Housing – some sociological determinants


Social Policy – in the field of housing as in any other field of social policy making – is concerned with quality issues of settlement and accommodation.

But behind this is the management of distribution in the vein of assigning social positions in the interest of society rather than individuals.

For this, a modification of the law of the market takes place, sometimes counteracting their bold directedness of maintaining privileges, sometimes strengthening the distributive direction of the so-called free market.

Reference I

A first point of reference is the structuration of society, i.e. the foundation of the living together of people and the integration of society on basis of the mode of production.

To recapitulate we can refer back to the section from Karl Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). There we read:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather form the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

Reference II

This translates into forms of differentiation. Variations in the mode of differentiation allow – according to the main stream of social science – to distinguish three patterns of societal integration, namely




socially and



differentiated societies. However, looking closely at the history of human societies there is good reason to oppose mainstream thinking and to reinterpret social thinking. We arrive at a general pattern of functionally integration in socially-stratified, segmented societies.

Reference III

This taken as point of departure and looking – at least – at current Western European societies we can grasp these as capitalist societies, characterised – despite others – by


The determination of society building around the interest of short term profit of independent, private businesses,


The subordination of basically all social processes and structures under this interest,


The social structuration of society along the lines of classes.


Remember: as foundation of capitalist classes we mentioned the twofold freedom of the working class, namely


the freedom of the individual – the person is not longer owned, as it has been the case in slavery or in a way in feudal societies


the freedom of the individual – the indivividual worker and the working class as such is free from property. He/she/they don’t have anything to sell than their capability to work.

This is combined with the ownership of the means of production of the bourgeois who holds – by this ownership – the means in his/her hands to produce profit.

Thus, the worker is left as being able and being forced to sell his labour power and nothing else as his labour power.



The permanent establishment, disruption and reestablishment of an societal equilibrium. In given capitalist societies this is not least an equilibrium based on market prices.


The “establishment” of the state (historically an actually recent invention – in the form of today’s understanding it dates back only to more or less recent times) as a means of securing a “general interest”, the protection of fundamental requirements of levelling out contradicting interests

Ø       between individuals and

Ø       between individual social groups and classes


The establishment of an unequal power structure, a distribution of power on grounds of capital ownership. In economic, social and political terms this imbalance is

Ø       first the concentration of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie,

Ø       second the centralisation of power in the ruling class.

Even if these are general characteristics, valid for all capitalist societies we find differences between today’s capitalist societies. These differences are not least characterising the system of social policy and – more in general – of the individual welfare state. Besides all limitations of such a classification these different patterns can be grasped under the heading of the different welfare regimes as they are made out for example by Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge 1990).

Housing policy – breaking the iron law of the market

To classify housing policy against this background first and foremost means to characterise it as a means of braking the “iron law of the market”, i.e. the law of an unequal distribution of ownership. Applied to housing this law says that the best houses in the best areas with the best infrastructure are owned by people with the best income.

This iron law is a direct expression of what is generally called the equilibrium of the (free) market. Generally this law is the monetary expression of the power over one’s own life. Here we can refer back to what we know about the process of appropriation, the different capabilities of each individual and of the individual classes/social groups to control their life.

Looking for a guide for the interpretation we can take a general view on empowerment. In all its simplification the following scheme points


at the various features involved and


at the same time at the hierarchy between the different “elements” of society building, the material structure and processes to begin with and the determination and modification of the societal economic basis by moments of the superstructure, not least the relative independence of this superstructure.


(graph from John Friedmann: Empowerment. The politics of alternative development; Cambridge - Oxford 1992)

Sakeve huse for skaeve existenser – this title from a policy measure in Denmark end of the 1990s/early 2000s – characterises well the ambiguous orientation underlying political approaches in this field. Measures in housing are supporting people – and at the same time sustaining the social position they are in.

Of course, the choice of accommodation is to some extent depending on individual preferences, on individual choices and decision – as we know “everybody has the right to sleep under the bridges of Paris”. However, this expression shows as well that this right is, in fact, to a very different degree a real one, depending on actual choice. While the rich can choose, indeed, the poor has in fact no choice at all.

So, what housing policy actually does is twofold.


It sustains the basic structure of the iron law by leaving the question of decision to the ruling class the decision over

Ø       the provision of space for the individual,

Ø       the allocation of space in society, i.e. the distribution of settlement areas,

Ø       the design of mobility structures (requirements and possibilities) and

Ø       thus the social allocation of living conditions.


At the same time – and to do this – housing policy changes the market equilibrium by modifying

Ø       quantity of

Ø       quality of

Ø       price of

Ø       access to housing/houses.

Points of reference for housing policy.

Different forms of and different actors in doing this provide the distinct “housing regimes” as they characterise the national systems – in many cases closely connected with the welfare regimes.

