, because they make access to many fundamental rights conditional on having an address, fail to control housing prices, produce too little affordable housing in relation to needs11, make things more complicated for foreigners, reinforce social imbalances or fail to provide a safety net for those deprived of housing, public policies accentuate the difficulties of the most vulnerable. By giving precedence to the right to property over the right to housing, they are ideologically oriented and sustain forms of discrimination.

However, within this regulatory framework, more subtle mediations are at play, as the agents who ensure that public policies are put into practice still have some room for manoeuvre. They use it either to reinforce their effects or to limit them. Our investigations have highlighted this fact in particular.

Room for manoeuvre, for better or for worse

The outcome of day-to-day ordeals (accessing water without a home, delaying or avoiding eviction, getting on the population register) depends on how agents assess a situation.

Differences exist between the municipalities or the police stations when it comes to registering an address: this can range from a simple verification of the name on the doorbell to an actual investigation by the local constable. When a person does not have a home, it is possible for them to obtain a reference address at a CPAS, but this is subject to proof of the person’s presence in the municipality, which is often open to interpretation12. In the case of eviction proceedings and court rulings, which often follow non-payment of rent, most judges will focus on the issue of unpaid rent, without taking into consideration the unsanitary conditions of the property, the amount of the rent, whether or not the lease has been registered, compliance with the housing code, or the tenant’s inability to attend the hearing or to be represented by a lawyer. Thus, rather than protecting the right to housing, these judges accentuate the power asymmetries inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship2. Other judges may be more sensitive to the attitude of the tenant, who presents him/herself as submissive rather than vindictive and who apologises rather than makes demands, and may suggest certain accommodations5.

As regards access to water, those who do not have stable housing and who try to find solutions for washing or going to the toilet – for example in sports facilities or municipal libraries – may find allies in the staff at the reception or, on the contrary, be rejected outright13.

No data, no problem!

One last finding from our research is that data on vulnerabilities are very often missing, non-existent or inaccessible.

Since 2001, no systematic quantitative or qualitative census has been carried out in Belgium or in any of its regions. As a result, in order to gain in-depth knowledge of the living conditions of the inhabitants of Brussels, we have to make use of partial data from surveys carried out on small samples,14 which do not allow us to identify the mechanisms and scale of the problems. When we ask to cross-reference databases from different administrations or public companies, they respond at their own discretion, and, in the case of certain administrations, simply do not divulge existing data.15 In these conditions, it is difficult to identify the problems experienced by entire sections of the population of Brussels, let alone address them.

This insufficiency also applies to qualitative surveys. These are essential in order to shed light on the mechanisms which lead to vulnerable situations, and above all understand what lies behind the figures. The lack of institutional data production and transmission means that important societal issues remain invisible. It also contributes by default to the production and worsening of situations of precariousness and vulnerability.

Taking (public) action

The results of our research therefore point to the role of public policies as a factor which worsens many situations of vulnerability.

To reverse this trend, we believe it is essential to:

1. Make people’s rights automatic and individualised. This means abolishing the status of cohabitant, setting up single points of contact, stepping up intercultural mediation (with translators and interpreters on hand), making procedures more transparent – especially legal procedures – and harmonising them between the various municipalities or CPASs (e.g. for the allocation of reference addresses). Finally, the burden of proof must be reversed. It is not up to the most vulnerable to prove that they have a right to decent housing; it is up to landlords to prove that they are putting decent housing on the market. It is not up to vulnerable consumers to prove that they are entitled to a social rate (e.g. for water), but up to the authorities to ensure that they benefit from it.

2. Reinstate a population census using agents to take account of irregular migrants and/or homeless people. As we no longer even know the actual number of dwellings or how well they are equipped, a new census would make up for lost time in objectivising the living conditions of the inhabitants of Brussels.

3. Rethink the city not as a collection of private spaces (housing, businesses and shops) but above all as a shared space with amenities accessible to all (water and heat). This is the idea of an inclusive, universal and welcoming city. Even if housing is a fundamental right, making all rights conditional on having a place to live (an address) runs counter to this concept. More generally, we think that it is high time to open the debate on extending citizenship, so that everyone living in Brussels has unconditional access to fundamental rights (a roof over their head, water, health care, etc), regardless of their status or life path.


