For the last year, Fatima Louarn and her family have shared a tiny Paris hotel room because they could find nowhere else to live. Now she is pregnant and the owner wants to kick her out.
About 8,000 people live in shabby hotels in Paris, often sharing a bathroom with dozens of other people and living off sandwiches because they are not allowed to cook in their rooms.
"It's not a life. You feel like you're in prison," said Louarn, a 37-year-old unemployed Moroccan who shares a room, partly paid for by housing aid, with her son and sick husband.
More than 100,000 families from modest or poor backgrounds were looking for social housing in the capital last year, up from about 85,000 a decade ago, but only about 12,000 homes were allocated in 2004, according to Paris city authorities.
The remaining tens of thousands of apartment hunters, many of them immigrants, stay with friends or live in hotels, squats and apartments that are tiny or in an appalling state.
The fate of these tenants came into the open in April when a fire in a hotel used by immigrants killed 24 people, half of them children. Many victims were asleep when the fire began and tried to save their children by throwing them out of windows.
Jean-Yves Mano, the deputy mayor of Paris responsible for housing, said the city has been trying to convert such hotels into proper social housing and has bought 30 in the past few years. But given the dire housing situation, the guest houses are still needed, he said.
"We must keep them as a welcoming zone for certain groups of the population, responding to the urgent need for housing," Mano said, adding that many people come to Paris in search of a job. "Often, the place might not be great, but the main thing is to have a roof."
Mano said that with unemployment and social insecurity rising, many people cannot find an apartment on the private market because rents have risen sharply in the past few years.
French apartment prices have increased by about 15 percent in the last year alone.
"There's a strong correlation in the rise in apartment prices and the increase in people asking for social housing," Mano said.
He said the city has created about 14,500 new social homes in the past five years -- still not enough.
Living space in Paris is so scarce that landlords can rent out the tiniest spaces, such as the "chambres de bonnes," former maids' rooms, often without kitchens or bathrooms and usually tucked away at the top of staircases under the roof.
The center-right government caused a controversy this spring when it suggested that chambres de bonnes measuring just 75 square feet should be allowed to be rented out, cutting the minimum size from the current 97 square feet.
It withdrew the proposal after protests from social groups and housing associations.
"There's limits," said social worker Sofia Bounouri, who works for the Abbe Pierre Foundation, which helps poor people find homes.
"It's essential to have a roof. But at what price? It weighs on you psychologically if you live in a tiny cell," she said.
The French government is under pressure to do more for society's poorest after many voters said they rejected the European Union constitution in May because of concerns over unemployment and the general economic outlook.
Social Affairs Minister Jean-Louis Borloo promised last year to create about 500,000 social homes over five years.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was appointed after the E.U. vote, noted in his first policy speech that many people had "very big difficulties" finding affordable homes.
But Abbe Pierre said that without new measures and funds, Borloo's plan will be realized only "to 60 percent at best."
"As the housing situation undergoes an unprecedented crisis . . . the first announcements of Dominique de Villepin's government show that housing is not among the priorities," the group said.
Bounouri said finding social housing in Paris is "like a lottery," with some people waiting for more than 10 years.
Matenin Kone, a 30-year-old mother of three, said she has been trying to find a home for three years.
"We live in a squat now. The walls are damp, the windows don't shut. The children have nowhere to play," she said.
Louarn, who holds a pharmacy degree from Morocco, said she is willing to leave Paris to find a home.
"I always wanted to go far in life. But I realize now that sometimes the conditions are just not right," she said.