François Marty is setting new standards and redefining what public housing should look like: Aesthetic, high quality, ecological houses. With municipalities, he is shifting the vision of public housing operators and demonstrating the economic viability of such houses. He is also creating and training an entirely new sector of social enterprises, employing those most marginalized in ecological construction. In doing so, he guarantees a strong economic return for social housing operators and social construction enterprises; social welfare for housed families and newly inserted construction workers; and a powerful environmental impact in low-income neighborhoods.
The New Idea
François sees the growing housing needs of the poor as an opportunity to redefine low-income housing. He is thus leading an effort to build attractive, state-of-the-art ecological homes for society’s poor that render pride to neighborhoods, dramatically raise inhabitants’ living standards while cutting their expenses by using daylight, natural materials, and rainwater collection to reduce energy bills. With his real challenge being to convince municipalities to adopt his model for their low-income housing projects, François is shaking the public housing market and its operating rules upside down. By focusing on elected officials’ desire to appear socially and ecologically conscious, he indirectly forces existing social housing operators and architects to work alongside his model and embrace ecological and non-compromising quality standards. He is also demonstrating the economic profitability of lower energy bills that lower rent-default rates. To challenge the structural limitations of a construction sector plagued by high levels of demand, workforce shortages, the lack of familiarity with ecological building, and low returns on public housing construction sites, François has reinvented the process of building social houses. Relying on new construction techniques and non-negotiable quality standards, he created the Chenelet label as a methodology which uses local natural materials, mixes ancestral and modern construction techniques, and trains and employs people previously excluded from the workforce. François is also structuring a whole new sector of social enterprises by employing the poor to build ecological houses of the highest quality, for the most in need, and is training a workforce for ecological building in the future.
As a legal requirement imposed on each city in France, low-income housing is meant to provide decent living standards to those most in need—with guaranteed capped rents. They are operated by public and private housing operators and municipalities responsible for managing land, construction, and property. Since the 1970s, when the first large complexes were built, low-income housing has largely consisted of low-quality, hastily constructed high-rises, often in the worst areas of cities with poor living conditions. The low quality of the construction explains the high energy and maintenance costs that often negate the impact of lower rents. Living in public housing often holds a stigma, reinforcing the isolation of those already affected by unemployment and poverty and afflicted by family and community violence.
Today, around 5 million families are entitled to low-income housing in France. Each city with more than 20,000 people is supposed to guarantee 20 percent of its housing is public. However, this figure is rarely met. It is estimated that 800,000 accommodations are missing to fulfill the social housing demands. In early 2007, massive waves of protestors took to the streets in French cities to demand improvements in social housing. In winter, hundreds of tents were set up to host the homeless and poorly-housed. A new law was set guaranteeing the legal right to housing, and the government announced the construction of 100,000 houses. To date, one-and-a-half years later, only forty have been built. There are many reasons why cities do not meet their obligations. Low-income housing is unpopular to build because people fear a rise in criminal activity and a deterioration of their living standards. Also, should they want to order housing projects, municipalities and social housing operators are faced with the difficulty of finding contractors. The construction sector is experiencing a real bottleneck; with an estimated absence of 75,000 construction workers to fulfill the sector demand. For construction companies, building low-income housing is not very profitable and they prioritize other more lucrative construction projects. In particular, the sector of ecological construction is still very new in France, and is reserved for the elite who are able to afford expensive materials and a qualified workforce.
François believes the disadvantaged need the best living conditions to lift them out of poverty, and that ecological housing is the best way to do this. He has done research to design the best-suited houses to address the needs of the poor. Through consultations and focus groups, he has identified the key elements families want in their homes—for example, where to put the stairs and the bedrooms, how to insulate noise, where to put windows to see the neighbors, or enable the elderly to see through the doors. He then looked for traditional ecological materials and construction techniques to fulfill these demands. The result is very pleasant houses, incorporating all the elements clients’ wanted, combined with wooden floors, great insulation, clay walls, and lots of natural light, wood-stoves, and rainfall collection mechanisms to minimize energy bills. These houses have become a source of pride for the neighborhood.
After qualifying for a social housing operator status, François built the pilot projects in his community and has thus demonstrated to municipalities that it is possible to build ecologically for the poor. His success has enthused mayors who want to improve their image while fulfilling their legal obligations. If Chenelet construction costs are higher (€1,600 (US$2,100) per square meter versus an average €1,500 (US$1,985) for regular housing projects), the cost of living in a house is on average thirty percent lower than other low-income accommodation, and therefore guarantees more consistent rent repayments. This allows for social housing operators to recover their investment quickly, and make a profit, compared to the millions they lose in unpaid rent every year. François is shifting the perception of the value of a house, to be measured over time and not at construction, and works with banks to create new types of loans over longer periods of time to give low-income groups access to real estate.
With the demand to increase the impact of his work, François must increase the construction capacity of the housing sector. He has detailed Chenelet’s work processes and created a quality label for the dissemination of his work: 1) In his lumber factory in the north of France, François produces standard construction elements, with techniques that allow for employment and training of people who have long been excluded from the job market; 2) With each municipality, Chenelet handles the commercial deal and manages the relationship with local operators; 3) Through local consultation and research he works with local architects to design houses that respond to local needs and use local materials and expertise; 4) François identifies and trains local social construction firms, employing long-term unemployed, especially to participate on high-value, ecological elements of the construction value chain; 5) After a careful adhesion and labeling process, these companies can join the Chenelet Network and may independently develop their local market of low-income ecological houses, but always with a high level quality control.
Through this process, François is ensuring the creation and growth of in ecological social housing sector. He is also training thousands of the most marginalized to ecological construction techniques and bringing them back into the job market.
After building his pilot houses in 2001, François designed and improved his process to meet the growing number of orders. He is focusing his efforts on building the Chenelet brand, guaranteeing its quality, and developing the Chenelet Network to fulfill the thousands of demands he has received. To date, he has identified and is training eight social enterprises to form the seeds of the network, which should allow him to meet 300 orders in the coming year.
When he was seventeen, François received the hospitality of a local monastery in the south of France, where he learned about community organizing, solidarity, and the value of nature. This initial acquaintance with religion had a great impact on his life, instilling in him the values of solidarity, empathy, and generosity. The experience also led him to seek livelihoods in communities of similar values, and after a few years, to found a new community in the north of France.
To guarantee the sustainability of his community, but also to provide employment to the numerous immigrant refugees his community was assisting, he embarked with a few friends to set up his first business in the 1980s. They chose lumber—or more specifically, wooden shipping pallets—because of the low qualifications required and the availability of wood in the area. Growing quickly, this cooperative company acquired an expert ERP system and soon specialized in customized pallets. With 130 workers in professional insertion (formerly unemployed and disqualified), SPL is now the leader in its market in Europe, and has branched out to include its own ecological lumber mill and truck delivery service. On principle, François insists on not being paid more than any other employee and earns €1,200 (US$1,600) a month.
His experience as an entrepreneur led him to meet business leaders, politicians, and ecologists, and he struggled with the idea that their different voices could not be united. He went on to pursue an executive MBA at HEC, France’s leading business school, and began to look for ways to shift the paradigm, which led him to write several books and work with the Environment Minister’s cabinet in the late 1990s. It was when he started to reflect on how to secure housing for his employees that he built the first Chenelet houses. He became obsessed with the idea that ecological housing was the key to the low-income housing crisis, and transitioned away from his former company, with a strong desire to work full-time on the development of Chenelet.
François is married and a father of five.