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housing studies

  Housing is a form of shelter, a refuge, a welfare service, an investment and a gateway to jobs, services and social support. In most societies, housing is available both according to need (in areas where housing provision is an element of social policy) and according to ability to pay (where housing policy is more directly geared to market principles). Housing studies therefore investigate the patterning of both a basic human right and a commodity or capital asset.

Whether as state-subsidized shelter or as a saleable commodity, housing is a spatially uneven resource of variable cost and quality. Its variety stems partly from the process of housing production, which itself reflects the changing fortunes of the dwelling construction industry (Ball, 1988). This unevenness is also a consequence of differences in the extent of maintenance, repair and rehabilitation effected by either private individuals or corporate owners. There is, then, a geography of housing production which is one element of the production of space more generally.

Because qualitative differences in housing character and condition (use value), as well as quantitative price differences (exchange value), vary over space, the geography of housing consumption has a bearing on the study of social inequality (see also inequality, spatial). This geography of consumption can be explored in several ways.

First, housing outcomes may be viewed as a spatial reflection of social differentiation. Access to housing is fundamentally mediated by income and wealth. This is most obvious when examining access to the private sector, which depends on a regular income at a given level to sustain mortgage repayments or market rents in different residential areas. But even in the public sector, where income is supposed to be less important than housing need in mediating access to shelter, economic factors are an important determinant of residential segregation (Clapham and Kintrea, 1987).

Access to housing is also mediated by other qualities in a way which cannot wholly be explained by financial considerations. Direct and indirect discrimination, effected by individuals, institutionalized within housing allocation systems and inherent in the wider organization of society, underpin the gender, \'race\' and health inequalities currently embedded in the organization of residential space (cf. urban managers and gatekeepers). Such discrimination is found both in the market sector (where access to housing finance may be dictated as much by who people are, what they do, and where they live, as by actual ability to pay), and in the public sector (where the principle of need can be compromised by judgements about who deserves what kind of housing, and where: see Smith and Mallinson, 1996).

Watson (1988), for instance, shows how the operation of the housing system in Britain and Australia reflects and reinforces the patriarchal character of such societies by marginalizing those \'non-family\' households which do not reproduce the traditional family form. Working in the USA, Farley (1995) argues that continuing high levels of residential segregation between white and African-American households cannot be explained by income differences and housing costs alone. Work like this testifies to the persistence of discriminatory barriers to open housing in US cities. There are parallels in Britain, where Henderson and Karn (1987) indicate that, in the allocation of public housing, \'racial\' stereotypes become associated with scales of distinction and disrepute which are translated into offers of better tenancies (for \'white\' applicants) and worse homes (for their \'black\' counterparts). In a related vein, Smith (1990) argues that neither the public nor the private sector of the housing system provides adequate accommodation for people with health problems. Despite their position among the \'deserving\' poor, many sick people may be forced into some of the poorest and least healthy homes and, at worst, find themselves disproportionately vulnerable to homelessness.

From this first perspective on housing consumption, where people live — whether in the public or the private sector, or in the most or least affluent neighbourhood — is largely a function of who they are. Groups high in the income or status hierarchy tend to benefit most (in terms of the quality and quantity of their living space as well as in the potential to secure returns on housing investment) from prevailing patterns of housing provision. Moreover, in many countries those who are better off reap most benefits from the system of housing subsidies and tax exemptions.

From a second perspective, housing attainment can be viewed not as an outcome giving spatial expression to social attributes but rather as a resource which itself, in part, determines what characteristics (associated with wealth, status and service availability) residents can acquire. The attainment of owner-occupation is the best example.

Owner-occupation is the dominant, politically favoured and most widely aspired after tenure sector in Britain, Australia and North America. For homeowners in these nations, dwelling locations — in national, regional and urban space — may be a significant determinant of house price appreciation and of dwelling saleability. Thus where people live affects the exchange value of their home. Over a period of time, this determines owners\' ability to make capital gains from their housing investment. The potential to increase personal wealth and social standing through home ownership is therefore geographically uneven.

