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Alex Fernandez

ESR12

Alex Fernandez is an early career researcher (PhD candidate) in comparative housing policy at the department of Management of the Built Environment, TU Delft. He is interested in a range of economic and social issues related to affordable housing provision, low-emissions housing and environmental transitions. He holds a Double Bachelor in History and Political Science from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC), an MSc in City Design and Social Sciences from the London School of Economics (LSE), and is currently studying a part-time MSc in Economics at Birkbeck, University of London.

He has contributed to projects led by LSE Cities, ”Socio-Economic Value at the Elephant and Castle” and LSE London, “Barriers to acceptance of housing offers by families in temporary accommodation”, and on Innovation in Urban Policy, as well as interned at the Spanish Ministries of Public Works and Foreign Affairs. He has also worked as an analyst at various start-ups and at Peabody, one of London’s largest providers of social housing, where he researched the impact of housing and social care policies on social housing residents.

Research topic

Updated sumaries

May, 11, 2022

December, 09, 2021

European countries are implementing a wide array of policies to accelerate the transition toward a low-emissions’ built environment. Drastically improving the energy efficiency of the housing stock through subsidies and regulations is often among the key proposals, while impacts on affordability are unsure. This dissertation analyses energy transition policies within the context of increasingly unequal housing markets undergoing chronic affordability issues. The focus is on providing a critical analysis of housing retrofit policies that accounts for distributional effects across households. To tackle this broad topic, the main overarching question “How will the strive for sustainability affect the affordability of housing costs?” is subdivided into four research sections aiming to highlight the impacts of housing retrofit across different tenures and European countries. The first stream builds on the sub-question: “How will the energy transition affect homeowners’ costs under different policy scenarios?” This section uses the Netherlands as a quantitative case study and is intended as micro groundwork to be incorporated in an economic model of the housing market in stream two. This second stream focuses on market dynamics by answering the question “How will improving energy efficiency alter housing supply, demand and ultimately affordability?” This part builds on neoclassical housing models and draws from current research on heterogeneous agents models (HAM) to account for inequalities. The third research stream focuses on comparing housing markets under different economic and social pressures. The main question here is “How do distributional policy impacts change across housing markets?” This cross-country comparison will employ the model defined in stream 2 to account for national housing market particularities, such as tenure composition and price growth. Finally, the fourth stream focuses on funding models for the energy transition in social housing. It develops the question: “What are the roles of capital markets, public authorities and residents in funding the energy transition in social housing? Considering the trade-offs between green bonds, grants and rent increases” This last stream will be mainly qualitative and apply a political economy framework to a series of interviews with social housing and finance professionals. This project draws from the disciplines of neoclassical economics and political economy bringing these two bodies of knowledge together in two ways. First, it implements both quantitative methods —through formal economic modelling— and critical approaches to the role of finance in housing transitions. Second, this proposal intends to quantify the distributional impact of retrofit and sustainability policies on households and contextualise it within housing economics and affordability. By bringing these perspectives together, this project aims to formulate policy-relevant insights on housing inequalities and contribute to the design of socially sustainable transition policies.

Comparative Analysis of Affordable and Sustainable Housing Policies in Europe (ESR12)

This project’s main research goal is to identify and compare policies for the affordable retrofit of Europe’s built environment. The analytical framework draws from various disciplines including economics, public policy, and complexity science. These disciplines provide the foundations to four research streams:

  1. Analysing of user costs and cash-flows implications for various housing retrofit policies within the Dutch national context. By comparing the economic implications of different policies across households and housing typologies, this line of inquiry seeks to identify the financial impacts over renters, owners, and landlords with varying income levels.
  2. Constructing an Agent-Based Model of the housing market. This model aims to capture the second and third-order effects that modifications to the housing stock can have over house prices and ultimately affordability. Here the focus will be on the potential distributional effects of housing retrofit.
  3. Adapting the preceding model to account for particularities across countries and urban areas. This model will include the economic and social contexts that condition policy outcomes across European housing systems.
  4. Exploring institutional and policy design across different public and private organisations. This mainly qualitative stream will critically analyse institutional arrangements that favour the adoption of affordable and sustainable housing policies. The point of contact with experts will be the RE-DWELL network, secondments, and case studies.

These four research streams are empirically and methodologically led, however, ESR12 also aspires to contribute to the theoretical underpinning of public policy analysis, housing economics, and critical social sciences. These disciplines, while dealing with the same research topics, have evolved through divergent perspectives; ESR12 seeks to strengthen the links between them. By bringing these perspectives together, this project intends to formulate realistic policy recommendations for the design of a fair transition to a low-emissions' built environment.

