Maxime Zaït
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   Belgium

Maxime Zaït

Communa is building a regional network of “Temporary Use with a Social Purpose” across Europe, as a new norm of using vacant buildings at the service of local communities and citizen sector…
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This description of Maxime Zaït's work was prepared when Maxime Zaït was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.


Communa is building a regional network of “Temporary Use with a Social Purpose” across Europe, as a new norm of using vacant buildings at the service of local communities and citizen sector organizations. By empowering local communities to use empty buildings to create spaces where (vulnerable) people can live, work and come together, Communa actively shapes the future function of vacant buildings and influences the property owners’ and overall society’s mindsets to create more resilient, inclusive, and citizen-run cities.

The New Idea

Across Europe increasing numbers of buildings are left vacant, while at the same time, space to rent and live in becomes increasingly expensive. These developments exclude a growing number of people in precarious living situations in urban areas and have caused increasing illegal occupation of buildings. With Covid accelerating the abandonment of downtown areas in Western Europe and inflation and the war in Ukraine increasing the need for cheap living, illegal occupation is only getting worse across Western Europe.

As a response, Sâm and Maxime created Communa to professionalize and organize the field of temporary use on a European level to make it the default model for cities to leverage vacant spaces to serve their inhabitants. They coined the concept of so-called “Temporary Use with a Social Purpose” (TUSP), which consists of temporarily using vacant office or housing buildings, owned by private or public actors, to serve local communities’ and especially vulnerable population’s needs. For the TUSP concept, Communa has developed the legal practice, and the financial and technical framework, to make TUSP operational and is spreading this model across Europe by organizing a growing international community comprised of citizen sector initiatives from eight different European countries.

By creating a new type of legal contract between homeowners and “occupants”, the TUSP contract renders the previously illegal occupation into a legal temporary use of the building. This provides protection to the homeowners as they are not fined for leaving their building empty and turns illegal occupation into legal use of an empty building for the people formerly known as squatters. This permits local government to regain control over illegal occupancy and related drama, for business owners to avoid penalties imposed by government for not conducting their business, and for citizen sector groups to come up with creative proposals to use unoccupied buildings most effectively for now legally permissible “social purposes” for the allowed time limit specified in the permit. Sam and Max have organized and spread this new type of practice across Europe, working with building owners, citizen sector groups and city officials in 8 European countries to adopt and adapt the idea to local regulation.

The legal agreement provides the grounds for the second part of their innovation, having laid the foundations for people in precarious situations to legally use empty space, Sâm and Maxime go further and are using their TUSP model to reinforce the role of a key but often neglected stakeholder in the governance of a city: the local communities that are living and working around the vacant buildings. After signing a legal agreement with the owners to use the empty buildings free of charge, Communa empowers the communities by giving them the responsibility to decide how to best use the space so that it first serves the needs of the inhabitants. Deeply anchored in its environment, the local community can identify, articulate, and fulfill specific needs of the neighborhood, such as providing housing to people in need (refugees or homeless people), (re)creating social fabric between diverse members of society, organizing intergenerational interactions, offering affordable space to social entrepreneurs or artists, developing circular economies, etc. The members of the community are then together responsible for the evolution of the space, with representatives of Communa being the facilitators. Through this, the vulnerable communities experience a process in which their contributions and actions are needed and where they are not mere passive beneficiaries of services, as often occurs in traditional housing organizations.

Communa supports the local communities to create a longer-term impact on the future use of the building by working with the public and private property owners to influence their ultimate plans, applying temporary use as an experiment to foreshadow the potential end function of a vacant building. Indeed, for Maxime and Sâm, temporary use is only a means of achieving long-term change in how public and private actors’ imagine the purpose of their buildings, by demonstrating at a very low cost the positive impact that spaces of local community innovation and cohesion can have. Their vision creates a mindset amongst public and private property owners of seeing the functions of buildings not as fixed but in a permanent transition that best capture the evolving needs of neighborhoods. Their temporary use serves to create a ‘permanently temporary’ mindset amongst all stakeholders.

Through its activities on 20 currently active sites, which provide temporary use opportunities for more than 200 neighborhood and social organizations in Brussels, 200 homeless and 1000 refugees, Communa is increasing the demand for more temporary use of vacant spaces with a social purpose by collecting, measuring, and sharing knowledge that makes this model attractive for new actors, such as real estate developers and city governments. Indeed, these public and private actors are struggling to find adequate responses to deal with vacant buildings appropriately. Communa’s innovative approach to urban planning constitutes an efficient answer for them.