As a consequence of the differing ability of homes in different locations to hold their price, gain value and store equity, owner-occupation is differentiated and spatially polarized into low- and high-value sectors. Low-income home ownership often denotes a risky investment of limited capital into properties which require high expenditure on maintenance and repair (cf. redlining). Higher-income groups can make a better investment into appreciating homes which provide a store of equity and a source of cheap housing services in old age. Nevertheless, significant housing market instability, as experienced towards the end of the twentieth century in Britain, for example, emphasizes the potential riskiness of owner-occupation for all socio-economic classes. Such risks may be unevenly spread. In the British example, mortgage arrears, repossessions and \'negative equity\' (where mortgage debt exceeds the sale value of the home) were all particularly marked in the south of the country (Dorling and Cornford, 1995).

For all households — owners and renters alike — housing outcomes also have a bearing on access to jobs, services and social support, as well as to a range of risks and opportunities which are themselves unevenly spread over space. For example, poor-quality housing is often a health hazard (Hunt, 1993), a crime risk (Smith, 1986: see crime, geography of) and a financial liability when the costs of upkeep and insurance are considered (Karn et al., 1995). Residential location affects access to health services (see health and health care, geography of), police services (cf. surveillance), reasonably priced shopping facilities, and educational and recreational facilities. Selective access to housing has led to the spatial concentration of disadvantaged households (particularly in the least desirable parts of the stock of public housing). The limited access these locations afford to a range of public and private goods, services and employment opportunities, adds a spatial dimension to the process of social exclusion (Power, 1987). In the USA these processes, especially those relating to a much-debated spatial mismatch between African-American homes and local employment opportunities, are implicated in the creation of a black underclass.

Where people live is not, then, simply a passive product of who they are; it is the factor affecting what they can do and who they can become. Housing attainment is therefore implicated in the structuring of society and in the processes of social reproduction. This occurs through the process of social segregation which reinforces spatial inequalities within tenure sectors; it is implicit in the consumption sector cleavages identified by Saunders (1986) between those able to secure housing in the market place and those reliant on state provisioning (cf. housing class); and it is exemplified in the gulf between those with any kind of permanent home and the growing number of homeless people in virtually all societies in the developed and developing worlds (cf. homelessness).

Because housing outcomes not only reflect but also shape social differences and inequality, a third perspective on the geography of housing can be gained from a consideration of housing policy (see public policy, geography and). Housing interventions can affect both the production and consumption of residential space, and they are a key factor determining (either deliberately or inadvertently) the extent to which housing attainment passively reflects or actively moulds the social structure.

The role and impact of housing policy can be thought of in at least four ways:

Housing interventions may be conceived of as a tool of macro-economic policy. Investment in housing can be made to pump-prime both national and local economies, and to stimulate the construction industry and the finance markets. This may be achieved either directly by state subsidies to dwelling production and to the consumption of public housing; or it may be achieved indirectly through tax exemptions (which effectively allow the state to subsidize the market), or through the manipulation of interest rates. The trend over most of Europe, North America and Australasia in recent years has been towards the latter practice, completing the cycle of commodification, decommodification and recommodification which is discussed by Dickens et al. (1985; see commodity).

Housing policy may be used as an instrument of urban change and as the motor of neighbourhood revitalization. In much of western Europe, for example, area-based housing policies have been a popular alternative to the cycle of slum clearance and redevelopment which once displaced and fragmented inner-city communities. In situ revitalization policies were designed to facilitate the gradual upgrading and renewal of older urban areas without disturbing the existing social fabric. In some areas, the (generally low) level of grant assistance was sufficient to stimulate the socioeconomic changes associated with gentrification. In others it was inadequate to halt a spiral of disinvestment and selective out-migration (by young people and white households). Increasingly the target for area regeneration policies has shifted away from inner cities, especially in Britain, where run-down peripheral estates have become impoverished and isolated. Here, public-private partnerships have been developed to tackle housing and environmental improvements, while other policies attempt to increase the access of residents to training and employment opportunities.

Housing policy plays a part in promoting public welfare and may therefore be seen as an element of social policy (Clapham et al., 1990). This is the area of housing consumption in which the state has a central role, and can therefore use housing provision to meet health needs, facilitate community care, offset income inequalities and so on. However, most developed societies are now engaged in a process of welfare restructuring, so that social well-being is becoming one of the most neglected aims of housing provision (cf. welfare state).