Blog

Recent activity

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Holism?

Posted on 08-12-2021

Holistic has definitely become one of the current slogans in policy, just like “it’s the economy, stupid” was during Clinton’s campaign in 1992. This new mantra of housing studies seems to be about the integration of a certain mix of socio-economic-environmental aspects. In this regard, holism may deliver a satisfactory umbrella term. However, does it really work as a research strategy? Is really the whole larger than its parts? Can we apprehend a whole without understanding its constituents?   Economists love to start academic papers by saying that housing, homeownership, in particular, is both a financial asset (a resource) and a consumption good (directly used by households). Thankfully, humanity has gone beyond neoclassical economics, and that includes economists. In a way, the totality of housing as a fact escapes any discipline since it is always nested in the next. As a house with its built components is incorporated into a market to become an asset, it also acquires meaning by providing ontological security to its inhabitants (Madden & Marcuse, 2016).   In fact, housing systems can be studied from myriad perspectives. As the documentary “Anamones” shows, steel bars protruding from a home can be the longing promise of secure housing and stronger family bonds with your offspring. Similarly, the new season of Netflix’s show Selling Sunset glosses over the social status that comes with real estate, while emphasising the psychological struggle of modern urban life in L.A. Indeed, housing is as much about feelings of safety and community as it is about wall cavity insulation and faux-brick veneers.   As researchers, we do not only perceive reality through various neutral inputs, we actively participate in the construction of our respective objects of study. Naturally, we pay more attention to those elements that are more relevant for our research questions – what some call observer dependency. Opposite to holism, we encounter reductionism, the epistemological position that the whole is nothing but a set of interacting fundamental parts. This is the position taken for example by Epstein and Axtell (1996), together with a series of complexity experts researching how societies work following sets of basic rules. In this vein, awareness of the limitations in our approaches enhances research outputs, does not hinder them. While keeping an eye on the total, let’s not forget that systems are usually made of understandable parts.   Epstein, J. M., & Axtell, R. (1996). Growing Artificial Societies. Social Science from the bottom-up. Brookings Institution. Madden, D., & Marcuse, P. (2016). In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. Verso.

Reflections, Summer schools

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Croatian Housing Subsidies

Posted on 04-12-2021

In 2017, Croatia implemented a new housing subsidy programme covering up to 50% of mortgage payments in the first four years, with a total amount not higher than 100.000 EUR. Recent economic evidence points to this policy having increased housing prices while being ineffective at raising the homeownership rate (Kunovac & Zilic, 2021).   Throughout this winter, during a secondment at CERANEO, I have undertaken a series of interviews with relevant stakeholders: civil servants, private financiers and politicians as well as descriptive data analysis from European and national sources to contextualise this subsidy within contemporary changes in the Croatian housing landscape and, more broadly, social policy.   In the short paper I’m currently writing with Croatian colleagues, I’ll mobilise evidence from economics, sociology and political science to address the role of housing in the reformulation of social policy in the Croatian transition.   Kunovac, D., & Zilic, I. (2021). The effect of housing loan subsidies on affordability: Evidence from Croatia. Journal of Housing Economics. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhe.2021.101808

