More houses, better housing welfare?

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For decades, people have been struggling to secure a place to live in big cities. It is not simply because of housing shortages, but also because our housing system often is unfair.

A story of tenants in Uppsala, Sweden

It was June in 2018. I joined a field trip to municipal housing in Eriksberg district in Uppsala, Sweden. It was a half-day programme during a housing research conference. The European Network for Housing Research organised it. When I saw this event, I immediately signed up. It was definitely a good learning opportunity. Sweden is well known for its good government housing programmes. Under soft sunlight in the middle of the day, we arrived at the field visit site, not far from the city centre. The modern design apartment blocks were in peaceful neighborhoods with full of green and open spaces. There were also good community centres and childcare facilities. Indeed, Sweden deserved their high reputation for government housing.

A field trip to municipal housing, Eriksberg, Uppsala, Sweden (28 June 2018)

“My happiness didn’t go long. It was only a 3 month dream”.

We had a chance to listen to the experiences of a resident. She moved in this housing a half year ago. “I was so happy to find this place. It was perfect. The rent is affordable, there is enough open space outside for my kid, and the little forest just behind of my block was so perfect”. But, she started telling another story with a bit of a quiver in her voice. “My happiness didn’t go long. It was only a 3 month dream”.

Over her residential area, there has been a plan for urban renewal and redevelopment. The Municipality has discussed the plan for a long time. But only recently, she learned about it. Nobody informed her about it when she moved in. She had to struggle to pull out more detailed information from the government. The project will clean the trees and lovely forests around the blocks. She wanted to know how her neighbourhoods would be changed. Most importantly, whether the rental fee would increase. “One day, my neighbour shared a leaflet. An urban renewal plan over here…I realised, the municipality sent it only to homeowners. The tenants like me were totally excluded!” She’s now organising other tenants, setting up an association to claim their rights, and to secure her place to live.

The tenant explains the issues in Eriksberg

“One day, my neighbour showed me a leaflet. An urban renewal plan over here… I realized, the municipality sent it only to homeowners. The tenants like me were totally excluded.”

Eriksberg Municipal housing, Uppsala, Sweden

In Eriksberg, 2,400 dwellings are to be built during the coming years. The local centre is to be refurbished, and local infrastructure expanded. The tenants are worried about their living costs – will rent increase in the process? In other parts of Uppsala, rents have increased by up to 60% during similar renewal projects. Perspectives of environmental concern, diversity, green space, traffic and the right to stay in place are additional issues in the ongoing debate.

Policy indicators do not capture an unfair housing situation

Yes, something was going wrong in Uppsala. Surprisingly, experts and policymakers hardly take into account this unfair situation for evaluating housing policy. Whenever you hear any news about housing, you will frequently hear: “housing shortage”, “falling/rising housing price”, or “new apartments to be built”. Or, if you are a bit interested in the news of the global south, “one out of three people in cities are living in slums”. The numbers, physical conditions and prices of housing have been key indicators to define housing problems and policy outcomes. And additionally, how satisfied people are with their houses.

Based on these indicators, the experts make a decision and have an influence on your efforts for securing a place to live. This means, the policymakers and experts have little or no motivation to improve other conditions, such as the tenant’s situation in Eriksberg. Can those indicators tell whether people are living well, and in a stable way? How much can they tell us about the fair opportunities the people have for securing a place to live?

Some examples: how the current indicators are lacking to tell about unjust outcomes

How the current indicators of housing policy are lacking to tell about unjust outcomes?  Let’s imagine a housing project that perfectly meets the current policy indicators. Enough houses are produced. The houses have good physical conditions in terms of floor areas, windows, housing utilities, gardens, and balconies. They are also green areas nearby. The purchase and rent prices are affordable. A high percentage of residents report that they are happy with their house. This project will be evaluated as a good housing policy outcome improving the residents’ well-being.

However, we can easily think about scenarios that people are still insecure and in unfair situations.
What if she is renting the house but there is no proper system for protecting tenants’ right? She becomes vulnerable to the landlord. She may be forced to accept any unfair conditions from the landlord and endure violations of her dignity.

What if she cannot have a joint tenure title over the house, even if she also invested together with husband? She may have to depend on her husband for her pension. Or she has to be obedient to her husband for securing a place to stay even if she does not want to. She has lower levels of freedom to choose the life that she values.

The project implementer may say, ‘We have benefited many people. It is a successful project.’ What if only those who can easily mobilise lump-sum money are benefited from this project? If there is such inequality in the access to the newly built housing units, can we say that it was a successful project simply by referring to the total number of housing units and benefited households?

We need to discuss more than ‘nice houses’

“Central to analysis would be a focus on identifying how and where unjust outcomes are currently occurring.

Mike Berry (2017:308)

Ethics and justice are not properly addressed in the housing policy discussion. Professor Mike Berry, a leading scholar of urban studies and public policy at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, criticizes that public policy discussions have neglected ethical issues. Housing policy is no exception to this. He highlights “Central to (policy) analysis would be a focus on identifying how and where unjust outcomes are currently occurring”. 

We have long been focused on building more houses, more possession of houses and nicer houses to live. Where is the space for ethical issues and injustice in our housing welfare? Are you living in a fair housing system? In recent years, public policy researchers are increasingly discussing how to bring the ethical issues to the center of public policy and economics. Applicable indicators are being examined. What about among housing policy researchers? Unfortunately, the discussion is not yet proactive.

Bringing ethics to the centre of housing policy discussion

“The nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the growing distance between economics and ethics.”

Amartya Sen (1987:7)

Amarty Sen, the professor at Havard University and the Nobel Prize winner in economic science, criticizes “the nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the growing distance between economics and ethics”. The logic of modern economics has heavily influenced the deep underlying perspectives of housing policy. Material and monetary aspects of housing have been at the centre of the discussion. There has been a strong belief that ‘more wealth and more commodities lead to better life’. Not only policy makers and experts, but also the majority of citizens has had such belief.

The tenant’s story in Uppsala and the list of possible unfair scenarios in a housing project are telling us that we need to be concerned with more than just material and monetary issues. Many people are struggling with finding stable and adequate housing. This cannot be solved only by building more houses. This leads to a strong need for moving our attention to our sense of fairness, inequality and justice. Housing experts have to look into how we can advance justice in our housing system. Citizens also have to be aware of this issue and claim proper actions of decision makers.

Amartya Sen, capability and social justice | Amartya Sen, an economist and philosopher, has introduced the concept of ‘capability approach’. According to this approach, policy outcomes should be evaluated in terms of the capabilities of their citizens, such as mortality rate and literacy rate. Such capabilities create opportunities for people to lead their lives in a way that they value, instead of people being forced to live in a certain way. He therefore argues that we should not simply focus on commodities and opulence such as GDP or income-per-capita. This approach has formed one of the major schools of studying poverty, human development, inequality and social justice.