The Sociology of Housing

William Michelson & Willem Van Vliet. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. Sage Publications, 2000.

At its most elementary level, housing serves as shelter, offering protection against inclement weather and victimization by street crime. Housing fulfils other functions as well. It is typically a significant economic investment, for households as well as builders. Residents also tend to hold emotional attachments to housing as home. In addition, governments have used housing as a tool to attain other policy objectives, such as reducing unemployment or inflation, and dispersing, integrating or segregating population groups.

Given its significant roles in society, housing provides important angles for sociological research. First, housing must accommodate behavioral needs related to family life and neighborly interactions. Second, housing reflects and reinforces social and economic structures. For example, stratification and discrimination crystallize as a tangible housing problematic whose study sheds light on their broader manifestation. Third, housing links outcomes at the individual level to higher level phenomena. The homelessness of households, for example, can be seen in the context of regional housing and labor markets, which in turn operate under national policies and global investment patterns. It is an arena where interest group dynamics are played out in regard to the allocation of scarce resources.

Against this background, there are two roles for sociology in regard to housing. First, sociology has a role in housing research. Studies may examine the role of design in shaping neighborly interactions or the effects of crowding on family dynamics. Such investigations are conducted alongside research from other fields such as economics, which may investigate house price elasticity, or law, which may examine the constitutionality of tenant eviction procedures. In these cases the attention is on a particular housing(related) issue. Thus, inter alia, sociology has a legitimate place in housing research.

However, we can also analyze housing research itself: what defines its directions and foci? These questions inquire about the linkages between housing research and economic, political, demographic and cultural variables. They require consideration of the societal contexts within which housing research is embedded. This type of analysis is best called sociology of housing research. In this chapter, we address the wider sociological analysis of housing research, which deals with housing both as object and as process, together with the contexts in which such analysis has emerged.

An Organizational Scheme for Housing Research

At the heart of Figure 15.1 is the conventional conception of housing as a tangible object [II]: apartments, housing units, buildings. They vary by design, cost, location, and scale. Whatever their characteristics, they are the physical objects of built environment. It is essential to know what quality of housing is available with specific design characteristics, and at specific costs, locations, and scales. The quantitative side is similarly important, both in aggregate and with respect to design, cost, location, and scale considerations. This kind of information is important both in its own right and in conjunction with how housing gets built (I) and how housing impacts on individuals and groups (III).

Before construction lies the myriad of concerns as to how housing has come to be what it is. This includes the considerations of these who provide housing. This also includes the needs of the residents. The relevant actors fall within one or more of the private, public, and non-profit sectors. Sociological focus typically applies to diverse interests within and between sectors.

Within the “before” realm, is first the difference between supply and demand. The former involves the rationales to produce housing. The latter involves the criteria of users. Second, the rationales fuelling both supply and demand may lie anywhere in between two extremes: (1) intrinsic reasons for building (i.e. the elemental functions of housing) and (2) extrinsic reasons for building (i.e. economic profit, social prestige, and more). Insofar as those supplying housing have become increasingly different from those demanding it, the goals motivating producers and users have become not only qualitatively different but at times in conflict. Mechanisms that help shape the outcome of the dynamics among conflicting interests include government policies, laws (e.g. zoning), economic contexts (e.g. capitalism, socialism), and culture.

Sociological interest in housing genesis has not been to the exclusion of interest in the effects of housing on people. The factors involved take many forms (III). Impacts concern health, behavior, satisfaction, and material outcomes. At the collective level, distributive outcomes are particularly salient. Such distributive outcomes refer to the extent that different subsectors of the population wind up with more or less of resources with outcomes relevant not only to their own well-being but also to the functioning of the societies in which they live. Housing itself serves as a conduit joining societal causes to individual effects. Its necessity, its provision largely by third parties, its relatively great cost, its centrality to primary group and biological functioning provide unique substance (II). Housing is certainly not simply a generic commodity.

Major themes in the housing literature fit within this organizing scheme, which helps to show how housing represents a reasonably coherent field of research and not a chaotic congeries of specific studies. In the next section, we turn to a historical overview as to when and why certain issues gained research interest followed by an examination of how national priorities have accentuated particular themes.

