Public housing - utopia of the past or necessity of the future?

By Anna May (Editor)

Amidst a housing crisis that threatens to price many lower income earners out of London, and that has brought levels of homelessness to new records, the ideal of home ownership continues to underpin British housing policy. Public housing (also called social or council housing), publicly owned or subsidised housing rented at below-market rates to individuals with lower incomes, seems to have lost its currency [1]. That there should be a collective responsibility to provide decent and affordable housing for all seems an old-fashioned and utopian ideal [2], and perhaps not affordable anymore . 

This is curious because public housing was once quite successful at alleviating acute housing shortages after the First and the Second World Wars, and has since improved the standard of living for millions of families in Europe. While public housing now evokes images of high-rise tower blocks and failed council estates prone to crime and social problems, it once inspired architectural and design movements that revolutionised domestic life and urban planning. The Berlin Modernist Housing Estates for example [3], built between 1910 and 1930, are now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

What has happened to the idea of public housing in Britain? 

British housing policy illustrates a policy paradigm shift, which has altered the material conditions for public housing, as well as its public perception, both of which have reinforced one another. 

For much of the 20th century, Britain was among Europe’s leaders for providing public housing. In the aftermath of World War I, housing became a national responsibility (‘homes fit for heroes’)  and local authorities received government subsidies to build more than a million homes [1] . After the Second World War both Labour and Conservative governments expanded the stock in public housing [4]. Many of these projects were characterised by small to medium sized buildings, which provided low-income earners with previously unknown amenities such as running water, toilets, and gardens. However, many ‘slum clearances’ and resettlements in the 1950s and 1960s uprooted local communities. An increasing use of cost-cutting high density and high rise structures (the now infamous tower blocks [5]) often exacerbated social problems and led to tenant dissatisfaction . 

Policy discourse and practice changed in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher set out to transform Britain into a ‘property owning democracy’ . ‘Right-to-buy’, the heart of the 1980 Housing Act, allowed council housing tenants to buy their flats at discounts of up to 70 per cent. The policy was highly popular, and has since led to the sale of an estimated 2 million council houses [6]. While higher quality properties sold particularly well, it left less attractive council estates behind, along with tenants of little purchasing power. 
Schemes to encourage the middle class to buy and invest in housing complemented the strategy to increase home ownership. This had important consequences: not only did it lead to a massive reduction in the stock of public housing, but it also split the interests of lower and middle income groups. Of the latter, many have now invested in housing property and depend on rising prices to fund their investments. 

The image of the ownership society has also changed the perception of renting, which is now seen as a temporary stage in one’s life before naturally stepping up the property ladder. Yet, more than a third of all English households are still renting their homes  and for an increasing share of today’s young people home ownership will remain out of reach . Upheavals in the credit market have put low-income home owners at high risk of default, and have limited the potential for further extension of home ownership. With rising house prices, an ever-growing low-wage sector, and increasing requirements to be geographically flexible, the future for many will lie in renting. 

Yet, since the 1980s council housing has become more restricted to low-income families, leaving lower and middle income groups increasingly dependent on the private rental market. The number of English households renting privately has risen from 2.5m in 2003 to 4.5m in 2014 , despite comparatively high costs and insecurity [7]. 

In the short run, more legal rights for tenants and rent controls  would make private renting more secure and affordable. In the long run, however, the private sector will likely not meet the demand for affordable housing. In England alone, there are currently 1.8 million households on the waiting list for public housing [8], an increase of 81% since 1997 . 

Does this call for a return to post-war public housing strategies? 

Housing markets are complex, and the expansion of public housing is not a remedy for all housing problems and the massive social inequalities underlying them. However, a look across borders could offer new perspectives to this discussion. 

First, public housing does not have to mean ‘poor housing’. Although it seems counter-intuitive to provide public housing for more than just the poorest of the poor, countries like the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark [9] (with a share of public housing stock between 20 and 32 per cent) provide public housing both for those in acute housing need, as well as more affluent tenants . Often, income restrictions only apply when moving in, but families can stay in their homes even when their income increases over time or children move out. A greater social mix in public housing can contribute to less social stigma, less social-spatial segregation, and ‘failing’ of housing estates. 

The public housing sector can also benefit those renting privately. A rather extreme, but interesting example, the city of Vienna is one of the largest landlords in Europe. The city either directly owns or controls around 50% of the housing stock through public subsidies [10], which has helped stabilise the housing market and keep private sector rents more affordable than in comparable cities .  

Finally, public housing can provide innovative ways to address contemporary social and urban problems. Already in the first phase of public housing expansion in the inter-war years, many European cities went beyond addressing housing needs and improving housing conditions, and set new standards for interior design and urban development. New ways to combine functionality and aesthetics in housing and design were developed, such as the famous New Frankfurt  and Bauhaus designs . Access to green spaces and natural light became a priority. Most importantly, housing was not seen as an isolated, private matter, but rather a social one. The Viennese municipal housing estates of the 1920s included day care for children, medical services, and public libraries, without disintegrating the estates from the city [11]. 

Although many progressive ideas fell victim to budgetary restraints during the post-war mass expansion of public housing, many European cities have since been active in revitalising public housing. Overall, there has been a move from high density and uniform complexes, towards small, diverse units with a more personal atmosphere , and more integrated public transport networks. Many projects specifically address issues such as social isolation by, for example, bringing different generations together such as young mothers and elderly people . There have also been numerous investments to improve energy efficiency through innovative technologies , both in existing and new public housing projects [12]. 

Most importantly, the top-down planning process and one-size-fits-all approach that characterised most post-war public housing developments are falling out of favour. Many projects now involve tenants in the planning and design of their future homes, and allow participation in decision-making (for example through supporting self-organised housing cooperatives).

But is this affordable? 

The economic crisis has strained budgets all over Europe, making large-scale investment in public housing difficult [13]. In order to reduce spending, many European countries are following Britain in moving away from the ‘brick and mortar’ policy of building public housing, towards directly supporting individuals in renting or buying their homes through housing benefits and tax exemptions.

Yet, these policies come at a price. Spending on housing benefits strongly depends on price developments in the rental market. The current rise in private rents in England translated into a rising budget needed for housing benefits , making them very vulnerable to spending cuts. At the same time, housing benefits do not provide an effective instrument to counteract market developments – let alone to enable forward-looking urban development. With demand for (truly) affordable housing  on the rise, experts suggest that more investment in public housing in Britain might actually be cheaper than housing benefits . There are many ways to fund and provide public housing [9]  and numerous successful European examples of collaboration with non-, limited-, and for-profit actors, exist [14] 

While having a decent home is an important individual aspiration, ensuring that everyone can achieve it is a collective responsibility. Broadening the perception of public housing allows us to discuss more innovative ways of fighting the housing shortage and shaping the cities of tomorrow.

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[14] Perry, J. (2014). Experts encourage more social housing investment as a way to lower welfare bill. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 23 Sep. 2015].