FRANÇOIS, C., 2023. De gré et de force. Comment l’État expulse les pauvres, Paris: La Découverte. 
HOCHSTENBACH, C., 2022. Uitgewoond. Waarom het hoog tijd is voor een nieuwe woonpolitiek. Amsterdam: Das Mag Uitgeverij.
NOIRIEL G., 2007. L’identification. Genèse d’un travail d’Etat, Paris: Belin, coll. « socio-histoires ».
RICHELLE S., 2023. Bains Publics. Se laver en ville (1850-2000), Bruxelles: Editions de l’université de Bruxelles
SCOTT J. C., 2021. L’œil de l’État. Moderniser, uniformiser, détruire, Paris: La Découverte.

Scientific papers
BRUZELIUS C., 2019. Freedom of movement, social right and residence-based conditionality in the European Union, in: Journal of European Social Policy, vol. 29, no 1, pp. 70-83.
MALHERBE A., MORIAU J., WAGENER M. et ROSA E., 2019. La problématique du sans-abrime à Bruxelles – limite de la gouvernance multiniveau dans l’application du principe de justice spatiale, in: Justice spatiale/Spatial Justice, no 13, 10/2019.

AMERIJCKX G., ENGLERT M., NOËL L., VAN DER PLANCKE V. et BERNARD N., 2018. Précarités, mal-logement et expulsions domiciliaires en Région bruxelloise. Rapport bruxellois sur l’état de la pauvreté 2018, Commission Communautaire Commune: Brussels.
WAGENER, M., HERMANS K., BONNETIER C., MORIAU, J., MERTENS N. et ARTOIS P., 2022. Evaluation collaborative des processus de réaffiliation sociale dans le Housing First Belgium, Bruxelles: SPP Intégration sociale.

RICHELLE S. and BACQUAERT P., 2022. Corps sales // ville sèche. Brussels: Par Chemins et Ruines. Available at: https://www.radiola.be/serie/corps-sales-ville-seche/ 


Chloé Deligne is a historian with a background in geography and environmental management. She has been a FNRS researcher since 2006 and teaches at ULB. Her research lies at the crossroads of social history and environmental history. She has recently worked on the issues of access to water in public spaces and on the problem of water insecurity in Brussels.

Pernelle Godart is a researcher in human geography at IGEAT-ULB. After working on the issues of shopkeepers and trade logistics, her work is now centred on housing and poverty issues in the Brussels Region. She has also worked on housing issues at CEHD (Centre d’Etudes en Habitat Durable, Wallonia).

Jacques Moriau is a researcher at the Conseil Bruxellois de Coordination Socio-politique (CBCS), scientific coordinator at CREBIS and member of the METICES centre at the ULB Institute of Sociology. He works mainly on regional public policy in the fields of social benefits and primary health care.

Pauline Bacquaert is a historian. She is interested in the history of medicine and health, which she explored by analysing the medical and political thought of an 18th-century physician, Nicolas Eloy. As part of the HyPer project, she has studied the water insecurity of homeless people and the role of water in the city. Her research led to the creation of a radio documentary, “Corps sales // Ville sèche”, with Sophie Richelle.

Jean-Michel Decroly is a professor of geography, demography and tourism at Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is the director of the IGEAT “Géographie appliquée et géomatique” research unit. His work covers a wide range of topics (demographic dynamics, urban change, tourism practices, etc.), addressed from the angle of socio-spatial inequalities.

Pierre Lannoy teaches sociology in the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences at Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is a member of the METICES research centre of the Institute of Sociology.

Alexandre Leclercq is a researcher at CREAT-UCLouvain. Trained as a bioengineer, he is furthering his research in the fields of transition and territorial structuring. It focuses on territorial dynamics and interactions, as well as on innovative territorial strategies and concepts. He is responsible for applied geomatics at CREAT, where he develops GIS models which open up new perspectives for territorial analysis and the sharing of spatial information.