The Societal Context: An Historical Perspective

This section illustrates the connections between societal contexts and research themes, largely, though not exclusively, with respect to historical trends in North America and represented by English-language literature. We situate research themes in the eras in which they first became full-blown, though tracing their development and expression in subsequent eras as well.

Before 1920: Living Conditions, Health, and Social Reform

Connections between research and attempts to influence living conditions go back to ancient times, when Greek, Roman and Oriental civilizations codified findings from extensive surveys undertaken to help ensure orderly functioning of family, city, and state. By the middle of the 19th century, investigations into housing became more prevalent with the advance of industrialization, urbanization and the horrendous circumstances of the working poor. Concerns about sanitary conditions and public hygiene became widespread. Such concerns were based on and produced community surveys, documenting in vivid detail the insalubrious quarters of many urban households (Booth, 1892; Riis, 1891; Veiller, 1910). The American Journal of Sociology published a series of studies between 1910 and 1915, many of them by Saphonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, which described decrepit and unhealthy housing conditions in Chicago and which urged reform. The situation prompted calls for action.

In France, public health objectives for reform received attention but only when connected to the larger social issues and economic transformations of the time. During the 1850s and 1860s, the Paris Commission on Unhealthful dwellings issued reports criticizing the absence of adequate guidelines for new building and setting forth specifications for residential construction. During this time, societies for workers housing were founded, not as much for the benefit of the households, as to render the working class “inaccessible to the seductions of politics” and a means to “pacifically disarm resistance” (Shapiro, 1985). The same sort of conservative ideology accommodated the early drive towards owner occupation, which in the 1820s found expression in the U.S. in the battle for universal (male) suffrage, inclusive of tenants theretofore excluded from the right to vote (Heskin, 1998). Humanitarians and paternalistic philanthropists also championed of housing improvements for the working class. They suffered a scathing attack by Engels (1872) who saw housing problems as simply another manifestation of the fundamental problems of capitalist society. The solution, according to him, was to address the underlying structural causes; promoting home ownership was a snare to fetter the workers, robbing them of their freedom of movement necessary to sell their labor most profitably.

In Britain, in 1905, the Board of Trade undertook several massive surveys, gathering information on the cost of living and rents in major cities. Comparable studies in France, Germany, the U.S. and Belgium followed, induced by concerns about economic competitiveness (Daunton, 1990). In this work, social reform took a subservient position. Yet more so in the U.S., where housing studies tended to define housing problems in terms of their populations, high crime rates, and saloon culture. Social reformers, acting moralistically on behalf of the poor and ill-housed, rather than with them, sought to achieve progress through restrictive codes and incremental housing legislation (Andrachek, 1979). Even Edith Wood (1919), who criticized what she viewed as the ineffectual approach by Veiller (1920), ascribed responsibility for housing to local, rather than national government.

This limited framework for action portended problems in later decades, a case in point being the refusal of many local governments during the 1950s and 1960s to be a site for federally mandated public housing. When the federal government did become involved in the early specification of standards, it linked them to income, not family size (Andrachek, 1979). Following disastrous fires in Chicago (1871) and San Francisco (1906), municipalities began developing comprehensive local building codes in conjunction with land use regulation. They adopted model codes, which were further studied and refined by, for example, the International Conference of Building Officials, founded in 1922, and the American Public Health Association in 1945. Today, 97% of U.S. building adheres to one of three such model codes (Howe, 1998). Research was not only instrumental in their development, but also in revealing problems associated with their enforcement, including the effect of increasing cost. European nations also instituted housing standards as the century progressed, particularly in Scandinavia, supported by Social Democratic governments (c.f. Dalén and Holm, 1965).

