An open manifesto for housing

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Housing is a human right No, really. It’s in Article 25 Of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There will always be a market for housing, but as a society we have a responsibility to make sure our housing systems work for everyone.

Our housing crises are man-made Many of the wealthiest economies in the world now have a housing crisis, whether it’s a crisis of affordability, sustainability, quality or resilience. That’s not because it’s technologically too difficult for us to provide everyone with a decent home, or even because there’s not enough land. It’s because our housing systems, economies and institutions themselves aren’t working.

Inflating house prices are bad news For years we thought we were living through a ‘housing boom’ and an ‘urban renaissance’. We now realise it was a myth. If your house went up in value, so did your next house. Or it got smaller. At the peak of the housing boom, Britain (the world’s sixth richest economy) found itself building the second smallest homes in Europe. It’s a form of imaginary wealth that actually leaves us collectively impoverished. The only people who really win from price inflation are property professionals, while all of us slowly get more and more buried in debt.

Bad housing costs everyone We all pay the price for bad housing systems, whether it’s through the inflating cost of benefits, hours spent commuting, young people stuck living with their parents, crime, loneliness, poor health or rising care costs as we’re separated from ties of mutual care. Mark Carney, the Chairman of the Bank of England, has called continuously rising house prices the single biggest risk to the UK economy.

.. and it isn’t just a problem of supply and demand You will often hear politicians promise to end housing crisis by ‘building more homes’. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The cause for the housing shortage is not a lack of investment, but a market failure (the wrong kind of investment), and you can’t solve a market failure by just adding more land in the top or building a bigger safety net at the bottom.

One size doesn’t fit all In the 21st century, we no longer need to be dependent on massive, centralised housing systems, building rows and rows of identical boxes for imaginary ‘average’ families.

Form follows finance Housing’s open secret is that what most developers build are not actually designed as places to live, but as financial assets to rent or sell. They may look like facsimiles of ‘a home’, but in core design purpose they are as different as a hot meal and a hedge fund. What most people call ‘badly designed housing’ are often quite good design responses, but to a totally different question (usually, ‘How high can I stack real estate?’).

Developers are almost perfectly designed to never solve the housing crisis By definition, speculative developers see all the things we see as good about housing (quality, sustainability, flexibility, robustness, generosity, innovation) as short term costs, not long term investments, so naturally try to minimise them. Worse still, developers have no incentive to ever actually solve the crisis. No sensible developer is ever going to build so many new homes that prices stop rising. They’ll just say ‘it’s not viable’ (ie. ‘profitable’). That doesn’t make them bad people, it’s just their business model.

“Affordable Housing” is not a thing. If a new development is ‘20% affordable housing’, what is the other 80%? Asking an inflating housing market to deliver on the public good through ‘planning obligations’ makes about as much sense as asking a highwayman to rob you of everything you own on the condition that he cuts you into a small slice of the profits. That model, along with the strange side effects it created such as ‘poor doors’ has now been discredited.

As a general rule, any housing system that treats ‘housing for poor people’ as a separate category to ‘housing for rich people’ is probably not going to end well.

A neighbourhood built by one person is not a neighbourhood There are very few examples of top-down planned cities or estates ever producing socially, economically and culturally successful neighbourhoods. They tend to result in consumer dormitory towns, expensive, antisocial estates, more like permanent hotels for people with mortgages. Though we might love the clarity of a ‘Masterplan’, in fact the places we most love (eg real ‘quarters’ or ‘villages’) tend to have emerged more organically, built by many hands, and many heads within a common framework, then been re-used and re-appropriated. (In short: ‘what Jane Jacobs said’)

Who builds, matters Every major government has a policy to reduce (or reverse) the energy consumption of homes. And yet the only people with a direct incentive to put more insulation in the walls are the people who will be paying the heating bills: us. When we build homes for ourselves they (obviously) tend to be better quality, more sustainable, cheaper and better fitted to our needs. And yet citizens are the one force who we have yet to take seriously as a scaleable force for housing procurement. Notable examples do exist, such as in Freiburg, Germany or Almere in the Netherlands.

‘Give power to the fine-tuners’ — Cedric Price We tend to measure housing quality in £/m2. A better indicator might be ‘Hours of attention/m2’. Give as much ownership (whether legal or social) to the end users. If you’re a designer, open source and vernacular designs are useful because they come with thousands of hours built-in.