Alain Malherbe holds a doctorate in building design and urban planning and is a lecturer in land use planning at the LOCI faculty at UCLouvain, a researcher at the Centre de Recherches et d’Etudes pour l’Action Territoriale (CREAT-UCLouvain), a teacher at the Saint-Luc workshops and a lecturer at the University of Lille. He is a research coordinator at UCLouvain’s Landscape Architecture and Built Environment Institute (LAB-UCLouvain). He has written several books and articles on housing and homelessness.

Valentina Marziali is a sociologist and dedicates her research to urban, public and semi-public spaces from an ethnographic perspective. She is a member of the METICES research centre. Her academic background has provided her with solid expertise in the study of urban environments through qualitative research methods. In December 2012, she and P. Lannoy published: “Les visiteurs et leurs clichés. Figures de l’activité photographique au Musée Autoworld”, in: Musées-Mondes, Paris, La Documentation française, 15 December 2012.

Xavier May is an economist. He is a researcher at the Institut de Gestion de l’Environnement et d’Aménagement du territoire (DGES-IGEAT) at Université Libre de Bruxelles. His research focuses on socio-economic development in Belgium, company cars, poverty, fuel poverty and access to water. He recently published “Why not do away with tiered water pricing in Brussels?” in Brussels Studies.

Since January 2019, Adèle Pierre has been undertaking doctoral studies at the Centre de Recherche et d’Études pour l’Action Territoriale in the faculty of Architecture, d’ingénierie architecturale, d’urbanisme (LOCI). Through the MEASINB (Measuring Invisibility in Brussels) research project, she has been investigating the disappearance of individuals from administrative registers, and more specifically the conditionality of social rights.

Jean-Paul Sanderson holds a doctorate in demography. He is a qualified researcher at the Centre de Recherches en Démographie at UCLouvain. As a historian/demographer, he works on demographic issues in Belgium, both in the current period and from a historical perspective. His current work focuses on measuring social inequalities and analysing the mortality rate since the 19th century, with an emphasis on epidemics, including the recent Covid-19 episode.

Eva Swyngedouw is a postdoctoral researcher at Cosmopolis Centre for Urban Research, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and a visiting lecturer in urban sociology at Université Libre de Bruxelles. She conducts research and has published on the prevalence and consequences of housing evictions, the diversity of work in the creative and cultural industries, citizenship-making practices in newcomer reception offices, and hybrid identity formation among Congolese migrants in Brussels.

Mathieu Van Criekingen is a teacher/researcher in geography and urban studies at IGEAT – ULB. His research in the field of critical urban studies focuses on the spatial workings of social domination and the forms of resistance to them in working-class neighbourhoods. In this context, he is interested in particular in gentrification processes and policies.

Bas van Heur is a professor of urban studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, director of the Brussels Centre for Urban Studies and programme director of the Erasmus Mundus MSc 4Cities as well as the VUB-ULB MSc in urban studies. He is interested in collective forms of organisation and the capacity of civic stakeholders to develop public knowledge about the city. He conducts research and has published on the arts and cultural industries, arrival infrastructures and migration and urban theory.

To cite this post: DELIGNE Chloé, GODART Pernelle, MORIAU Jacques, BACQUAERT Pauline, DECROLY Jean-Michel, LANNOY Pierre, LECLERCQ Alexandre, MALHERBE Alain, MARZIALI Valentina, MAY Xavier, PIERRE Adèle, SANDERSON Jean-Paul, SWYNGEDOUW Eva, VAN CRIEKINGEN Mathieu and VAN HEUR Bas, 2023. How public policies worsen vulnerable situations. In: BSI Position Papers, no 5, 19/06/2023. Available from: https://bsiposition.hypotheses.org/2542

Cite this blog post
bsipositionpapers (2023, June 19). #5 How public policies worsen vulnerable situations. BSI Position Papers. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m5am

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  15. Thus, in order to obtain the number of reference addresses issued in each municipality, we had to make our way through the municipalities without obtaining a complete picture. In order to find out how many eviction orders there were in Brussels, we had to visit all 19 justice of the peace districts, where archives sometimes pile up without any actual classification or inventory. As regards customer data, Vivaqua has never responded to our requests. []
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