1920s-1930s: Eventual, Selective Government Intervention

The period between the World Wars built heavily on the earlier data about the health in crowded housing in large urban cities. Carol Aronovici (1920, 1939) emphasized the virtues of housing, created for workers by public authorities and philanthropists, with adequate inside space, higher standards, and access to pleasant common outdoor space. Neither journalists nor social scientists used sophisticated research designs with careful controls. Nonetheless, the coincidence of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, losses of life due to fire, and the blending of poverty and unconventional behavior with crowding in inadequate buildings led to demands for public action. In the logic of Figure 15.1, health outcomes (IIIA 1, 2) led to pressures for public sector mediation (IB) between supply (IA) and demand (IC).

In reaction to accumulated reports and as a basis for later research, governments began to mediate housing conditions. There was precedent from the United Kingdom and from socialist experiments in improved worker housing in big, crowded European cities such as Vienna (Chaddock, 1932). The U.S. government first funded research on what it considered a housing problem in 1892. During World War I, it provided emergency housing for defense workers. Comprehensive civilian housing programs did not occur until the Great Depression interfered with the operations of the private housing market. Federal institutions were then created to lend money for housing production. Government reinforced ideological support for private sector production. These efforts in the 1930s also reflected labor force objectives, not simply the supply of housing (Beyer, 1958). The Canadian governmental housing finance corporation grew up also as largely a vehicle to heat up and cool down the economy.

Some housing for people unable to get decent housing on the private market was built during this period (c.f. Aronovici, 1939; Robbins, 1966), but with the initiative of lower levels of government and philanthropic bodies. The U.S. federal government only entered this sphere closer to the end of the depression, in 1937.

In the 1930s, a coalition of liberal reformers, the National Housing Conference, the National Association of Housing Officials, and labor groups had pressured the U.S. government to take permanent responsibility for the provision of low-rent public housing. They had been opposed by wealthy and powerful interests such as the National Association for Real Estate Boards, the US Savings and Loan League, and the US Mortgage Bankers Association, who considered government involvement undesirable, but who welcomed slum clearance as long as the vacant land would be made available for lucrative commercial development. In these battles, resulting in the Housing Act of 1937, housing for the poor was not the only or even the central issue. Indeed, its more important functions became to assist the stagnant construction industry, to reduce unemployment, and to weed out blighted areas. The concentration in slums of poverty, disease, and broken families was seen as injurious to the health, safety and morals of citizens. Some of the production was suburban, following the neighborhood unit plan guidelines put forward earlier in the decade by Perry (1937). A few planned communities were built, too.

World War II ended the Great Depression in the United States, but the war stalled responses to housing needs. Despite some pioneer work (e.g. Riemer, 1943; Merton, 1946), housing research by sociologists during this period followed the housing market, and empirical assessment of housing initiatives awaited the explosion of post-war activities. Both the U.S. and Canadian governments fostered the development of suburbia through mortgage guarantee policies on the assumption that inner city housing was a less safe investment for lending than single-family housing in newly-built areas. Governments thus effectively steered development to the periphery. Suburban life, unfamiliar as a mass phenomenon, prompted many sociological studies (e.g. Berger, 1960; Clark, 1966; Gans, 1967). The effects of this governmental intervention were heavily behavioral in nature (IIIB), but also involved satisfaction (IIIC) and material outcomes (i.e. the ability to build capital) (IIID).

Although post-war government mediation did explore other directions such as public housing (Wilner, 1962), U.S. public policies have strongly fostered private homeownership. Tax deductibility for mortgage interest is an incentive that many governments provide (e.g. U.S.A., Sweden) and some others withhold (e.g. Canada). On a different front, slum clearance and urban renewal took place in the context of controversial legislation and prompted many critical evaluations (e.g., Rose, 1958; Rainwater, 1970; Clairmont and Magill, 1974). They added to public alarm over the creation of new ghettos for the poor.

Government intervention has become more diversified, leading to similar diversity of the housing literature. Rent control legislation, for example, has become more common (c.f. Salins, 1980; Baar, 1987), as have rent supplements and housing entitlements in some European nations. Gentrification has occurred as a function of both public and private initiatives (e.g. Spain, 1980; Lang, 1982; Smith, 1996). Cities and nations are now attempting to privatize what once they thought necessary to provide publicly. These and many other forms of mediation since the 1920s have been covered in many anthologies, which increase as the actions of government continue to expand (e.g. Van Vliet, Huttman, and Fava, 1985; van Vliet and van Weesep, 1990; Lambert, Paris, and Blackaby, 1978; Huttman and van Vliet, 1988; Pynoos, Schafer, and Hartman, 1973; van Vliet, 1990).

