Why it’s never only just about housing

By: Caroline Duvier @caroline_duvier

Over the past half a year or so, I started to read a lot of non-fiction books concerned with our current systems, lifestyles, and historic accounts on humanity. I read about the Green New Deal, how human nature is actually kind, spatial contracts, doughnut economics, entrepreneurial states, rebel cities, misinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel industry, and the interconnectedness of the climate crisis and racial and civil justice. All this reading and listening influenced my thinking so much that I am working on a crochet flower containing all the colours of the rainbow in the leaves (for equality) and white flowers (for peace). 

I found this broadening of my horizon beneficial to my understanding of the larger framework in which my PhD sits (which is on sustainable social housing) and the mechanisms at play which influence how things work. Reading more broadly also made me think that social housing is largely misunderstood by most not working in the sector (maybe even some in the sector, not sure). I see social housing much more as a necessity now than ever before. I also see how it’s never only just about housing.

Housing as a human right

Housing is a human right. It is not treated as such, but it should be. I remember when I worked in social housing and attended a meeting hosted by the Salvation Army. They helped refugees once they had arrived in the UK. This young man did not want to say where he was from, but it was clear it was either a war zone or he had some other horrific past trauma. He and his family were housed by G4S (I think I can hear a collective intake of breath from everyone reading this?). Rat infested, front door did not close, no stove, no heating. In January. What was done about his situation? Nothing. We were all in utter shock. How can a fellow human being be treated in this way? It was up to the charities to try and help him. I went back to my boss to tell him the story, who was just as upset as I was. And yet, nothing was done because of the structures in place ‘stop’ us from acting on these injustices.

“The idea of crisis implies that inadequate or unaffordable housing is abnormal, a temporary departure from a well-functioning standard. But for working-class and poor communities, housing crisis is the norm.”

From ‘In Defense of Housing’ by Peter Marcuse and David Madden

The UK government itself said that our housing system is broken. Plenty of organisations, including Shelter and the Centre for Climate Change regularly publish papers on what needs to be done to establish a sustainable housing system. We know what kind of housing we need. And yet, here we are, the fifth largest economy of the world, and we can’t house the homeless on our streets. We can’t even make sure that renters in the private sector have adequate housing, or the refugees, or make sure that temporary accommodation is offered in ways that respond to people’s needs. And we all know that social housing has been tried to be shrunk to its death – we have too few social homes for the people who need it.

Housing as it functions today is not a human right. It is a financial investment. David Harvey highlights this poignantly in Rebel Cities – how communities are being ripped apart, how social or affordable housing is being driven out. Communities are replaced with property developments that feed into the current system of wealth accumulation. I don’t even know where to begin when delving deep into the way that housing works in the UK. It feels like the scale of injustice is tipped so far with so many fires burning at the same time, you just don’t know which one to extinguish first. Let me know if you figured out what the underlying fire is. The point is, if we don’t go back to viewing housing as a human right, nothing will change. Social housing might not be perfect, but it is still the safest and most people-centred way to house people. Housing should not be an investment and we should work on dismantling this system. However, to dismantle the financialisaton of the housing system means looking more broadly at the way our economies are working.

Making money off someone who is poorer than you is not a new thing. Still evil, but not new. The best-known example of taking ownership of something that previously belonged to a commons is land. Land used to be common until the aristocracy figured out they can make money from it and lobbied monarchy to privatise it. I will never, ever understand why politicians (or monarchs) listen to lobbyists and don’t go to find out what the general public want. Now we are almost globally in a position where land is owned by the few, rented or sold to the many who mainly cannot afford it. Social housing providers wanting to buy land have to compete with huge private corporations. The history of land ownership is a fascinating one and very well put in Alastair Parvin’s piece.

“He [Lefebre] imagines a future where social needs would not be subordinated to economic necessity, where disalientated dwelling space would be universally available, where both equality and difference would be the basic principles of social and political life”.

 From ‘In Defense of Housing’ by Peter Marcuse and David Madden

Built environment and health

Enough about the haves and the have-nots. Let’s get emotional. Environmental psychologists looking at the effects of the built environment on health have a thing or two to say about housing. Gary Evans wrote a poignant piece back in 2003 on the impacts of the built environment on mental health. He summarised research showing that single mothers in high-rise blocks are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Noise and overcrowding lead to mental health issues. We likely react to such design features because we lack personal control over our situation, cannot recover from stress in such environments, and have either been taken out of or lack social networks that support us. Other housing features that impact our mental health negatively are displacement, insecure housing situations, bullying or harassment from landlords, financial difficulties in paying mortgage or rent – the list goes on.

On the other hand, we know what works and what kinds of design features we react well to. For example, we prefer environments that contain greenery. It is no coincidence that most rich parts of our cities have much more greenery than the poor parts, including how well that greenery is maintained. Neuroscience is helping us understand how we react to design features around us. Researchers study our reactions to design features, mainly in labs, since that is where the equipment is located. You get to see images and your brain’s response to these images is measured. We react differently depending on what we see in our built environment. The amygdala, a part of the brain that is activated for our fight or flight response, lights up when people are shown pictures of narrow pathways, square columns planted as a long archway next to a building, ill-lit streets, sharp edges, and various other features. We react with curiosity or joy even to other kinds of design features. The Guggenheim Museum, while full of acute angles, is suddenly interesting because it isn’t just one edge, it’s a mumbo jumbo that awakens our curiosity and makes us look twice. Or thrice. And funnily enough, we like houses where we can detect faces. Think of two upper windows and a door in the middle. Looks like a face, right?