Most of the future city is already here In most developed economies new development represents only a tiny percentage of the total housing stock (In London, 0.5%). Urbanist Dan Hill estimates that 80% of most European cities in 2050 already exist. Any housing industry that can’t reach those existing homes to upgrade or replace them isn’t going to work.

‘Housing is not a noun, housing is a verb’ — John Turner We need to design and measure housing not as a collection of physical objects and assets but as a continuous process of providing a social and economic platform for you to get on with your life; shelter, security, delight, access to friends, work, education and care.

Better data will slowly force us to reinvent the way we invest in housing, away from investing in the inflating price of the land beneath our feet, towards investing in homes as platforms for our success. Even in hard numbers that is likely to be worth much more to the economy on the long run.

‘A (home) is not something you finish’ — Stewart Brand Think of Trigger’s broom.

Privacy matters Everyone should be free to dance naked across their living room to embarrassing music, safe in the knowledge that no one will ever know. ‘Smart home’ devices cannot be exempt from this principle.

Open source the best, simplest solutions It makes no sense to be continuously re-solving the same problems again and again. Every citizen, small business and housing organisation should have the capability to easily design & build high-performance, low-energy homes, and/or to make a living by helping others do so. Sustainable, low-cost solutions should be, quite literally, common knowledge. (That, of course, is the aim of WikiHouse)

Development by people, for people Since the industrial revolution, the assumption has been that development is something done-to, not done-by citizens. This democratic deficit in the system leads communities to (understandably) resist new development, because they are being asked to bear all of the costs but share in none of the benefits. No amount of ‘community consultation’ can change those basic economics. Let’s create not just legal rights, but also template development models & tools that make it simple for local citizens, groups & organisations to propose, finance and develop housing for themselves.

We need to re-democratise the planning process The basic elements of our planning system were invented before computers or the internet. Back then, in order to check compliance you needed a manual administrative system, where each person has to produce drawings and ask permission. The first problem with this bureaucratic process is that it’s hugely opaque & uncertain. It would be a bit like a football referee saying ‘I won’t tell you the rules, just ask before you do anything’. The whole thing would quickly descend into shortsighted, partisan arguments and political deals. The second problem is that it places the democratic planning process downstream of the market.

How could we use digital platforms to revive the idea of ‘planning’ in the true anticipatory sense of the word, where ‘we the people’ set the rules in advance — transparently and based on real data and local democracy — from the local to the national scale?

It’s the land, stupid Mark Twain said, ‘Buy land, they don’t make it anymore’. Everyone knows that at the root of the housing crisis is an underlying problem of land scarcity. Of course, actually there’s no scarcity of land (for example, only 2.27% of England is build upon). So when we talk about ‘land’ scarcity, what we really mean is land with planning permission for homes, connected to work & education. On this count, Twain was wrong. Actually we can make new land; the problem is that the land we have made is largely owned by speculators, crowding out those who want to buy land in order to use it themselves.

The Citizen Sector In the 21st century, arguments between ‘the state’ and ‘the market’ no longer make any sense. We will always need both of those things, but they alone are failing. The central question for governments & businesses should now be: ‘ How can we recognise and scale the ‘Citizen Sector’; the long tail of citizens, communities & co-operative organisations providing homes for themselves.

Let’s create a parallel market for land We need to recognise that there is no such thing as ‘the Market’, there are many different markets producing many different kinds of value for different people. The root of our housing crisis today is not a choice between the state and the market, but between speculative and direct housing development. To address this, let’s create a new land use class in the planning system ‘C5’, which creates a separate, parallel market for land that can only be developed and owned by the people who are going to live there. That would provide a route to affordable, sustainable housing that coexists alongside existing state and market models.

‘We need to stop seeing people & homes as a problem to be solved, but as a resource to be unlocked.’ (credit John Turner, Kelvin Campbell) If we treat citizens as consumers, every problem looks impossible. But if we treat citizens as co-producers, the work of government & corporations gets gradually simpler, by providing access to sites, rights, rules & tools.

@AlastairParvin October 2015

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Systems designer. Co-founder Open Systems Lab.

Systems designer. Co-founder Open Systems Lab.