1940s: Responding to Intrinsic Demand

The first US Census of Housing took place in 1940. It recorded the impact of the economic crisis of the preceding decade. More than 23% of urban dwellings lacked a private bath; more than 10% needed major repairs. Rural conditions were worse. About half the unprovided families were living doubled up or in makeshift shelters (Nenno, 1979).

The war left many in Europe without homes. Even in nations untouched by the direct effects of the war, the indirect economic effects of the successive periods of depression and war meant major housing shortages. In North America, the return of millions of soldiers and the beginning of an intense period of family formation brought with it a strong need for new housing. During this time, in the U.S. the field of forces arrayed in favor of and opposed to government intervention in housing was organized along similar lines as for the 1937 Act. The continuing struggle for renewed housing legislation produced a compromise in the Housing Act of 1949, meant to eliminate substandard housing, to stimulate housing construction and to provide a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.

In Europe, where collapsed private capital markets required the infusion of public funds, government intervention in housing followed a longer tradition and was more oriented towards social rental housing. In Britain, the post-war Labour Government controlled virtually all building through a strict licensing system allowing it to channel materials and labor into the public sector. Private landlordism and owner occupation dwindled further owing to the nationalization of development and values and the continued pre-war rent freeze (Saunders, 1990). Its 1949 Housing Act promoted council housing for all, setting the stage for a social housing sector that would grow to nearly 1/3 of the total stock, before getting eroded by the privatization policies of 1979 and onwards.

Research during this period reflects these developments. Thus, there were analyses of the interest group dynamics surrounding government intervention, but there were also studies of family maladjustment in crowded housing. This work did not just offer dispassionate assessments. Investigators often assumed activist roles to influence policy. This linkage between research and practice built on the engagement of a previous generation and continues today among housing reformers seeking to advance a progressive policy agenda (e.g., Dreier and Atlas, 1996).

1950s and 1960s: The Ramifications of Expansion

Massive building programs continued in the 1960s. Government subsidy policies proliferated. Most were oriented to the supply side and aimed at stimulating production. They had some major ramifications.


After World War II, fought in part to safeguard against arbitrary power based on race, discrimination was still rampant in the victorious nations. In the late 1940s the U.S. Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants prohibiting the sale of housing to named minorities unenforceable by law. But this did not prevent white post-war suburbanization surrounding black inner cities, which became more evident during the 1950s and 1960s, and was followed by an outpouring of research on discrimination and its implications for life chances available within reasonable proximity. Residential discrimination also exposes people to toxic waste risks, with material outcomes.

Sociologists made important contributions to the understanding of these problems. First was documentation of the extent that residential segregation existed and for whom. The focus shifted from case studies to the statistical measurement of which groups were distributed unevenly among local areas, as well as which groups were less likely to share local space with which others (c.f. Duncan and Duncan, 1955; Lieberson, 1963; Taeuber and Taeuber, 1965; Peach, 1981; Farley, 1984; Massey and Denton, 1993).

A second line of research assisted in the understanding of the dynamics of discrimination. One aspect of this has to do with intergroup contact. Some early studies dealt with the circumstances within housing complexes under which people will become acquainted and maintain reasonably friendly interaction or, in contrast, exclude one another (Wilner, et al., 1955; Keller, 1968). Others studied real estate agents as gatekeepers to housing, steering people to areas according to their skin color or ethnic background and withholding information that might lead to residential mixing (Helper, 1969; Brown, 1972). Researchers also examined redlining, in which lenders and insurers withhold financial support and services from minority areas (Squires, 1997). Many such processes involve active human agency by special interests, not just governmental policies. Research has also demonstrated the role of segregated neighborhoods in producing segregated schools and documented the unequal learning environment in schools populated by students from the lowest social strata (Coleman, 1969; Kozol, 1991). More recent research has indicated how the segregation of poor, black residents has led to the creation of an isolated underclass (Wilson, 1987).