And yet, we see rows and rows of cookie-cutter houses being built in our neighbourhoods. Houses that look as uninspiring as a tarmac road. We have quite literally a world of knowledge at our hands on how to design places, but we (read: developers, housebuilders) opt for cheap and not-so-cheerful.  Houses are built with the cheapest materials in the shortest amount of time with hardly any oversight, as the Hackitt Review highlighted. The Building Better, Building Beautiful report tackles this issue as well. I am waiting on the edge of my seat for our current government to change planning and building policy. Only kidding.

It seems as if people who build houses have lost the ability to see their development as a home. I am appalled by the new developments popping up around where I live, in Bradford. Rows and rows of houses that are exactly the same: a tiny garden, a garage, a network of meandering streets, and all houses face the same direction. For someone looking into sustainability of housing and a background in psychology, this is a hair-pulling moment. Who wants to live there? So much research exists on how we respond to our environments, why is none of that taken into account? Why do the houses not make use of the natural movements of the sun, so the resident saves on heating and the house does not over-heat? Why do we have segregated gardens with high fences so that we cannot see our neighbours and force our kids to play by themselves, instead of a communal playground area? How can it be that in the 21st century, our planning policies allow unhealthy, unsustainable, unsociable, and boring houses to be built?

A house itself is a system

A lot of what we do feels piecemeal. We grab an opportunity to insulate, like ECO-funding, without considering that insulation alone is not going to create a comfortable home. In fact, instances of shoddy insulation installation show that insulation can do more harm than good. We don’t install insulation at the same time as we install a mechanical heat ventilation system. Instead, we advise the residents to ventilate. Western nations, especially the USA and UK, like to focus on individual behaviour and put the onus on the individual to effect change. Landlords ask tenants to be responsible for ensuring healthy levels of moisture inside a home built with defects, an impossible and unfair ask. Fuel poverty regulations will likely change our approach to energy efficiency. Hopefully we learn that energy efficiency should be approached as a whole-house retrofit solution targeted at each individual property. Behaviour has a role to play, but not as main actor; systems are the main actors.

The broken approach to increasing energy efficiency in properties probably exemplifies the larger issues I am trying to highlight here. Even when it comes to a single property, it is not approached as a system but receives small fixes here and there. The underlying problem, just like with our current economic system, stays put. Funding organisations that social housing providers rely on do not think holistically in systems. This thinking trickles down to what social housing providers can realistically do. Those who think in systems need to do more than just realise the systemic issues, we also need to inform others about these systemic issues so that we can all work together on the best solutions.

Housing as part of a connected web

A home is not just a home. We don’t just magically pop up at work without having to commute. We don’t just pull out a waddle of cash and pay our bills whenever we need to. Groceries don’t materialise in our fridge whenever we run out. A home needs to be connected to things and to other people. We need to get to places and we need to be able to arrive ‘home’. Once you start digging into housing as part of interconnected systems, you begin to see how parts of the system rely on specific mechanisms. Building roads relies on the current local and central government’s plans on road schemes. Just like a house, a road is not just a road. Some social housing tenants might not have a car. Therefore, roads should ideally include a cycle path and a bus or tram lane.

This then feeds back into the design of a new housing scheme. We can build bike sheds. Freed up space from parking spots could be used for communal play areas. Houses could be built in a circle facing the communal play area. Some social housing tenants might struggle to afford their own white goods, such as a washing machine. Why not create a communal space with a washroom, a kitchen, a dining room and a meeting room that can be used for all sorts of purposes – watching a film, working out, arts and crafts? You create housing AND a community, connected to amenities. It works for many community housing schemes such as Lilac, why not for social housing schemes as well?

Social housing providers understand the webs in which people move in and operate. Job clubs; neighbourhood officers doubling as counsellors; language or maths classes; working with local police, health services and social services. The social housing sector already understands housing as a connected web. None of us need to be convinced of this message. I think what the sector can do is lobby local and national government. Ask them to consider housing as part of a system. When new roads are built, we also want a bus stop and a cycle lane. Funds allocated to new builds should include communal facilities, play areas, and bike shelters. Existing housing needs to be upgraded using a holistic approach to retrofit. We do not have to reinvent the wheel here. As Maureen said in her comparison in SHM between UK and Germany, we can learn from what others have done.

Last and certainly not least, we should look at some of the ideas proposed by Alastair Parvin on rethinking land. Which of his proposals make most sense for social housing organisations to adopt? Should we work closely with local authorities on ideas such as a fairhold? Are there any novel ways we could look at land and work together with other organisations to ensure we create healthy and sustainable neighbourhoods? I think the future looks bright for social housing. We have a lot of research and information available to us to make sound holistic decisions. We just need to ensure that we are all on the same page and make sure that our voices are heard where they need to be heard.

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