Boosting economic opportunities and wellbeing in Latvia: why housing matters
by Andrés Fuentes Hutfilter, Germany-Latvia Desk, OECD Economics Department
Unemployment is still above 8% in Latvia and contributes to poverty, in part because many unemployed have been without a job for an extended period of time. High unemployment and poverty are concentrated in some regions (Figure 1).
Housing policies shape residential mobility and can encourage workers’ movement to jobs (Andrews et al, 2011). The 2017 Economic Survey of Latvia therefore argues that good housing policies help reduce unemployment in high-unemployment areas. By helping workers find better jobs, they can also boost productivity and wages. Housing policies are particularly relevant for young people since they have a naturally higher propensity to move. Good housing policies could also encourage young people to seek opportunities in Latvia rather than emigrate.
Affordable quality housing is also important for wellbeing. Overcrowded housing is widespread among low- and middle-income households in Latvia. The share of households’ housing spending in total expenditure (26%) is high, and higher than in other countries with similar income level, such as Estonia. Policies are therefore needed to make quality, affordable housing available in neighbourhoods which are well connected to employment opportunities.
Few households rent their homes, even among low-income households (Figure 2). Home owners from high-unemployment areas are likely to find it difficult to afford buying housing in areas with good employment opportunities, where house prices are likely to be higher. There is little development of new housing for rent. Legal uncertainty and long legal procedures hold back the development of the private rented housing market. Reducing tax evasion and fostering long-term lease contracts could also make contracts more reliable and make rented housing more attractive for tenants. Several OECD countries have also successfully expanded affordable housing by requiring private developers to allocate a proportion of the dwellings as affordable units (Salvi del Pero et al., 2016).
Social housing is scarce and waiting lists are long, especially in the Riga area, where unemployment is low and good jobs more abundant. Government spending on social housing and on cash housing benefits for low-income households is low. Support only covers a small share of the low and middle income population. More funding for low-cost rented housing in areas of expanding employment would boost employment and lower poverty. An eligible person can only apply for assistance in the municipality where she resides, limiting labour and residential mobility. A nation-wide register that allowed eligible persons to apply for social housing where they expect better job opportunities could support residential mobility.
OECD (2017) Economic Survey of Latvia.
Salvi del Pero, A., Willem, A., Ferraro, V., Frey, V. (2016), “Policies to promote access to good-quality affordable housing in OECD countries,” OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Andrews, D., A. Caldera Sánchez and Å. Johansson (2011), “Housing Markets and Structural Policies in OECD Countries“, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 836, OECD Publishing, Paris.