By the late 1960s, riots had erupted in large US cities. Although rooted in the broader context of structural inequalities and racism, neighborhood and housing factors played a critical role (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968). After successfully addressing discrimination in employment and education, the civil rights movement turned to housing and was instrumental in the passing of a fair housing act (Title VIII, Civil Rights Act of 1968). Discrimination was not, however, a uniquely U.S. problem. In Britain, for example, Rex and Moore (1967) exposed racially discriminatory housing policies.


Provision of new housing did not prove a magic solution to the improvement of people’s lives, Wilner et al.’s (1962) painstaking study showed only limited improvements in children’s health and school performance. Nonetheless, both in Britain and in North America researchers found how behavior occurred according to the path of least resistance fostered by the design of buildings and outside spaces (c.f. Gutman, 1972). The total amount of contact among residents, as well as the geographic pattern of contact, was shown related to proximity and design features that bring people together (c.f. Merton, 1946; Festinger, Schachter and Back, 1950; Morris and Mogey, 1965; Michelson, 1970, 1993). More work on behavior focused on families in high-rise apartments, which had begun to proliferate in many countries, not only in public housing developments but also in the private sector as a reaction to increasing land costs. Research studied where and how children play in high rises, family life in them, obstacles to social contact, and what activities people can and can’t do there (Stevenson et al., 1967; Moore, 1969; Jephcott, 1971; Michelson, 1977). It helped produce an international consensus that high rise, as commonly built, was not conducive to child raising.

The analysis of criminal behavior and housing design is a prime example of the interplay between societal issues and housing research. In the late 1960s, the growing incidence of crime in the U.S. prompted a call for proposals to examine the contributing role of housing design. The concept of defensible space was coined to describe how housing design fosters or inhibits social processes that promote proprietary feelings among neighbors and that help identify intruders (Newman, 1972; see also Jeffery, 1977). More recently, a safety audit procedure has been devised to discover places in which people feel threatened (e.g. because of isolation, darkness, or lack of an escape route).

The focus on behavioral effects of housing reflected the beginning of a societal shift from dealing with absolute housing shortages towards a long-term task of recognizing the human implications of the built environment.

1970-1979: Uneven Distribution of Prosperity

The 1970s were an era of increasing prosperity for many people. Yet, this prosperity was not uniform. Researchers increasingly studied how housing is produced, according to whose interests, and how well and justly it serves different segments of the population.

Structural Analysis

Rex and Moore (1967) argued that cities provided the arena for a class struggle over the use of houses. This directed attention to the control of access to scarce resources as a relevant and legitimate focus of research and resonated with developments in France, where industrial unrest and urban disturbances prompted government to channel funds into urban social research. Resultant studies criticized the role of the state in the (re)structuring of society (Castells, 1977). Housing was not considered in isolation, but seen as embedded in conflicts inherent in capitalist urban development. This view gained widespread international acceptance. Although, today, it is one of several which guides research, its significance lies in its lasting contribution to a framework for the study of distributive mechanisms in housing.

The so-called New Urban Sociology, with a neo-Marxian outlook, has examined, for example, the production of housing for extrinsic purposes such as profit (IA2), rather than the primary purposes of housing consumption or physical need (IC1). Although strictly Marxian explanation waned in the 1980s, structural analysis has continued to the present and shows promise of continuing (c.f. Bassett and Short, 1980; Logan and Molotch, 1987; Suttles, 1990; Caulfield, 1994).

A Weberian variation of the same theme involved the structural analysis of the professions involved in the production and design of housing. Researchers have studied architects (Gutman, 1975; Blau, 1984; Lang, 1988), urban planners (Michelson, 1976; Schon, 1983), and developers (Fainstein, 1994). Others produced case studies of significant housing institutions (Batley, 1988; Welfeld, 1992; Kemeny, 1997). Finally, in this activist era the view of housing as a process was represented by researchers examining citizen participation in the design, creation, and maintenance of housing (Arnstein, 1969; Simmie, 1974; Thorns, 1976).

