7 Lessons On Diversification In Social Housing

The International Social Housing Festival celebrated the long tradition of providing affordable housing all over the world, but aimed at tackling the most prevalent challenges social housing is facing right now and in the future. The festival was organised around three central themes: migration to cities, segregation and in equality, and diversification. As one of the festival reporters we took the diversification route. Probably the festivals most happy theme. While migration is something that happens and that we have to deal with, segregation on the other hand is something we actively try to solve. Diversity, however is something we embrace.

Article by Joop de Boer, ISHF team

There seems to be a variety of different reasons for our collective diversification enthusiasm: First of all, everyone likes diverse cities. Diversity keeps our urban environments lively, exciting and stimulating, it embodies an almost esthetic urban characteristic that we apparently love collectively. Secondly, we strongly believe in equal chances for everyone which means we are striving towards accommodating everyone in an environment that fits their specific lifestyle, no matter what someone’s background, age or incomes requires. Thirdly, housing is a huge and complex issue. Which means we need a wide variety of design and policy solutions to solve this major urban issue. Throughout the week at the festival, we excavated seven important lessons on achieving diversity through social housing.

1. Flex To Adapt

We need to be flexible. Not only in the way we think of social housing, but also in the way we provide it. We need to acknowledge that people, as the inhabitants of their houses, are actually better at building houses than architects are. They know what they want and need in a house. This is a lesson we took from Alfredo Brillembourg’s keynote speech during the opening summit. He introduces the idea of “incremental compliance”, the capacity of a home to grow and to be adapted to different needs of its tenants. Most of the important lessons concerning flexibility come from the global south, where many people live in slums and have always been occupied with building and expanding their homes on their own. Alejandro Aravena, an award-winning Chilean architect, has embraced this principle with his so-called “half houses”. By constructing the concrete shell of a middle-class house, but leaving one half of it empty and for the inhabitants to finish, they could gradually increase the value of their house and thus use it as a tool to overcome poverty. Another example of incremental compliance is Torre David, an unfinished and abandoned high-riser in Caracas in Venezuela. The building has been transformed into what some call a “vertical slum” – it is informally used and occupied by more than 700 families who live and work in the building.

2. Let People Design

As mentioned before, engaging people in the process of building and designing is of utmost importance. The Housing Laboratory workshop at the festival organized by architecture agency Studio Sputnik provided such an opportunity for the participants. A lifesize model with movable walls and furniture allowed for everyone to create their own ideal living space – and thus respond to the individual needs of each and every tenant. Letting people design their own ideal floorplan leads to important insights for housing associations on how people actually use their home versus how housing professionals expect them to use it. The underlying message is probably even more profound. Don’t see tenants as housing clients but as participants in making good social housing.

3. Support DIY Groups

Many people dream about creating a perfect living environment together with others. They look for like-minded people and start co-housing groups. These are a great asset to social housing and should be embraced fully and supported with professional help and financial loans. These groups come up with pilots and experiments, that inspire future communal living projects. Sharing facilities should not only be seen as something that students do out of sheer necessity, but as a chance to bring people together and create a sense of community in social housing blocks. It actually solves societal issues like loneliness and a lack of sense of community. However, it seems to be complicated to create these niche housing solutions and there’s a high ‘mortality rate’ of co-housing groups. Could social housing associations help them over the finish line?

4. Think Small

Scarcity is one of the biggest issues in urban housing. A solution could be to make smaller houses which still provides the same quality of life, just on less square meters. It has become a major trend in housing to live small, but cool. These new living arrangements are increasingly popular among students and young urbanites. They wish to be more flexible in housing and not to be tied to a fixed set of living arrangements, like mortgages. Take this as a chance to redistribute the total housing space that we have – if some choose to live small, bigger apartments can be used for families again.

5. Right To Collectivity

We’re heading towards an ‘epidemic of loneliness’, says Eddy Adams in one of the festivals sessions. The way we build cities and housing for elderly doesn’t activate community and belonging. In a diverse city new housing concepts should address this issue. The right to privacy has always been considered one of the most important factors when it comes to housing. Next to that we should also introduce a ‘right to collectivity’. Humans are inherently social beings and we all share the need to belong. This also taps into a new lifestyle trend among young people. That like to live in a more collective way again. New collective housing projects and co-living spaces pop-up in rapid pace. So why not combine this trend in co-living and shared housing with the needs of elderly. Initiatives like combining housing for the elderly and cheap housing for students, have the power of bringing people of different generations together and let them engage with each other in a communal setting.

6. Block-Based Mixology

When we worry about neighbourhoods, we mostly worry about specific housing blocks developing in the wrong way, says Leon Bobbe (director of housing association De Key) He therefore looks towards solutions on the block level – and believes in combining groups with each other to prevent negative developments and foster contact between them. In blocks that already cause problems he successfully experiments with injecting households that spread another energy. But also in newly build blocks this works. Startblok Riekerhaven, which is a housing block in Amsterdam specifically meant for refugees who recently received their residence permit and Dutch students, is a great example of block-based mix that increases contact between groups of people and diversifies and enriches the neighbourhood as well.

7. Build Cities, Not Housing

Housing is not a stand alone issue. to solve urban problems we have to look beyond the boundaries of our housing blocks and turn our attention towards the context that housing is embedded in. Social housing should look at links with health care, education and mobility to create healthy urban conditions, for both the city and its inhabitants. In addition it’s not unthinkable that in around 10 years, housing association will not only own your house, but also your car. They will organize your electricity bill and organize personalized fitness programs. Housing association will not provide a fixed house as a main product, but a flexible subscription to great urban living.

This article is part of a special series in which Pop-Up City reflects on the first edition of the International Social Housing Festival taking place in Amsterdam between 13 June and 21 June 2017 in Amsterdam.

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