Everyone working in on social housing will recognize that despite all good intentions and efforts of politicians, activists and even market parties, realization and maintaining of a decent social housing stock is extremely tough. The sector has the stigma of money consuming (and spoiling) real estate projects with vague incentives. And once in use the projects are likely to cause social problems rather than be a solution.
Therefore, organizing the first International Social Housing Festival, which took place in June 2017 in Amsterdam, raised a lot of questions about what on earth we were intending. Why did we need another gathering on social housing and why we dared to call it a festival? Festivals are for rock artists and cello players, not for social housing experts. There is nothing to enjoy or celebrate, go to work!
I must admit that the ISHF was not a regular festival with music and entertainment. It was actually rather serious yet very exciting. After 9 festival days, packed with 45 events, attended by 1400 visitors from all over the world, we managed to reframe the status of social housing. Not as a problem, as a solution. Not as something troublesome, but as something fun and very important. As an essential societal tool to respond to the challenges of our time.
What are these challenges and what did we find? Here are our most important findings.
1 Migration is a permanent state and we better deal with it.
First of all, at our events on housing for the Global South, we learned that migration is a permanent state. This is no rocket science. As Doug Saunders, author of the acclaimed book ‘Arrival Cities’ vividly described at the ISHF opening event: the global population grows with incredible numbers, in particular in developing countries. Meanwhile societies around the world are shifting from agro-industrial to post industrial, knowledge-based, resulting in jobs disappearing in the countryside and popping up in cities.
The result is that people will be on the move. From the countryside to cities. From the one region to the other. And from developing counties to the West -where they often end up in cities as well. People just follow their chances to a better life. Migration to cities is THE societal theme of our time.
When we finally accept that migration is a permanent state, that we better deal with, we should ask ourselves how to accommodate all newcomers? How can housing be the vehicle for emancipation, integration? And in the end for better cities? Read here how cities and social housing providers could respond.
Doug Saunders also emphasized the importance of starting up small businesses and education. And creating truly inclusive neighborhoods. Both in design and management. This got illustrated by a projectvisit to Startblok Riekerhaven in Amsterdam, home to a mix of students and refugees, both somehow starters in the city and seeking for ways to go ahead.
Spatial segregation is not necessarily a problem, but the perspective of low-income groups definitely is.
Often heard: upcoming spatial segregation in cities causes social problems. At the ISHF we learned from professor Maarten van Ham, who co-edited research project ‘Segregation Europe’ , that segregation itself is less bad as we think it is. It might help in solving issues on the scale of the city, like upgrading bad neighborhoods by changing the mix of the housing stock.
But on the level of the individual, policies to actively mix poor and rich people in the city affects the poor in a bad way. Low income groups don’t necessarily benefit from their rich neighbor and the differences in lifestyle make people feel more unhappy about their status. Emancipation of vulnerable groups is more likely to succeed if low income families live in neighborhoods with families that are alike.
The perspective of low income groups is a problem, though. What we do need to care for is better services for low-income quarters. We need the best schools in the worst neighborhoods. We need places that enable residents to develop themselves. We need better sport facilities, libraries.
And particularly this part, adding social services and pograms, is where social housing providers should focus on. We were happy to hear about a variety of programs, for instance about fighting domestic abuse and homelessness.
Emerging diversity among tenants should be recognized and embraced.
In the past decades tenants have become increasingly diverse and housing providers have to meet new and more diverse requirements to accommodate all. Not just because the ethnic background of citizens is becoming increasingly diverse, but also because we got used to more variety in lifestyles and type of household.
For instance single person households make more than 50% of all Amsterdam households. What do these singles really need? Their own bedroom, kitchen, living room, as the building code prescribes? Or might they share facilities like a laudry service, kitchen, or a collective living room?
At the ISHF we enjoyed a very nice workshop, organized by FHS and Legacoop Abitanti, about collaborative housing. We learned about the strong position of tenants boards in Denmark and FHS’ innovative ‘social manager’ who creates stronger communities within housing estates.
And we learned that in the end it’s creating communities, neighborhoods, cities that we should work on and housing itself is just a tool. It’s not the stones, houses, blocks that make cities, it’s the diversity and the strength of people in between.