Residential Satisfaction and Population Subsectors

A second theme of research of the 1970s addressed people’s satisfaction with their housing, a complex phenomenon reflecting shifting priorities, prospects for mobility, and a variety of criteria such as dwelling size and adequacy, location, price, and neighbors (Lansing, Marans, and Zehner, 1970; Ermuth, 1974; Michelson, 1977; Morris and Winter, 1978; Despres and Piche, 1997). Satisfaction has been found specific to population groups. Much attention, for example, has been paid to the needs of women, on grounds that their roles have changed drastically in the past 50 years and that predominantly-male planners and architects have never gotten it right. Whereas segregated land-use was a mainstay of suburban growth and planning in large part for the ostensible protection of stay-at-home women and young children, research showed that it makes no logistical sense for women in the labor force and those not living in traditional nuclear families (Hayden, 1984; Wekerle, 1984; Franck and Ahrentzen, 1989; Spain, 1992; Altman and Churchman, 1994).

Children have been found to have unique housing needs, also varying by gender and stage of development. Suburbs that protect toddlers can stifle the very same children 10-15 years later. The literature on children grew until the 1979 International Year of the Child but has subsided since (c.f. Lynch, 1977; Pollowy, 1977; Michelson and Roberts, 1979; Huttman and van Vliet, 1988, pt. IV).

The elderly are another population group, not homogeneous but with unique housing needs. It is the most rapidly growing part of the population. There is a practical need for appropriate environments for the elderly. Psychologists took the lead in this research (c.f. Lawton, 1975; Altman, Lawton and Wohlwill, 1984), which is now strongly multidisciplinary (e.g., Pynoos and Liebig, 1995).

1980s-1990s: Differentiation and Polarization

Throughout the massive post-war building programs in Europe, ending in the mid 1970s, welfare states embraced the principle of universalism. In rhetoric, if not always in practice, policies extended entitlements and incentives to broad segments of the population. Eligibility was widespread. Benefits were highly standardized, and the resulting housing environments were highly uniform. In North America, the emphasis was on suburban single-family housing with segregated land-uses for reasons that blended government actions and private sector interests.

Household Differentiation

Household differentiation began to assert itself in earnest in the 1980s. In addition to a declining proportion of two-parent families with several children and a male breadwinner, new household types emerged and grew in number: elderly households, single-person households, single-parent households, dual earner households. Yet other household types began to reveal themselves through a greater variety of lifestyles with corresponding requirements for compatible housing. Research began to address the housing needs of these different household types (c.f. Franck and Ahrentzen, 1989; Arias, 1993; Clark and Dieleman, 1996).


The basic tenet of the welfare state, equal treatment of all, became a limiting mold for changing realities demanding greater flexibility. More and more, the universality of benefits became a financial liability, as economic resources diminished and governments increasingly looked for ways to limit assistance to only those deemed most in need. The recognition of a more differentiated population and more focused subsidy schemes fit with a drastic reorientation of housing policies during this decade. Many governments embarked upon a two-pronged approach of shifting previously assumed responsibilities to lower levels of government and the private and nonprofit sectors. These processes of, respectively, decentralization and privatization proceeded from different baselines and at a different pace. However, the direction of change was the same and could be observed in market societies, welfare states, and socialist nations, and in the advanced industrialized countries as well as the Third World. Among the significant implications were the curtailment and elimination of housing assistance and a general erosion of the safety net.


At the same time, and for some of the same reasons, a tacit coalition of finance, development, and government interests, called the urban growth machine (Logan and Molotch, 1987), provided the initiative and legitimation for a solution to urban problems involving the building of upscale developments aimed at the hospitality sector, tourism, recreational use, and affluent residents. Cooperation between the public and private sectors enabled the construction of stadiums, convention centers, hotels, shopping and dining areas, and condominiums in many cities—but not social housing. This ratcheted up the cost of housing without providing for those unable to pay market rents.