The changing role of social housing is exemplified in Britain, where over a million public dwellings were sold into private ownership during the 1980s. These sales were spatially and socially uneven: better quality homes in suburban locations were bought by better-off tenants, leaving a residual sector housing the benefit-dependent poor and other marginalized groups (Forrest and Murie, 1988). Public housing became the welfare arm of the housing system at the moment it was least suited to perform this role — when it had become restricted in its geography and had undergone a decline in overall quality.

Housing policy is increasingly caught up in debates about environmental justice. In the USA, the location of waste management facilities interacts with the geography of residential segregation so that the burden of toxic contamination is borne disproportionately by poor people (see poverty, geography of), and people of colour (Heiman, 1996). In Britain, plans to accommodate four million new households over the next 20 years has exposed a tension between existing greenbelt policies and residential preferences for ex-urban locations (cf. edge city; private interest development). Low-density ex-urban developments imply car dependency and reduced thermal efficiency in buildings, so that a democratic solution to the housing problem (meeting the locational preferences of new households) conflicts with the principle of environmental sustainability.

To summarize, housing studies contribute to many areas of human geography; there is a link between labour markets and the housing system which has a bearing on the pattern of economic restructuring; housing often forms the leading edge of welfare restructuring and so affects the geography of disadvantage; and as well as providing shelter, housing functions as a home — it has a meaning and a symbolism which insert it firmly into the cultural landscape. In short, even a few examples indicate that studies of housing policy, production and consumption comprise an important interface between geography and the social sciences. (SJS)

References Ball, M. 1988: Rebuilding construction: economic change in the British construction industry. London: Routledge. Clapham, D. and Kintrea, K. 1987: Rationing choice and constraint: the allocation of public housing in Glasgow. Journal of Social Policy 15: 51-67. Clapham, D., Kemp, P. and Smith, S.J. 1990: Housing and social policy. London: Macmillan. Dickens, P., Duncan, S., Goodwin, M. and Gray, F. 1985: Housing, states and localities. London: Methuen. Dorling, D. and Cornford, J. 1995: Who has negative equity? How house price falls in Britain have hit different groups of house buyers. Housing Studies 10: 151-78. Farley, J.E. 1995: Race still matters: the minimal role of income and housing cost as causes of housing segregation in St. Louis, 1990. Urban Affairs Review 31: 244-54. Forrest, R. and Murie, A. 1988: Selling the welfare state: the privatisation of public housing. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Heiman, M.K. 1996: Race, waste and class: new perspectives on environmental justice. Antipode 28 (2) (special issue). Henderson, J. and Karn, V. 1987: Race, class and state housing. Aldershot: Gower. Hunt, S. 1993: Damp and mouldy housing: a holistic approach. In R. Burridge and D. Ormandy, eds, Unhealthy housing. Research, remedies and reforms. London: E. and F. Spon, 69-93. Karn, V., Kemeny, J. and Williams, P. 1985: Home ownership in the inner city: salvation or despair. Aldershot: Gower. Power, A. 1987: Property before people — the management of twentieth century council housing. London: Allen and Unwin. Saunders, P. 1986: Social theory and the urban question, 2nd edn. London: Hutchinson. Smith, S.J. 1986: Crime, space and society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Smith, S.J. 1990: Housing status and the housing system. Social Science and Medicine 31: 753-62. Smith, S.J. and Mallinson, S. 1996: The problem with social housing. Policy and Politics 24: 339-67. Watson, S. 1988: Accommodating inequality: gender and housing. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Suggested Reading Ball, M., Harloe, M. and Martens, M. 1988: Housing and social change in Europe and the USA. London: Routledge. Karn, V. and Wolman, H. 1992: Comparing housing systems: housing performance and housing policy in the United States and Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Kemeny, J. 1992: Housing and social theory. London: Routledge. Morris, J. and Winn, M. 1990: Housing and social inequality. London: Hilary Shipman. Power, A. 1993: Hovels to high-rise. State housing in Europe since 1850. London: Routledge.



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