Secondments

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Unmethodical foreplay

Posted on 05-10-2021

“Theories become clear and “reasonable” only after incoherent parts of them have been used for a long time. Such unreasonable, nonsensical, unmethodical foreplay thus turns out to be an unavoidable precondition of clarity and of empirical success”. (Feyerabend, 2010: 11)   Invaded by mass tourism, divided by social and economic inequalities, it is easy to forget that at one point, Lisbon was the San Francisco of Europe. In fact, the Portuguese were the first European traders to reach India and held the monopoly of trade with Japan during the 16th century. Indo-Portuguese art, such as the sculpture depicted on the left is a window into a prior phase of global exchanges, one motivated by discoveries, commercial expansion and European colonisation. Today, syncretic artistic expressions drawing from Hinduism and Catholicism allow historians to re-trace a complicated past.   However, what does this tell us of research on housing affordability and sustainability? This sculpture is an example of an earlier form of world complexity, readable, in this case, through art forms and religious dogmas. It is a concrete embodiment that confounds paradigms that place top-bottom, North-South, European vs other, critical-rational divisions over our current world. In short, it muddies the clear waters of preconceived frameworks that place Christianity in a White-European context.    It is in the muddy waters that theorising gains importance. To borrow from Feyerabend, we need to fight against the method, any method. In urban studies, preconceived ontologies, conceptualisations of the world, stifle research creating what Tonkiss (2011) calls Template Urbanism. The danger of template urbanism is becoming reified, a set of common tropes that act as places for encounter but simply fall flat when confronted with social realities.   Flows of ideas and commodities, the creation of intercontinental networks, and ever-increasing complexity were a reality in the regional world of the 18th century. In the 21st, visiting Lisbon, we’ve seen informal settlements in the “Global North”, the consequences of a fascist regime that, like its Spanish counterpart, created a country of homeowners, all of that even before neoliberalism went mainstream with Thatcher and Reagan. This doesn’t fit into the one framework. These phenomena demand engagement with theories and disciplines of their own, not a one-size-fits-all approach.   Maybe just on this particular point, both sides of the spectrum in urban research, critical researchers (Brenner et al., 2011) and urban data scientists (Kandt & Batty, 2021) see theorising as key in producing meaningful research. Empiricism in the urban environment is frown upon because of its naïveté, it refuses to engage with the messiness Feyerabend talks about. On the contrary, we ought to engage with messiness to find the theoretical tools allowing us to produce meaningful scientific outputs.    References Brenner, N., Madden, D. J., & Wachsmuth, D. (2011). "Assemblage urbanism and the challenges of critical urban theory." City, 15:2, 225-240 https://doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2011.568717 Kandt, J., & Batty, M. (2021). "cities, big data and urban policy: Towards urban analytics for the long run." Cities, 109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2020.102992 Tonkiss, F. (2011). "City analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. Template urbanism Four points about assemblage" in City analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action.  15(5), 584–588. https://doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2011.60902

Workshops

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Here’s why you should watch Real Estate TV Shows…

Posted on 28-07-2021

OK, I’ve got a confession to make: I am addicted to real estate reality TV. The plastic surgery and mansions in Selling Sunset make me live, but it is the prime Airbnb’s from The Worlds’ Most Amazing Vacation Rentals that I die for. I do understand that for many a scholar, these shows may seem too crude. Indeed, they are infused with obscene wealth, flashy cars, and dramatic airborne entrances. These sumptuously designed homes make Hudson Yards look like a Lacaton & Vassal retrofit but more importantly, they remind us what houses are about for a minority of powerful elites.   Having just finished The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, I can’t help but give some thought to the use of houses to display wealth and power, ultimately what are homes for when they are not for dwelling. Before giving free rein to criticising the eccentricities of the 1%, it must be recognised that homes for elites have always been about status. Morality aside, we wouldn’t have a Palazzo Pitti[1] if it wasn’t for Renaissance bankers, nor a Mauritshuis[2] without Dutch mercantilists (and slave plantations in Brazil).   What is it then that makes the contemporary equivalents of the 18th century French Châteaux much more perturbing? I believe the reason is to be found in the unequal distributions of wealth joining the inescapable reality of shared ultimate costs. Earlier examples of wealth extraction took place out of sight, through colonial exploitation, or somehow involved those exploited. That goes to say, even the industrial proletariat in Europe managed to access some of the fruits of their labour not without some struggle. For instance, Ludwig II of Bavaria, best portrayed by Visconti in the 1973 film Ludwig, used the construction of his Schlösser to patron local artists and created a flourishing artisan class. On the contrary, the yachts parked in London’s Saint Catherine’s docks, much like the mansions portrayed on my predilect passe-temps, only rob us, an increasingly impoverished majority, of our present and future.   If you can stomach The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, you’ll witness the severed wings of a Boeing 747 airlifted by a helicopter over Nevada’s desert only to become a “feminine ceiling” on a millionaire’s rural home. While the technical prowess is commendable and the so-called “femininity of the shape” hilariously sexist, the scene is overall off-putting. To me, this has not so much to do with the obvious disregard for money and mounting costs, things that I’m ultimately quite fond of in any aristocrat’s palazzo. My grievance dwells in the claims of sustainability and material upcycling that disregard the carbon embodied in the deranged operation of using a helicopter to build a roof.   The main issue here is that the long-term consequences of the lavish lifestyle of the few are already harming the many. One only needs to look at this month’s deadly flooding across Europe to apprehend this. In the time of quasi-astronaut millionaires, sustainability is only conceivable through wealth redistribution. In the meantime, if you feel like having a cheeky peek at the Swan’s song of the West, all the shows I’ve mentioned are available on Netflix.   [1] Florentine Palace, probably designed by Brunelleschi, and today home to the House of Medici's art collection. [2] Currently an art museum, it was built as a home to Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, governor of Dutch Brazil.