Affordability became a housing problem (IIB) with negative material outcomes (IIID) for a growing number of households. Cutbacks in housing and welfare budgets, the urban growth machine, deinstitutionalization, a changing structure of employment, and growing unemployment have produced alarming increases of homeless households. Research has profiled such households and detailed the effects of homelessness on them. It has also situated the incidence of individual episodes of homelessness in the wider context of political and economic changes at national and international levels. (Dear and Wolch, 1987; Rossi, 1989; Daly, 1996; Mingione, 1996).

A very different aspect of globalization is direct access to communication by computer and hence the chance for a greater number of people to work in and from their own homes, rather than to remain dependent on external workplaces. Accompanying this trend, a growing literature is reassessing the place of housing in people’s activities and regarding its size, design, and infrastructure as more than a traditional housing unit (c.f. Wikstrm, Palm Lindén and Michelson, 1998).

The Societal Context: A Cross-National Contrast

The preceding historical sketch helps elucidate how housing research bears the stamp of broader developments. We now change focus to a broad comparison of market systems, welfare states, and socialist states. The objective is a further understanding of how important societal context is to both trends in housing itself and to the housing research that interacts with them.

Market Systems

A defining characteristic of market-based systems of housing provision is the interplay of supply and demand. The model holds that households experience a need for housing, which they meet by willingly paying a price. The supply side is said to respond to this demand, setting a price that covers costs and maximizes profit. Housing is treated as a market commodity, produced and traded for financial gain. The private profit motive propels the system.

Free interplay of market forces, however, is a myth. Governments intervene in numerous direct and indirect ways. Public policies that help shape the market outcomes result from a balance of contending parties, dominated by capitalist interests. Market-based housing systems exist, in various forms, in advanced industrialized economies, but are also found in the developing world (e.g., Pakistan, Brazil, Ghana, Thailand). During the last two decades, many welfare states and, during the last decade, most formerly socialist nations have also, in various ways and degrees, embraced privatization policies that give a greater role to market forces (Strong et al., 1996; Struyk, 1996).

Market systems produce problems resulting from the fundamental premise that access to housing is governed by one’s ability to pay. Households that cannot translate their housing needs into a (profit yielding) demand will fall by the wayside, unless government or community-based initiatives provide assistance. This is not because the system does not work, but because that is how the system works (Marcuse, 1987). Not surprisingly, affordability of housing has been a major research and policy motif in countries with market-based housing systems.

Government intervention in housing markets is allegedly based on the so-called filtering model. It suggests a process of households moving upwards on a downwards escalator. It assumes that, as their incomes improve, people move to newer, more expensive housing, vacating units that then trickle down to households in the next stratum. Governments will favor and justify regressive subsidies, benefitting the most affluent households on the assumption that such policies would have a multiplier effect, eventually benefitting the entire population. However, the so-called vacancy chains are short-circuited because housing markets tend to be segmented and distorted. The barriers that prevent markets from functioning smoothly can be spatial (e.g., a geographic mismatch with job markets), and they can parallel dimensions of population differentiation (e.g., discrimination against ethnic and racial minorities, women, or families with children).

The bias of market-oriented housing policies and the problems resulting from their inadequacy are the subject of extensive literature. There is also a large body of research on community-based organizations attempting to make up for lack of government support (e.g., Davis, 1994; Goetz, 1993).

Welfare States

Welfare states maintain private ownership of enterprise, but have policies protecting the rights of individuals to basic human needs. The Scandinavian nations and The Netherlands are good examples, though welfare programs in other European nations are also strong in international perspective (c.f. Boelhouwer and van de Heijden, 1992; Papa, 1992). The European trends in our historical overview reflected relevant contexts in the welfare states: needs for new housing after World War II coupled to the production of large apartment projects built according to specific standards. Housing was treated as a universal human need, parallel to others like medical care and education. This led to a very high level of housing research in government institutions and universities. The immediate start for housing research in Sweden reflected women’s needs, as widespread female participation in the labor force started early in Sweden, and attention was paid to the functionality of such aspects of housing design as kitchens and laundries. But like the other nations, