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The housing crisis in Sofia nobody is talking about, Part III

The housing crisis in Sofia nobody is talking about, Part III

An interview with Ivaylo Petkov, head of the Commission on Spatial Planning, Architecture and Housing Policy of Sofia

This is the third part of TheMayor.EU’s series on affordable housing in Bulgaria’s capital. In the previous article, we pointed to some workable solutions to increase private housing supply, while also providing social housing. Here we focus on the city’s policies and response to the situation, as well as some of the plans set in motion by the current administration, expected to bear fruit in the near future. Ivaylo Petkov, the head of the Commission on Spatial Planning, Architecture and Housing Policy sheds some light on the situation in the local administration.

Ivaylo Petkov graduated from the University for Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy in Sofia in 1996. He founded his architectural studio Deset AM in 2001 focusing primarily on projects for public buildings in a complex urban environment or those with functional purposes.

He has been a part of Sofia local administration since 2019, working in the Commission on Spatial Planning, Architecture and Housing Policy. In August 2021, he became the head of the commission after his predecessor resigned.

Mr Petkov, could you give a brief overview of what the Commission on Spatial Planning, Architecture and Housing Policy does? What are the policies, principles and expertise driving the decision-making process?

The Commission, according to my understanding, plays a crucial part in the development of Sofia because it is the formal tool for shaping the city and its developmental priorities. It is also a tool to encourage business and investment.

I believe that in the conditions of a market economy, all investments, whether they are private, public, municipal or mixed should be first and foremost economically sound and ecologically sustainable.

As someone who has worked primarily with architecture in the public sector, the principles guiding my decisions both in my private practice and in the City Council are: “Everything in place for the benefit of the people and easing their lives!” Balance and purposefulness - above all!

Considering that housing is a primary resource for any city, what are the priorities of the current housing policy in Sofia and what is the end goal?

Housing policy should create harmonious living spaces, as opposed to neighbourhoods used only for sleeping - known to us from the not-so-distant past. This means that the development of housing should go hand in hand with all relevant amenities, from transport and communications infrastructure, social and other services, to local businesses. Last but not least it should provide sport, cultural, educational and recreational spaces.

The question about priorities is complex and it covers a lot of regulations, which I hope we will be able to prioritise and organise so that we can present a holistic policy for municipal, private and mixed housing investments.

But, if I had to give a tangible answer to the question – we need to encourage mixed-use development projects in the neighbourhoods by assessing what sort of services are lacking and incentivise investors to plan for them in new constructions.

My goal is for each neighbourhood to have its own identity and become a preferred and comfortable living space while helping to form communities by various means of communication.

You are one of the most publicly active representatives of the commission, even before you rose to your current position. Now, as the head, would you direct the institution’s agenda towards different goals and priorities?

My goals have not changed from the ones I laid out before Mayor Yordanka Fandakova when I first started working for the City Council and they are:

  • Reducing the administrative burden and taking professional responsibility in the investment projects in the city, both for public projects and private projects;
  • Changes in the city’s Urban Masterplan (OUP) and the Law for Planning and Construction in the Capital Municipality (ZUZSO) with the aim of harmonising spaces and overcoming the overconstruction effect;
  • Creating and approving a development strategy for the city until the year 2050, which will shape very clear policy guidelines and, I hope, create а continuity in the city’s administrations;
  • Work in the neighbourhoods and encourage public-private partnerships to create educational, social, cultural and sports infrastructure on the local level.

Something I would direct the attention of the local administration towards would be closer collaboration with the national institutions to create more coordinated investments in line with the priorities of the city. My bold dream is that the private sector should take part in this collaboration.

During RESIDENTIAL FORUM 2021, you touched on the topic of social housing in marginalized neighbourhoods. How does the municipal housing special policy help or affect marginalized communities and citizens with lower than the average income?

A very important topic. To create a harmonious mix, without risking the balance in different spaces, we need regulations that are well thought out and coordinated, with consideration for our national identity and temperament, context, culture and economic situation.

In tandem with the Chief Architect of Sofia, we are looking through a lot of models from Europe and the world for successful mixed spaces, as well as for incentives. I think we will be able to present a model that is adapted to our national characteristics, which will drive initiatives - some private, some public and some mixed. I hope that after we present it we can move to the next step – implementation through policy.

During the forum, you mentioned a serious shortage of social housing despite there being an overconstruction problem in Sofia. Considering that paradox, what is the extent of the shortage and what would be ‘smart’ solutions for it?

The truth is that without a regional policy for the management, financing and maintenance of this type of housing in the conditions of a market economy, it is a burden on the taxpayer and that falls outside of my understanding. Meanwhile, I do not like the word ‘overconstruction’ because it lacks a legal definition.

Years ago, we all agreed with the vision that Sofia will be a compact city, filling out the recesses within its borders. Now is the time to set the regulatory framework for that process with the development strategy for 2050. I believe that with very few changes to ZUZSO, we can achieve the following goals:

  1. Removing the 'overconstruction' effect;
  2. Implementing sustainable municipal policies in terms of social infrastructure and investment in the city;
  3. Balanced districts equipped with the necessary functions that they currently lack;
  4. Creating added value for the municipality and the people.

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