By Claudio Rocco
When energy-saving measures are planned in social housing buildings, the environmental aim is combined with the scope of reducing inequality. In Zaragoza, Spain, a team of social workers is helping the tenants of a multi-family building to accept a challenging refurbishment
If energy-saving measures came knocking at the door, wouldn’t it be reassuring to have someone on hand to help you navigate the benefits and inconvenience, someone to help dispel your doubts?
This is what is happening in Zaragoza, Spain, where social workers are helping the dwellers of a block of council flats.
The block is located in the multi-ethnic Oliver district, one of the demonstration sites of the European project BuildHeat. The area has a complex social structure: immigrants and gypsies live together with the native population.
The 53 council flats relied completely on electricity from the grid and had big insulation problems.
Tenants had high energy bills, difficult to afford. Now the project’s technicians are introducing new technologies and renovating the external façade.
Carmen Nueno is one of the social workers involved. She is part of a team organised by Zaragoza Vivienda, a municipal agency in charge of housing. She shares her experience of this innovation approach.
Carmen, why did you and your team start social work with the occupants of the building?
“From the beginning, we included the tenants as part of the project. Many changes are planned in the houses they live in, and every change generates fear and suspicion. With good two-way communication, we try to offer reassure people and minimise conflict. Energy-saving measures will be better received and understood. We intend to empower tenants, help them understand all the phases of the project and respond to their needs.”
Who are the tenants?
“They are families who have asked for and obtained access to social housing. Generally, they have low incomes. They are workers, but also pensioners, people dependent on benefit. Some families have been living there for many years, others for a few months.”
What was your starting point?
“Firstly, our team of social workers had to explain what Europe is, what a European project is with its faraway foreign partners. For the people living in the building the concept of Europe is something remote, difficult to understand, abstract which does not affect them directly. But in this case, they have seen that Europe does bring concrete improvement to their homes: it has become more concrete. This is, of course, how I see it, based on what I have been able to understand by being in contact with them.”
What happened when the works started?
"We stepped up our contact with tenants as the works unfolded. In addition, new and unknown partners became involved: the construction companies, which came to install new technologies. Here we had to create trust. Furthermore, we don’t know when the works will actually finish, which the whole neighbourhood would like to know. This has raised concern."
What were the most important questions asked by the dwellers?
“Is this going to cost us something? In terms of expenses, what will these works mean? Will we need to leave our homes so that they can do the works? Or can we stay at home? I had to reassure them on all these points. We informed tenants that they wouldn’t have to pay anything and that they could stay in their homes.”
Did you explain the technologies to them? As a social worker, how did you deal with such a technical matter?
“First, I had to find out about the technologies myself. It was interesting and not really difficult. We still don’t know how confident the tenants are with these new technologies, but we’re trying to get them to use them in the best way.”
Is this the first time that your team has been involved in a building renovation project?
“This is the first we have dealt with a site of this size and we have already achieved results thanks to all those involved: the consortium of the European project, the construction companies and the neighbours. The cooperation and the trust between all those involved have facilitated the refurbishment.”
Do you think this experience can be replicated in other European countries?
“Yes, of course. Any action, intervention that takes place in an environment where people live and act, must be done with their involvement. Otherwise any kind of difficulty may arise, and everything may end in failure.”