What is emerging now is a growing number of TUSP permitted buildings in urban areas that are becoming centers for the surrounding communities, and next-generation thinking about TUSP 2.0 and what shape that might take. One pathway is exploring how to collectively raise the resources to purchase buildings on offer from the owners and find legal ways to ensure that the use of that building will be subsequently conveyed from owner to owner for social purposes.

The Problem

The emergence of ever more globalized cities governed by austerity-driven public services and the profit interests of real estate investors are leading cities to become increasingly commodified. Spaces now need to generate a profit or at least serve to enable people’s profit generation. This impacts the housing situations of the most fragile populations as numerous citizens cannot find access to decent housing due to their lack of financial resources, their administrative situation, and the unsuitability of the social housing offer. In Belgium, this situation is made even worse, as citizens need a valid address to receive social security funding, which would allow them to pay rent. Hence, if they lose their home, they often lose access to social security.

In Brussels alone, the number of people waiting for social housing has increased over the last ten years to 46,000, with approximately 5,000 homeless people additionally. At the same time, over 10% of the existing social housing is empty. This shortage also impacts the social and cultural sectors, as artists and non-profit organizations struggle to afford workspaces in cities. In parallel, an increasing number of vacant spaces within cities can be observed across Europe. According to studies by the European Commission and the OECD, approximately 1 out of 6 properties are left vacant in Europe. The increasing rates of working from home, the creation of shopping malls outside of city centers, and increasing online shopping activities reinforce the desertification of cities.

Even though a law exists that penalizes property owners for leaving their property empty (the formula to calculate the annual fine is 500€/year x length of the façade x number of floors; for a one family home, this is 6000€ per year), in Brussels alone, 6,500,000 square meters of buildings and offices spaces are empty, as the penalty is not enforced. At the same time occupying or squatting those vacant spaces is seen as a crime, and police are enforcing penalties on a regular basis (squatting is considered a criminal act that can lead to imprisonment).

In this time of unmatched supply and demand fueled by external shocks, such as refugee crises, the traditional urban planning stakeholders have not found the right answers. Urban planning practices remain opaque and top-down and do not directly foster citizen participation to tackle the needs of current and new populations. Indeed, public authorities tend to consider inhabitants as not having a relevant point of view on urbanistic questions. At the same time, public decision-making processes take a long time, leading to spaces being left vacant by public authorities while they decide how to use the building in the long run. For the private sector, increased financialization of the real estate market has made it lucrative to leave buildings empty for speculative reasons, a trend that can be observed across European cities that not only produces vacant buildings, but also increases rent price and decreases living space for citizens.

So far, the citizen sector has reacted with un-coordinated and illegal occupation and squatting practices to allow vulnerable populations access to space on highly precarious terms and conditions. This has increased tensions instead of constructive solutions between property owners, city governments and civil society actors.

The Strategy

Sam and Maxime started Communa, out of their need to find affordable housing in Brussels. Beyond just living in a space, they also wanted to create community activities inspired by the squatting movement. As law students, however, they had identified a legal way of using empty spaces to live in without breaking any law and paying rent. All that was necessary for this was to sign a convention with the property’s owner. After months of unsuccessfully pitching their housing and community project to owners of empty buildings, Sâm, Maxime, and three other friends were connected to the owner of a 10,000 square meter office building, who agreed to give his space to them. When moving in, the five young men agreed on some ground rules on with whom they wanted to create a community with; as they had similar religious, socio-economic backgrounds they decided that the future community members should be from other cultures, religions, educational levels and identities than themselves. The first community they built was already driven by their core values of an absolute commitment to heterophily, to building communities of people that are not the same but different. With the end of their studies in 2017, Maxime and Sâm were the leading force in professionalizing their activities beyond their own co-habitation space and formalizing Communa’s activities to change people’s perception of space ownership and utilization in Brussels and beyond.

At the start of all their projects in empty buildings, Sâm and Maxime sign an agreement of temporary use with a social purpose with the building’s owner (private or public), which serves as the conditions of use throughout an agreed-upon time period. This legalizes the use of a building to serve a community’s needs without any transfer of money to the owner whilst at the same time respecting the space’s condition. This is a key and highly scalable innovation in the work of Communa. It allows for local governments to offer a low cost and low control solution to ensure that property owners don’t leave their buildings empty, and it enables social organizations and precarious groups to find affordable spaces. The TUSP agreement ensures that the owners will not need to pay penalties as their buildings are not empty anymore and ensures Communa the rent-free use of the space for a guaranteed period in which they aim to make the temporary permanent.