Reflections

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Case studies

Contributions to the case study library

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Vocabulary

Contributions to the vocabulary

Housing Retrofit

Area: Design, planning and building

Buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of energy consumption and 36% of carbon emissions in the EU (European Commission, 2021). Environmental retrofit, green retrofit or low carbon retrofits of existing homes ais to upgrade housing infrastructure, increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, tackle fuel poverty, and improve comfort, convenience and aesthetics (Karvonen, 2013). It is widely acknowledged that environmental retrofit should result in a reduction of carbon emissions by at least 60% in order to stabilise atmospheric carbon concentration and mitigate climate change (Fawcett, 2014; Johnston et al., 2005). Worldwide retrofit schemes such as RetrofitWorks, EnerPHit and the EU’s Renovation Wave, use varying metrics to define low carbon retrofit, but their universally adopted focus has been on end-point performance targets (Fawcett, 2014). This fabric-first approach to retrofit prioritises improvements to the building fabric through: increased thermal insulation and airtightness; improving the efficiency of systems such as heating, lighting and electrical appliances; and the installation of renewables such as photovoltaics (Institute for Sustainability & UCL Energy Institute, 2012). The whole-house systems approach to retrofit further considers the interaction between the occupant, the building site, climate, and other elements or components of a building (Institute for Sustainability & UCL Energy Institute, 2012). In this way, the building becomes an energy system with interdependent parts that strongly affect one another, and energy performance is considered a result of the whole system activity. From an economic perspective, retrofit costs are one-off expenses that negatively impact homeowners and landlords, but reduce energy costs for occupants over the long run. Investment in housing retrofit, ultimately a form of asset enhancing, produces an energy premium attached to the property. In the case of the rental market, retrofit expenses create a split incentive whereby the landlord incurs the costs but the energy savings are enjoyed by the tenant (Fuerst et al., 2020). The existence of energy premiums has been widely researched across various housing markets following Rosen’s hedonic pricing model. In the UK, the findings of Fuerst et al. (2015) showed the positive effect of energy efficiency over price among home-buyers, with a price increase of about 5% for dwellings rated A/B compared to those rated D. Cerin et al. (2014) offered similar results for Sweden. In the Netherlands, Brounen and Kok (2011), also identified a 3.7% premium for dwellings with A, B or C ratings using a similar technique. Property premiums offer landlords and owners the possibility to capitalise on their  retrofit investment through rent increases or the sale of the property. While property premiums are a way to reconcile          split incentives between landlord and renter, value increases pose questions about long-term affordability of retrofitted units, particularly, as real an expected energy savings post-retrofit have been challenging to reconcile (van den Brom et al., 2019). A socio-technical approach to retrofit elaborates on the importance of the occupant. To meet the current needs of inhabitants, retrofit must be socially contextualized and comprehended as a result of cultural practices, collective evolution of know-how, regulations, institutionalized procedures, social norms, technologies and products (Bartiaux et al., 2014). This perspective argues that housing is not a technical construction that can be improved in an economically profitable manner without acknowledging that it’s an entity intertwined in people’s lives, in which social and personal meaning are embedded. Consequently, energy efficiency and carbon reduction cannot be seen as a merely technical issue. We should understand and consider the relationship that people have developed in their dwellings, through their everyday routines and habits and their long-term domestic activities (Tjørring & Gausset, 2018). Retrofit strategies and initiatives tend to adhere to a ‘rational choice’ consultation model that encourages individuals to reduce their energy consumption by focusing on the economic savings and environmental benefits through incentive programs, voluntary action and market mechanisms (Karvonen, 2013). This is often criticized as an insufficient and individualist approach, which fails to achieve more widespread systemic changes needed to address the environmental and social challenges of our times (Maller et al., 2012). However, it is important to acknowledge the housing stock as a cultural asset that is embedded in the fabric of everyday lifestyles, communities, and livelihoods (Ravetz, 2008). The rational choice perspective does not consider the different ways that occupants inhabit their homes, how they perceive their consumption, in what ways they interact with the built environment, for what reasons they want to retrofit their houses and which ways make more sense for them, concerning the local context. A community-based approach to domestic retrofit emphasizes the importance of a recursive learning process among experts and occupants to facilitate the co-evolution of the built environment and the communities (Karvonen, 2013). Involving the occupants in the retrofit process and understanding them as “carriers” of social norms, of established routines and know-how, new forms of intervention  can emerge that are experimental, flexible and customized to particular locales (Bartiaux et al., 2014). There is an understanding that reconfiguring socio-technical systems on a broad scale will require the participation of occupants to foment empowerment, ownership, and the collective control of the domestic retrofit (Moloney et al., 2010).

Created on 16-02-2022

Author: S.Furman (ESR2), Z.Tzika (ESR10), A.Fernandez (ESR12)

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