'My Dream Home' Versus the 'Property Ladder'

Such programmes capitalise on the emotional highs and lows in the search for a dream home, the fantasy of relocation, the horror of renovation and thrill of a property windfall. But the underlying dramatic tension rests in the complex and competing values implicit in ‘house’ and ‘home’. Alongside food, shelter is a fundamental human need, with ‘households’ the building block of society, accommodated within homes, which in turn structure local neighbourhood units and contribute to the wider urban form. Our earliest memories, our foundational experiences, are in some ways contained within childhood homes, whilst our tastes, sense of identity and belonging are often reflected in the choices we make about where to live.

Economically, housing represents a large part of our expenditure, wealth and capacity to acquire more resources. Investing in housing offers a significant source of ongoing revenue and/or opportunities for major capital gain. Opportunities for education and employment are at least partially determined by our address. The status conferred by a particular suburb or type of residence means that homes are also a ‘positional’[1] good as well. These multiple social and economic meanings of ‘house’ and ‘home’ help explain why residential development—perhaps more than any other process of urban change—has become such a complex and problematic area of city and regional planning.

Across most of the world—from the wealthy ‘superstar’ cities of London and New York to the rapidly growing megacities of Asia and Latin America—housing provision and access is an intractable urban problem (UN-Habitat 2015). Contemporary pressures seem far more complex than those faced by the modern town planners of early twentieth century Britain and America, who sought to optimise the physical design and layout of new homes and civic buildings in harmony with the natural landscape (Hall 1996). Nor is the housing problem purely about the quantity of new dwelling units, which was the challenge facing Europe, Britain, the USA and Australia in the post-war baby boom of the 1950s, or more recently, the phenomenal economic growth and urbanisation of nations in the developing world. According to UN-Habitat (2015), around a quarter of the world’s urban population endures inadequate housing conditions. Whilst problems of slum housing, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation remain concentrated in the developing world, severe affordability problems plague the so-called richest nations as well. More than 11 million households in America pay more than half of their income on rent (JCHS 2015) whilst in England a fifth of all households (4.8 million) reside in dwellings which fail the ‘decent homes’ criteria (Department for Communities and Local Government 2015).

Thus, housing problems in the new millennium reflect a complex array of economic, social and environmental conditions, and deepening inequalities in access to housing and to housing related wealth. In some nations—and particularly those which are a focus in this book— these problems are legacy effects of twentieth century forms of urban development. For instance, inner city slum clearance initiatives of the 1950s-70s and construction of high-rise public housing estates in many Western nations led to social isolation and spatially concentrated disadvantage (Hall 1996). In the USA and Australia, the spread of low- density car dependent suburbia for the home owning middle class has contributed to a growing mismatch between the locations of homes and work, affecting labour force participation, and triggering health and environmental problems associated with car dependency, traffic congestion and air pollution (Brueckner and Zenou 2003; Forster 2006; Frumkin et al. 2004).

An increasing trend towards housing investment and second home ownership amongst higher-income earners (Paris 2009)—now popularised by the property buying television phenomenon—is countered by falling home ownership rates in many nations of the Western world, particularly in the years following the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) (Forrest and Hirayama 2015). For instance, owner occupation rates fell from 69.2 % (2004) to 63.4 % (2015) in the USA (Callis and Kresin 2015);

from around 69 % (2007) to 64.8 % (2014) in the UK; and in Ireland, from 80 % (1991) to 71 % (2014) (Eurostat 2015).

In its Global Housing Strategy UN-Habitat (2013) sets out a framework for responding to a series of problems ranging from the financial crisis and global recession to growing socio-spatial polarisation in urban areas, which have been exacerbated by: “insufficient urban planning to scale”, a “lack of coordinated housing policies ... to ensure the availability of diverse, equitable, adequate and sustainable housing options”; and .“prevailing zoning regulations and policies that favour single home- ownership solutions over other tenure modalities” (UN-Habitat 2013, p. 3). Thus to UN-Habitat, urban housing problems seem to reflect both inadequate planning as well as too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of regulation, leading to a chronic shortage of affordable housing and a mismatch between the location of low-cost homes and income earning opportunities. Overlaying these challenges are the profound environmental changes and risks arising from global climate change, and the need to deliver more environmentally sustainable forms of housing and urban development.

  • [1] ‘Positional’ goods are valued, in part, by their relative desirability to others, in addition to utilityvalue (Frank 2005).
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