A fundamental distinction has to be made with the direction given by


on the one hand demand, the complete determination of the housing stock on grounds of the law of the market and


on the other hand need, taking the individual and cohabiting individuals as reference and strongly including a socio-historical dimension.

This can be translated into a combination of both, prevailing in our societies and which we can grasp under the term of social demand.

Against this background we can classify – with Burns and Grebler (1977) – the following references for policy intervention.


a static disequilibrium;


a dynamic disequilibrium;


a spatial disequilibrium;


a qualitative disequilibrium.

However, housing policy does not simply “answer immediate needs” and such policy is neither oriented on the individual. Rather, housing policy works along the same functions of social policy as we find them in general.

What matters to a large extent in shaping a national pattern of (housing) policy is the strength and mix of different actors, as we recently recapitulated them. This is by the provision of housing by individual actors (for example cooperatives play[ed] an important role in some countries) or by the specific mix, which might shape as well the shape of individual provisions (e.g. accommodation provided by the market and supplemented by provisions by the state).

Housing policy – historical developments in the European pattern of housing policy

Housing policy – limiting this to the capitalist societies from their emergence to the current state – consists basically of three stages – even if there always had been some overlap and even if basically some functions are simply going hand in hand anyway.

I             The health and legitimacy perspective.

Point of an early departure in the 18th century was the perspective of inadequate housing, inadequacy mainly defined from the societal interest. The actual “equilibrium” of the time had been characterised by overcrowding and bad quality for those people at or near to the lower end. This can be regarded as immediate consequence of the urbanisation and industrialisation, i.e. the concentration of huge numbers of people in a relatively small location, and this under the conditions of extremely limited infrastructural provisions (water supply, waste disposal etc.). As a result of the dysfunctional consequences of the free market – and this had been recognised as the soci(et)al threat – bad health, sometimes spreading like an epidemic and at least the danger of social disruption and explosive charge had been linked to the bad accommodation conditions. Part of this was as well a kind of moral threat in the early years of industrialisation. Multiple occupying of accommodation made family borders – seemingly or real – permeable, thus undermining the moral of the “good citizen” (which was at the time very much coined by Christianity).

The first stage of housing policy is thus characterised by governmental health regulations.

Nota bene: The Christian view of the family was as well crucial for the constitution of the work ethics of capitalism.

II.           The economic supply perspective

A second stage can be dated back to the 1880s when the housing problem developed as an economic issue around the question of affordability. As an – attempted – answer to the incapability of the market to allocate sufficient housing at prices which the “ordinary” people could afford alternatives to the market had been issued. The main approaches had been the following.


the emergence of social housing, i.e.

Ø       the provision of accommodation below market prices or

Ø       the (partial) reimbursement of costs;


price control by the state or state bodies;


the development of “enterprise housing”, accommodation linked to employment in a specific enterprise and by an individual entrepreneur respectively;


the development of cooperatives on a large scale.

All these mechanisms did not change the basic structure of the market as a guiding principle of housing supply nor did they change the principles of allocation, and thus the spatial segregation in essence. On the contrary, in a way they created and maintained the “iron law”. However, at the same time it was only by these measures that accommodation had been made accessible for large groups of the population at all.

III.         The socio-spatial development perspective

One never should forget that these aspects remained valid throughout the years. However, during the two world wars the housing stock had been hugely destroyed. Thus, following the wars housing policy focussed on replacement and – if possible at al – restoration.


Since in many cases huge areas, in some cases literally towns and cities had been whipped out completely,


furthermore, since at the same time the industry had to be build up again


finally, as in many cases this industrial restoration was going hand in hand with the restructuration, i.e. the rearrangement of businesses, the regrouping of sectors and the revaluation of economic activities (it was not long after World War II that Daniel Bell talked in the US of an “organisational society”).

This was somewhat taken as “opportunity” to reshape settlements. In particular the need of new housing on a large scale meant as well a fundamental change of the “idea of settlement”, shifting from the individual home to some forms of “socialising estates”. The historically grown estates had been replaced by apartments settings, built around certain infrastructural and social facilities (actually “built around” meant in many cases that these had been facilities had been planned and built at the same time). As incomplete and in many cases helpless and even counterproductive it was we can speak of a successive establishment of


regional planning,


area planning and later even


community integration.

