A Parallel Option: Social Housing (Part 3)

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Avoid the pitfalls of top-down institutions with single points of failure. That’s another lesson from the Strong Towns mindset. Social housing doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) just one thing.

Social housing will work best if it grows from an eclectic mix of bottom-up experiments and opportunistic solutions. A local or state housing agency doesn’t have to strictly do new construction: It can bring existing buildings under its umbrella, by buying them outright or through some sort of funding agreement.

This can include various forms of “social” ownership that aren’t just a single government entity, such as resident-run co-ops and community land trusts. It could include models borrowed from overseas, such as Germany’s baugruppen, a form of housing co-op that is designed and developed by the residents themselves (with some public financing and tax advantages). Even where a single agency owns a lot of housing units, decisions about governance, maintenance, etc. should be made at the lowest (i.e. closest to the actual residents) level that is feasible.

A successful social housing portfolio ought to consist of many separate buildings on scattered sites. Some can be larger than others, of course, but one of the great failings of public housing in American cities has been the tendency of large campus-style projects to become pockets of dysfunction, physically disconnected from their surrounding neighborhoods. Just as private-sector development ought to integrate with the fabric of what is around it, so should public-sector (or public-supported) development, even at the cost of sacrificing some of the scale economies of doing a big megablock development. This is in keeping with the Strong Towns approach of elevating resilience of result over efficiency of execution.

A public entity is still needed to coordinate the subsidy stream that makes social housing “social,” and that entity probably needs to be a minimum size to be viable and self-sustaining. (For example, cross-subsidy across a portfolio of many apartment buildings, some in wealthy areas and some in poor areas, is much easier to accomplish than cross-subsidy within one apartment building.) But none of this implies that the answer is creating the public-sector analogue to Del Webb or Lennar or Greystar.

Social Housing Built by Many Hands

The core Strong Towns vision for housing is a market where the bar to entry to provide housing (that is, to be a developer) is low, where the feedback loops between housing supply and demand are quick and responsive, and where the benefits from sitting on land and speculating are restrained. Within that context, the private market can serve a broader range of housing needs (though not everyone’s) than it does now, as it has in the past. Also within that context, various types of social housing can be built and integrated successfully.

And if you’re someone who thinks public-sector entities should own and operate half or more of the housing stock, as in, say, Vienna, rather than a tiny fraction, that is compatible with this vision, too. The key is to understand that many of the determinants of success—in terms of what land use looks like and how it’s regulated—are actually the same.

But that vision doesn’t describe or dictate one silver-bullet program. And if you’re looking for one, you might be waiting a long, long time.

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