In France, more than 23,000 people live in a room of smaller than nine square meters, many in the capital. But to rent out such small spaces is illegal.
PARIS — Albert is sitting on his single bed on the sixth floor of a typical Haussman-style building in the 13th arrondissement in south Paris. It is a sweltering late July day, and the 56-year-old keeps the door of his flat open. "Here you are. This is where I live," he says of the 6.5-square-meter (70-square-foot) apartment.
The cramped room is poorly ventilated, with only a narrow transom that provides natural light. On the right, a small water spigot is located at the foot of the bed. On the other side, a mound of suitcases, bags and other boxes cover the entire wall. "What you see here is my whole life," Albert sighs.
The temporary worker has been living in this tiny room for 15 years, and currently pays monthly rent of 350 euros ($390). "I used to live in a 22-square-meter flat, but the owner wanted to sell it, so I had to go," he says.
Albert found this place on a French real estate website, but it was supposed to be an interim solution. "Every year since I got here, I apply for social housing. But they keep telling me that families are given first preference and there's nothing they can do for me," he says.
With no room to cook, no oven or microwave, he only prepares himself coffee in the morning on a hotplate. There is no shower, only a cold water washstand, and the toilets are on the landing. "I shower at work and sometimes I eat something at the Salvation Army."
In the winter he keeps the electric radiator on for only an hour or so, for fear of it catching fire. "It already happened with a lamp and, fortunately, my next-door neighbor helped me put the fire out," he recalls.
Like Albert, there are some 23,000 current residences of smaller than nine square meters (97 square feet), according to the French Ministry of Housing. About 7,000 of these are in and around Paris. The renting of those inadequate homes, which typically have moisture problems and lack any natural daylight, is illegal. French law prohibits the renting of rooms that are "not open to the outside" and "unsuitable for habitation."
One sink for all
Samuel Mouchard, who heads the Housing Solidarity Space at the French NGO Fondation Abbé Pierre, notes that people forced into tiny living spaces is not a new problem. "There is a legal arsenal now to combat the practice, but the government keeps neglecting the issue," he says. The 50 or so municipal spot-checks per year, Mouchard says, are "a drop in the ocean."
Mohamed has decided not to accept his situation passively. He and his wife have been living since 2011 in a micro room across town in the 17th arrondissement. The 54-year-old's home, rented for 300 euros, has a single bed, a small fridge, a small table and hot plates. The bathroom sink is also used as a kitchen sink.
"The neighbor and I share the pipeline, which often gets clogged," Mohamed explains. He works as an employee for a public transport operator and earns 850 euros a month. He has applied for public housing with the city of Paris, where he has also informed authorities about his current living situation. An inspector came to measure the dimensions of the place: the living surface totaled just seven square meters. Mohamed has since been waiting for his situation to improve.
The landlady offered her own version of the facts. "At first, I just wanted to be nice and help him out. But after a while, I realized he had settled down and I asked him to pay a rent," she says. Mohamed denies this version, saying he has been paying a rent since he first arrived in 2011.
When asked if 300 euros is not too expensive for such a small room, the landlady responds by saying that some people charge double that amount. "All I did was help him so that he doesn't end up living on the street," she says. "But now that his wife has moved in with him, I want them to leave. I am not the kind of person to initiate an eviction, so they should decide to move out as soon as possible."
It is an upside-down world, in which the person who lives in virtually unlivable housing owes his good landlord a debt of gratitude. This, too, is part of the Paris scenery.