The (r)evolution of social housing

Social housing might not be the most sexy topic. But the topic is hot, according to moderator Eddy Adams during this year’s annual policy conference of Housing Europe. The temperature levels outside matched the enthusiasm on stage. Organized as part of the International Social Housing Festival, set inside one of Amsterdam’s most notorious night clubs, the conference brought together key people of Europe’s (social) housing sector. And the opening message was clear: social housing is back on the agenda. While cities are witnessing increasing inequalities and segregation; governments, organizations, the media and the public are recognizing the need for action. But how?

Article by Joris van den Boom, ISHF team

While the host country, the Netherlands, can look back on more than a century of social housing, it has not been the same for every European country. Going in and out of political fashion in an every-changing environment, the sector has proven to be resilient and survived. How will we shape the future of the sector?

Marc Calon, Housing Europe’s president, stated ‘evolution’ was the key. The evolvement of social housing from mono-functional, homogenous and disconnected ‘islands’, to the recognition of more collective models with high levels of diversity and urbanity. Berlin-based publisher and curator Ilka Ruby pointed out the importance of the human factor in social housing, which became a red line throughout the conference. “A social housing project without social amenities is hardly social”. Humans are social beings, are willing to share with each other and need a sense of belonging to their living space. The succes of collaborative housing models, many growing out of bottom-up initiatives, are convincing, and received a lot of appreciation in the audience. Dr. Rudiger Ahrend confirmed the need for attention for these models. Eddy Adams saw them as perfect answers to the epidemic of loneliness in urban areas, recognizing how housing policy is closely related to other fields like health care.

Enthusiasm in the audience alternated with hesitation and doubt, as new innovative projects and practices were presented. The difficulty of accepting new types of models, of doing things differently, became clear as practicality and economic base were questioned. In most cases answers were indirectly provided by new speakers who shared a fresh perspective. A common theme throughout was the broadening scope of social housing, itself not being an isolated practice. “Built cities, not houses!”. It is not just about providing affordable housing anymore, but about creating livable communities. And about how these are not created by just building social housing. In order to achieve affordable housing, all types of housing types needs to be realized. As University of Amsterdam’s Wouter van Gent stated; we need to be aware of life course dynamics. Housing for young urbanites, a growing group of elderly people as well as more affluent families. A proper balance makes sure there is a place for everyone. And stay realistic about diversity, on what scale is it most desirable? Many people like to live with like-minded neighbors, but enjoy different encounters at the local supermarkt or café.

The conference provided a lot of room for thought and provoked debate on how to keep cities livable for all. Perhaps the most important conclusion: the social aspect is once again central in social housing. People are no longer just users, they are clients, stakeholders or even policy makers. Are we seeing the ‘evolution’ this conference started with? According to speaker Bertrand Bret that is not enough: “It takes a cultural revolution”. Or as Cédric van Styvendael declared: “Social housing will make our cities great again!”

Featured picture: © Elodie Burrillon | http://hucopix.com

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