Housing used to be a basic instinct. As civilization evolved, we developed an understanding of how to house our families, how to keep them safe and warm, and how to build civil society through collectively forming great neighbourhoods that were socially diverse an inclusive. We built millions of homes that we still value today. Millions of homes built by thousands and thousands of builders. Homes that have endured over time. We learned to do this through trial and error. We experimented. We made mistakes. We just got better at doing it.
Housing was never the domain of government. People did it. It is only in the past three generations the government felt it was their responsibility to solve the problem, – a problem that never existed. Ever since the mid 20th century, governments have shown the way. Let’s build a new town. Let’s build lots of shiny new things in places where people do not want to be. Let’s see the house is a machine for living. Let’s call it a garden city again. Or, mass housing will solve people’s problems. All we need is a cookie cutter solution so let’s find a tech fix so we can build more. This was the spirit of times. So, why have we done it this way?
Politicians throughout the world have seen housing as a bargaining tool. Promise people houses and they will be on your side. Don’t deliver and you face the consequences. Caught between the rising graphs of urbanisation and the falling graphs of government effectiveness, there are few countries that believe they can fully deliver on this aspect of its citizens needs. Unless it is at the basic level of survival where people take responsibility for housing themselves, the crisis deepens. Even in booming London, the predominant new housing type is the unfit, unserviced back garden shack. Here they do things despite government, not because of it.+
Many governments have just given up. They have passed the buck. Let the private sector solve the problem that never existed. This means flogging off all our publicly owned land to the big players. They can deliver, but on our terms. They can deal with our difficult social issues. Pile them high and we can take a slice, the politicians say. We now see housing as a numbers game. Others still see housing as a right. Governments must sort it out. Without doubt, using the ideas, tools and tactics they have today, they are doomed to failure.
So why then do we still have a housing crisis in most parts of the world?
The fact is, housing was never a commodity; it was an essential to life. The real estate model was never going to work for all. Pile on the layers of well-intentioned regulatory requirements that basic housing needs to meet at the outset and we just cannot afford it. They say that as long as it is well designed it will be OK, but go back to first principles all the time and the cost just gets worse and worse. We have stopped learning.
The beauty of housing is that it can be reduced to the smallest unit of delivery -a single building, a terrace of buildings, a street of buildings. In some places housing can be reduced to a brick. One piled on another builds a city. This gives rise to the potential that many people can do it if the essential conditions are put in place that will give a place the chance of urban life – the networks, boundaries, generators, defaults and catalysts – that will enable bottom up growth and change. This does not mean a headlong plunge into self-build, although this could be part of it. We need to redefine the private sector to include all of us, not just the big guys. It means opening up the market to the widest possible opportunities, making it work equably for the individual, the collective and the corporate.
People alone will always struggle to deliver housing that is why we need more effective government: not to solve the problem, but to release the potential. We need in David Crane’s words, ‘a city of a thousand designers’ or even ‘ a city of a hundred thousand builders’. We certainly need ‘a city of a million small sites’, and we need to protect and incentivise their smallness. We need to think Massive Small, not think Big!