It has to be considered that this includes profound influences on mobility requirements and opportunities, the relation between settlements, the patterns of work and employment (linked to commuting patterns etc.) and other aspects of immediate social living. As well, we have to be aware of the fact that even the private, individual accommodation is hugely influencing such mobility patterns. To show just one example of the far-reaching effects we can look at the following. Particularly small accommodations, with a poor immediate social environment will strengthen a trend of leisure activities that are not house-bound. This will have a major influence as well on children growing up under such conditions: They will “learn” such patterns of behaviour during leisure time; for them “nature” will likely be something “secondary”, not being seen part of “ordinary life”; they might tend more easily to adapt to consumerism etc. pp. – Of course, there is no immediate and mechanic relation but there are definitely quite simple relations between specific housing patterns and actual and/or later ways of living and “attitudes”

All these developments or “stages” had been markedly reflected in the architecture of the individual accommodation, i.e. the interior plan of the single accommodation, the individual house, the estate and the distribution of a certain types of houses in the region.

Excurse: Housing, building industry and industrial development

The economic development of the building sector is generally seen as an “indicator” for the general economic development. At the same time it is a major factor of developing the general economic development in a given society. This twofold function – indicating and pushing the development – makes it possible that the indication does not solely work on a post-hoc basis. Rather, the indication takes place as prediction. Simplified, we can say that already with emerging wealth investment in buildings takes place. This is


for the sake of industrial development itself, namely to provide the building and transport infrastructure for the industrial development and


as a reflection of the wealth in improvement of the existing housing stock and the building of new houses, sometimes replacing old stock, sometimes answering the new needs.

These new needs can be seen as caused by the need for “qualitative upgrading” and as well by quantitative growth


due to increased numbers settling in a certain area, and


due to a general population growth.

As we saw, the general population growth is in today’s societies more connected with migration rather than being an increase in the number of children per household. Anyway, a synergetic effect of the economic growth in the building sector is the need for equipment in the building sector (raw material, machinery, tools, etc.), later in the furnishings of accommodation. In a third step, the gains from these economic developments, gains in terms of income for the workers in these industries translates into new demand for consumer goods.

Another important factor is the impact of the planning processes – the way buildings, estates, transport ways etc. are build hugely shapes the social relationships – buildings and their relation to each other being seen just as on important framework condition for how people relate in social terms.

Housing regimes – a tentative approach.

To some extent at least, the orientation on housing policy is very much shaped by the general pattern of the welfare capitalism, i.e. the welfare regime. Even if there is no direct link, parallels occur in regard of aims, employed instruments and the degree of decommodification.

Type of welfare Regime



Social Democratic


Means tested assistance

Private insurance backed by state

State = first line of support; high level of benefits


Strengthen market

Strengthen civil society, limit market

Fusion welfare and work, full employment





Ownership of accommo-dation

Private housing, supplemented by social housing, most likely in form of private subsidies for accommodation for those who cannot afford it on the market


Likely a high proportion of private owned accommodation across all social groups, however hugely varying in quality

Private housing with relative strong social housing based on means test supply for those who cannot afford accommodation on the market. Quality of social housing at relative low standards (socio-historical minimum)


Most likely a high proportion of privately owned housing in the middle and upper social segments, whereas lower to middle segments depend on rented accommodations (flats/apartments) and lower to bottom segments depend on social housing

Not defined, hugely depending on historical circumstances. In any case, however, support of “collective forms of housing”, namely apartment building, planning of a (in the widest sense) social infrastructure of estates, even if such estates comprise privately owned, detached  houses.


More or less generous subsidies, including an orientation on high quality

It has to mentioned, however that this “regime” is largely modified by the settlement structure and requirements of the national industry. For example, highly industrialised and urbanised patterns support the development of apartment buildings and with it renting accommodation. An important influx comes as well from the requirements of mobility, as they are not least based on patterns of work-relationships. A highly flexible and mobile workforce is more likely prone to rented, apartment-based accommodation than a “settled” workforce. In connection with this we definitely find differences between social groups – those who are (forced to be or more able to be) more mobile will be more prone to rented, apartment-based accommodation etc. Finally, all this is very much connected with traditions. Once set, a certain pattern of settlement and all other housing/accommodation issues prevails for a long time even if “objective requirements” change. Actually, here we find a typical example of the relative independence of the superstructure which might even shape the economic basis. For example it is possible that a widely spread population, i.e. the lack of spatial concentration forces the industry to adapt to these patterns rather than forcing the settlement structures to change. In this regard especially the respective transition from the agricultural to the industrial economy plays a major role. In Ireland, we find a specific pattern as here the “industrial society” had never been developed to the full. Rather, agricultural economy had been followed by a more service-based pattern. As the latter could be established on an already high technological level commuting, home-based work and part-time work and as well precarious employment structures maintained an already previously existing trend to remote settlement and private house ownership.



Literature – general recommendation on housing:

Housing – The essential foundations; Eds.: Paul Balchin/Maureen Rhoden; London/New York: Routledge, 1998; thereof:

Paul Balchin: An overview of pre-Thatcherite housing policy;

Gregory Bull: The economics of housing;

John O’Leary: Town planning and housing development