Key Features of the Housing System

As introduced in Chap. 1, the housing system comprises a series of intersecting features and characteristics. We proceed by introducing the social and economic significance of housing before discussing the ways in which housing is ‘produced’ and ‘consumed’, and the dynamic operation of the housing market over space and time. Finally, we consider the types of market failure which apply to housing and the implications for policy intervention.

Social Significance of Housing

It is clear that housing has a social significance which distinguishes it from many other commodities. At an individual level, if one moves to a new city to take up employment or study, the first priority is normally to find a place to live. Similarly, most people would agree that basic shelter is the (or one of the) most basic human needs. For example, a recent study of ‘Destitution in the UK’ found that amongst the things which ‘are absolutely essential for people to be able to live’, 96 % of adults agreed that ‘shelter—somewhere to sleep’ was in that category, more than any other item (e.g. food, clothing); and 58 % agreed that going without somewhere to sleep for even one night constituted ‘destitution’ (Fitzpatrick et al. 2015a, pp. 35-36). Similarly in a 2012 UK survey, 94-96 % agreed that ‘heating to keep home adequately warm’ and ‘a damp-free home’ were things which ‘were necessary and which all people should be able to afford and should not have to do without’, again the highest scores of any items included in the survey (Lansley and Mack 2015, pp. 17-20).

So it is not just the existence of housing but also its physical quality and condition which matters, and this is because of the long-appreciated connection between housing conditions and health. As outlined in Chap. 2, unhealthy living conditions in nineteenth century cities in

Britain, Europe and the USA were a primary trigger for public campaigns and programmes to create, rebuild and manage healthier cities through regulations and standards that improved the physical condition of housing. In the twenty-first century, there is renewed interest in the connections between housing, the associated built environment and health, for example, by supporting walking and other physical activity, children’s play, informal social interaction, or feelings of security, place attachment and general well-being (Dempsey et al. 2009, 2011).

Whilst these themes emphasise continuing public interest in the social dimensions of housing and its neighbourhood setting, it is also worth reflecting on their importance for private consumption activities and markets, notably the real estate market. Lifestyle choices revolve in part around type and location of housing—city centre loft apartments versus suburban family home versus country cottage. They also bring in train a set of associated decisions, such as the need for car ownership. A house is also (potentially) a home, and is always embedded in a neighbourhood with particular social characteristics and reputation, with particular physical amenities, local shops and services, and schools. To buy or rent a house is a market transaction, but it commits the consumer to a package of ‘local public goods’. To put the point another way, housing is inextricably linked to neighbourhood and urban setting, and planning is the public policy tool through which we manage neighbourhoods and urban settings.

This then helps to explain why certain issues about the social composition of neighbourhoods are recurring themes in academic and policy literature about housing and planning, as outlined in Chap. 2. In addition to concerns about the early use of planning codes to design out lower- income groups through restrictive zoning mechanisms (Fischel 2004), there has also been much concern about ‘gentrification’, the process whereby higher-income/status groups tend to colonise newly favoured or redeveloped areas, and displace lower-income residents and break up their established, supportive communities (Glass 1964; Smith 1996; Atkinson and Bridge 2005). There is further concern about attempts to make such communities exclusive and excluding, through ‘gating’ and security measures. Conversely, public policy in a number of countries increasingly seeks to promote ‘mixed communities’, for a range of motives. This is partly a counter to the segregating tendencies of the market, on grounds of territorial or environmental justice or following the mantra of countering ‘social exclusion’ (Hills et al. 2002; Pierson 2002), partly to promote physical urban regeneration harnessing market investment, and partly to promote a vision of ‘social sustainability’ which emphasises mix and diversity (Dempsey et al. 2009; Forrest and Kearns 2001).

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