Next, Communa ensures security for future tenants by making small-scale renovations. For this, they collaborate with local social entrepreneurs and only use reusable materials that they can use for future TUSP activities in other buildings. To guarantee that the neighborhood's needs are met, Maxime and Sâm make creating communities of local inhabitants within the buildings a matter of priority, as these communities are the best positioned to create adequate activities and run the space. As a first step, they invite residents and relevant stakeholders, such as social organizations, to share their ideas on how the space shall be used and what projects they would like to realize. Then they facilitate a democratic decision-making process to collectively decide what kinds of projects should be implemented to serve the local community and identify the future tenants of the place (be they individuals or organizations). This ensures ownership of the community projects amongst the tenants of the space from early on. Ultimately, they involve the tenants in the overall building management by equipping them with democratic tools enabling them to self-organize and run the place independently.

Taking ownership of the space and being responsible for it is a key element that Maxime and Sâm have built into the process to empower vulnerable communities, such as refugees or homeless, to become real stakeholders and not just beneficiaries. Therefore, Communa also demands rent from all occupants, even though mostly only symbolically adapted to their income, to create this feeling of citizenship. For homeless people or refugees, having an address allows them to receive social services, which enables them to pay rent.

Throughout this process, they document the evolution of the project and involve the property owner at regular community meetings so that they understand the community’s needs and what the building’s set-up could look like to serve them in the longer term. Therefore, at the core of the TUSP model lies the idea that temporary use can have an influence on the permanent function of a building, by shifting the property owner’s mindset away from pre-determining a building’s function without involving the community that surrounds it. For example, by collaborating with a local community of senior and young residents, Communa convinced a private owner of a vacant residential building who had planned to create an intergenerational café within the building that this would not have the wished-upon effect: the experimentation phase had shown that, although it did appeal to young people, the idea did not attract elderly people at all. Communa tested other inclusive methods in the empty building such as a shared community fridge and library, both of which led to more intergenerational interaction, which are now being implemented in the reconstruction of the residential building.

By the end of this year, they will manage housing for more than 1,000, mostly Ukrainian, refugees and 200 homeless in Brussels. Within five years, Sâm and Maxime are convinced that they will be able to eradicate homelessness in Brussels as TUSP is gaining momentum. Besides the housing capacities, more than 200 social organizations, artists, and entrepreneurs are engaged in the 20 spaces they have been running, creating diverse places that serve multiple needs. Nowadays, they can choose to take on a project, as public and private owners reach out to them frequently.

Their growing reputation has resulted in city governments from other Belgian regions coming to their sites to learn about their practice. Due to this, they have developed a guide from A to Z to create self-governing communities, run the buildings, and build the correct legal and technical frameworks to replicate their model. Hence, city governments have started to hire Sâm to create TUSP projects and write the necessary public tenders for other social organizations to do temporary use projects. So far, Sâm has been commissioned by the city governments of Liege, Charleroi and Verviers in Belgium and provided consultancy services to NGOs in international cities like Graz (Austria), Heerlen (Netherlands), Bastia, Lille & Paris (France) and Rome (Italy).

Besides their increasingly European consultancy activities, they are currently building a robust training program and toolbox with the legal, administrative, and community aspects of transitory urbanism, funded and supported by the European Union. This European dimension has been possible thanks to the creation of the Social Temporary Use Network (STUN) which Communa strategically initiated in collaboration with temporary use actors from eight different countries in Europe in 2019 (including French Ashoka Fellow Nicolas Détrie, founder of “Yes We Camp”). Through STUN, Sâm and Maxime are building the European network to exchange knowledge and best practices, as well as to give credibility and influence on temporary occupation, as STUN’s aim is to act as an international body, like an official observatory. To professionalize the Belgian sector, Communa is collaborating with the renowned Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, to create a master’s degree in Temporary Use. Through this, they will be teaching an entirely new profession of the “Temporary Use Expert” who will learn, in a university environment, about Communa’s tools and legal frameworks.

Communa is very aware that temporary use is only the first step to a new paradigm of property ownership. At the end of 2020, together with nine other Brussels-based non-profit organizations focused on different dimensions of social housing (e.g., homelessness, refugees, landownership, social housing), including Community Land Trust (the Belgian antenna of a British Ashoka Fellow’s organization), Sâm on behalf of Communa co-created Fairground, a social cooperative to explore how they can acquire buildings and land to create accessible housing and temporary use, without any market pressures. Conversely, this means that Communa will be able to build temporary use processes that will be permanent, in which they can, over time, either adapt their permanent use to new needs, or test models for a temporary period and then institutionalize those that have proven their impact and necessity to the community. Through Fairground, which raised more than 2 million euros, the consortium acquired three buildings with 15 apartments to house vulnerable populations and create temporary use activities.

