The security and dignity of a good-quality home is one of the most important and liberating qualities in society. For people experiencing financial or social pressures, many countries offer some form of public or social housing system. While there is no fixed definition for social housing, it often involves the design, construction, and allocation of housing by government authorities, or non-profit organizations.
Just as social housing systems differ throughout the world, so too does the architecture of social housing. A government’s outlook or priorities for social housing provision, which can differ between capacity, cost, sustainability, or urban regeneration, all contribute to unique responses by architects and designers. Below, we identify six systems from countries around the world, complete with architectural examples.
In the Belgian system, social housing is provided for people on low incomes, whether they be individuals or families. For 40 years, the social housing system has been decentralized to the country’s three regions: the Brussels Region, Flemish Region, and Walloon Region. Social housing can be provided by municipalities, public companies, co-operatives, or non-profit organizations.
Belgium has organized its social housing stock under two categories. “Social” housing caters for people in social or financial hardship and is allocated based on a combination of income levels and priority groups. Meanwhile, “intermediate” housing is allocated to people in less precarious situations, but who are still in need of public assistance. Approximately 6.5% of the Belgian housing market consists of social housing, totaling over 280,000 units.
In the last 30 years, Chile has made long strides in proving access to affordable housing. The OECD points out that the proportion of families and individuals who have no housing, or sub-standard housing, fell from 23% in 1992 to 10% in 2011. However, poor quality and overcrowded housing remains an issue compared to international standards, as does residential segregation in urban areas.
Provisions for affordable and social housing in Chile includes subsidies to low and middle-income households, rent-to-buy schemes, and rental subsidies. Programs such as the Subsidios para Acondicionamiento Termico de la Vivienda also offers housing regeneration subsidies for households in the first three quintiles of the income distribution, including repairing roofs and walls, and improving energy efficiency.
In the Netherlands, social housing, known as “sociale huurwoningen,” is offered to citizens at a subsidized rate. Those living in subsidized homes pay no more than €710.68 per month, with the government contributing the remainder. Rent controls mean that prices cannot rise by more than 4.3% per year. Housing is administered through a points system, which determines the value of the property the applicant will live in, and hence their rent. Oversight of the system is carried out by the Centraal Fonds Volkshuisvesting (central housing fund).
Housing associations, known as “toegelaten instellingen,” manage social housing in the Netherlands, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, monitoring graffiti, preventing crime, and maintaining public facilities from playgrounds to car parks. They manage over 2.4 million units nationwide.
In Mexico, housing for low-income groups is provided by self-help housing, where families play a major role in building their own homes, or social housing. In the last ten years, several programs have been introduced to aid social or affordable housing. The “Tu Casa” and “Vivienda Rural” programs provide grants for new home construction, purchasing of existing homes, and home renovations.
In 2007, the “Esta es tu Casa” program was introduced to aid households whose incomes were less than five times the minimum wage for home purchase, construction, or improvement. The funds are released through executive bodies such as banks, housing institutions. Social housing production is now incorporating priorities such as sustainability, and re-densification in the inner-city.
The Spanish Constitution guarantees the right to housing to Spanish citizens. As the country faces a housing crisis, rent increases are only permitted every five years and tied to the inflation rate.
Unlike many European countries, Spain’s housing stock is almost entirely owner-occupied, with 95% of rental units owned by individuals, rather than institutions. This has filtered to the social housing system, where a high number of social houses are given on freehold terms, rather than subsidized rental schemes.
Social housing in the United States often takes the form of “Subsidized housing” administrated by federal, state, and local agencies. Public housing is priced below market rates, with federal programs often offering monthly rates at 30% of the household’s income. More than 1.2 million households as classed as public housing throughout the country, managed by 3300 public housing associations.
Eligibility for public housing in the United States is based on annual gross income, citizenship or immigration status, or allowances for the elderly, persons with disabilities, or families. While local Housing Associations administer social housing, the ultimate responsibility rests with the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 17, 2020.