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Reseña vivienda

Housing: from fundamental principles to policies

Monstserrat Pareja-Eastaway, director of the Master’s Degree in Cultural Management at the University of Barcelona

The books that concern us here are based on two very different approaches to a common problem: the public policy proposals that aim to compensate the failures of the market in housing matters. On the one hand, In Defense of Housing, written by David Madden and Peter Marcuse, addresses the right to housing from a political perspective, within a framework that assumes that ideology plays a fundamental role in public interventions. On the other, Social Housing in Europe, edited by Kathleen Scanlon, Christine Whitehead and Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia, with different contributions from experts on social housing, analyses how the residential problem in different European countries has been dealt with to date.

The reading of both books makes it possible to identify some coincidences. The first is the point in history in which they are written, dominated by the havoc wreaked on access to housing by the economic and financial crisis of 2008. Growing academic reflection highlights the severe deficiencies in the system for guaranteeing a roof over people’s heads. Secondly, the problem of access to housing is understood as a global phenomenon that demands that public authorities preserve fundamental human rights. The role of public policy is identified as essential for resolving the failures of a market that, due to the dual functionality of housing (as a basic good and as an investment commodity), generates serious tensions in access to it. Finally, both books use an institutional, political and historical perspective for a better understanding of the complexity of the current situation.  

Academic reflection highlights serious deficiencies in the system for guaranteeing people a roof over their heads

However, despite the similarities pointed out, the two books analyse greatly disparate historical realities that have led to clearly different housing systems that diverge in their efficacy: on the one hand, the fundamentally liberal path followed by the United States of America, and on the other, that of many European countries, of a social-democratic nature. Basing itself on the situation of the USA, In Defense of Housing criticises the capacities of the capitalist system to tackle the shortage or complete lack of housing. It leads the reader through a reasoning of distrust in the capacities of the system itself to establish mechanisms that guarantee the provision of housing for all. In contrast, Social Housing in Europe analyses, comparatively and in detail, the different models for intervention, identifying how the provision of social housing has been resolved in some European countries and what factors have influenced the resilience of the different systems in the wake of the economic crisis.

The book by Madden and Marcuse questions whether the capitalist system, today globalised and neoliberal to the extreme, has real possibilities of preserving and guaranteeing the right to housing. The authors underline the growing commodification of housing, which ignores its function as a home. This concern leads them to defend housing as a complex good with multiple meanings for people and families, beyond representing a transactional good in the market.

The chapters configure the global treatise but, at the same time, they make sense in isolation and each of them enables definition of the authors’ position. Firstly, they show themselves to be against the commodification of housing. Next, they point out the adverse effects of substandard housing on people. Following this, the authors associate the fight for housing to conflicts of power, resources, autonomy and agency, highlighting in turn numerous negative effects that this fight brings with it on an urban scale such as, for example, gentrification or segregation. They also criticise the conceptualisation of housing policy as an ideological artefact dominated, in their opinion, by the need to preserve the market. The book’s last chapter portrays the case of the movements and activisms in favour of the right to housing in New York.

The conclusion reached by Madden and Marcuse is probably one of the most substantial chapters in the book, since they reveal themselves to be in favour of the radical right to housing. The authors argue their defence of housing as a non-market good, a conviction that has a global reach and that is reflected also in the different scales in which housing participates: the neighbourhood and the community. The authors assert the necessary combination of actors participating in the housing system (from public policy to activism) for a fair and democratic design of the right to it.

As for Social Housing in Europe, it offers a set of comparative tables on social housing in 12 European countries, including Spain, which are very useful for readers avid for indicators and statistics. It offers relevant information on dimension, tenure, schemes for determining rentals and access requirements for each social housing system in these countries. The first part of the book uses the dimension of the social housing sector for structure: large sector (Netherlands, Scotland, Austria), medium sector (Denmark, Sweden, England and France) and small sector (Ireland, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Spain). National experts analyse aspects such as the history of the housing system and recent changes, assignment and provision mechanisms, funding, and future outlook. At the end of each contribution, there is a summary (the Country Box) that contains the same parameters for each country.

There is an underlying concern regarding the consequences of leaving access to housing in the hands of the market

The second section analyses three major cross-cutting themes: history, finances and legislation, and the social and private Sectors. This part converts the book into a useful piece of analysis for sector actors and academics alike, and is necessary for understanding the policy of social housing provision in Europe since the 1940s. It points out the importance of adaptation by each country to changing contexts, and deals with the funding of social housing and the different legal regimes that regulate it. It also studies the growing diversity of funding modes: the limited possibilities for funding by the public purse mean that part of the funding of social housing in the future will be probably based on private debt. With regard to the legal forms found in social housing, one of the chapters underlines the difficulty of achieving more or less unified European legislation. 

It also analyses, from different perspectives, the reduction of ‘the public’ in different areas of intervention, from processes of urban regeneration to the sale of social housing to its tenants. Within this analysis, it is worth highlighting the emergence of new challenges in the development of urban renewal processes in Europe (migration, population ageing, and climate change). It covers the processes that have met with success (e.g. area-based initiatives) or those gaps that are still unresolved (e.g. the marginalisation of certain neighbourhoods). It points out as a common denominator the concern with the public deficit as a trigger for privatisation and the lack of a ‘sense of duty’ on the part of the political systems analysed with regard to public social housing. The general features of privatisation of public housing in Europe are outlined in order to point out the effects that this has had in the United Kingdom.

Among the common aspects of all the countries analysed, the book highlights the growing participation of the private sector in the provision of social housing, the generalised reduction of subsidies for its supply, and the broad increase in demand for social housing in Europe. The final chapter also tackles the residential issue in relation to vulnerable groups by country, and by the different types of tenure. One prominent conclusion is the growing role being played by the private rental sector, often offering low quality properties in locations distant from the centre, as an alternative instrument to an adequate offering of social housing.

The underlying ideological clamour that can be perceived throughout the book by Madden and Marcuse is different from the non-normative, analytical view of the book by Scanlon et al. The first authors demand the defence of housing and the recognition of new actors in the transformation of housing systems. The second analyse the changes in the provision of social housing in Europe and detect the effects that could follow a drastic reduction in the expenditure on social housing provision. Based on different approaches, in both cases there is an underlying concern regarding the serious consequences that homes could face if the solution for access to housing for all is left in the hands of the market.

 

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