It is paradoxical that in spite of economic growth and technological innovation in the developed countries of the world, many people still experience serious housing problems over the course of their lives. These problems are most prevalent for working people unable to secure regular employment and those households who, through illhealth or old age, are reliant on state welfare for their income. Poor-quality housing has important implications. Inadequate housing can undermine good health, impede educational attainment and jeopardise an individual’s employment prospects. At a social level, poor housing has a detrimental impact on the environment, the economy and neighbourhood communities.
Although many people might have housing problems, this chapter confines itself to looking at some of the housing problems that poor people experience in the developed world and the steps undertaken by governments to address the most pressing difficulties. The first part is primarily theoretical and seeks both to untangle the nature of these housing problems and to understand the reasons why governments intervene. The second part of the chapter develops this discussion by providing three case studies to illustrate specific measures adopted by central government, and statutory and local agencies to address acute housing problems. The case studies examine council housing renewal in London; street homelessness in New York; and finally, efforts to tackle social exclusion in Toulouse. The conclusion explores possible future government interventions, anticipating the types of problem that are likely to occur and the potential policy responses in developing countries.
How then should we view housing problems? Usually, the housing problems experienced by those on limited incomes are viewed as an inevitable outcome of an increasing reliance on market mechanisms to allocate resources. Under a market system, individuals with the most resources will secure the best-quality homes and those with least resources will end up living in the poorest housing. At a fundamental level, many of the poor’s housing problems in developing countries can be traced back to the difficulties that individuals have in securing affordable housing. However, other factors also need to be considered, especially if we are to understand why certain housing issues become problems. In particular, there is a need to explore how ideology and power conflicts impact on both the definition of a problem and subsequent government intervention.
To explore these issues, it is necessary to adopt a critical approach, recognising how government and powerful interest groups promote particular issues as problems that need tackling in specific ways. A useful contribution has been advanced by Kemeny (1992). He argues that it is important to understand how powerful groups are able to successfully define certain issues as a problem that requires resolution. What becomes a problem is,