To be legitimate and heard by institutions, they understood that they had to raise awareness and aim for public visibility to convince decision-makers to adopt new practices. An iconic example of their action is the creative campaign they launched during the elections in 2019, putting a new 20th district of Brussels (Brussels has only 19 physical districts) on the map they had coined “Saint Vide” (literally meaning “Saint Empty”). This new district was based on their realization and data collection that in Brussels the sheer size of 6,500,000 square meters of vacant space was available, making it theoretically the 9th largest district of the city that could provide housing to 30,000 people. To turn this theoretical district into action, they built a website of the municipality for people to get informed about the issue of vacancy, put stickers and posters on the most visible and known empty buildings in Brussels and led several TV and newspaper stories to spread awareness of the problem and their solution of TUSP. The success of the campaign contributed to making the housing crisis a very politicized topic during the late 2019 regional elections. As they cleverly promoted temporary use as a best practice, they managed to get the newly elected government to include TUSP in the coalition treaty as part of the region’s urban and social planning policies to overcome the housing crises.

Since then, on the policy front, Communa has ensured that TUSP actors can have exemptions from urbanistic regulations and do not need all the permits that regular housing activities would require. As a result, any TUSP actor in Brussels can now use office spaces as housing, amongst other technical details that would otherwise require heavy renovations. Secondly, they have been working with the regional government of Brussels to adapt public tenders for the renovation/modernization of buildings. When these buildings are left empty for a certain time, owners need to find TUSP actors to use the empty spaces in the transition period. By making TUSP legally binding in public tenders, they also ensure that the trendy concept of temporary use is not skewed by for-profit practices increasingly observable through pop-up shops, bars, etc.

Lastly, in 2021, with a member of the Brussels regional parliament, they drafted a policy on TUSP. The policy includes several steps to establish temporary use as a common practice. Firstly, it requires the government to regularly map the number of empty buildings in Brussels and publish their owners, putting more pressure on owners to either pay fines or opt for TUSP actors to use their empty spaces until the owners have repurposed their buildings. Secondly, the policy includes several elements to reduce the regulatory procedures to make TUSP happen in buildings, making it easier for smaller social organizations to enter the TUSP field. And lastly, the policy includes a clear definition of the “social” element of TUSP, which would prohibit owners of empty buildings from commercializing these spaces by creating pop-up shops or other for-profit activities, which Communa already achieved in public tenders.

Over the last year, Communa has grown from 12 FTE to 30 FTE, due to the expansion of their activities and the increasing uptake of TUSP in Brussels and beyond. Staff members in Communa are paid the same salary and can participate in decision-making after six months after their onboarding. Decision-making processes follow the principle of consent, which establishes that an agreement is not set as long as a team member has a substantial objection. If that is the case, the person holding the objection is expected to present a proposal that addresses it. Their organizational development and culture reflect the communities in their buildings, inspiring each other and getting more mature as the project grows. The board partially consists of external individuals and two staff members who are chosen by lottery.

The Person

In his early youth, Maxime was a competitive and talented tennis player but not as motivated as he always disliked the individual element of the sport. As a teenager, Maxime continuously rebelled against the school and authority, only finding a lot of consolation in his group of friends, amongst them Communa co-founder Sâm. From early on, Maxime was able to create ideas and gather people around him. For example, as a teenager, together with some friends, he attempted to set up an e-platform to re-sell imported fashion items from an American brand.

After finishing high school, looking to explore his subconscious desire and need for community dynamics, Maxime decided to live for one year in a Kibbutz (collective communities in Israel that were traditionally based on agriculture). This was spurred on by an interest in reconnecting to parts of his family who had participated in the initiation of this collective movement. For him, this experience revealed the joys of being part of a community. There, he realized his calling for questions around the governance of commons and collective decision-making processes.

Inspired by the movie “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey, Maxime made an unbreakable promise to himself to say yes to every proposition that was made to him in the last weeks of his stay at the Kibbutz. One of these propositions led him to say yes to traveling back to Belgium without using the plane, leading him to hitchhike from Cyprus to Belgium himself. It was one of the best experiences he ever had, reinforcing his positive attitude toward new challenges. Motivated by the creative energy spaces provided in the Kibbutz, he launched upon his return an open conversation series to discuss topics he cared about, such as Gender and Diversity, European Politics and Judaism to which he invited speakers from politics, academia, and other public areas monthly.

Even though he started studying law at his parents’ request, a career as a lawyer became secondary very quickly. At the beginning of his studies, Maxime spent most of his time in the multi-faceted squatting scene of Brussels. The scene reminded him of his time living in the Kibbutz and provided him with the realization that such a way of life is also possible in Brussels. He did some squatting by himself and explored different ways empty buildings could be used besides just living in them as an individual. These experiences coincided with Maxime’s critical reflections on the individualistic model and mainstream vision of success. They ultimately led him to start Communa with Sâm, deeply driven by values that foster solidarity and community.

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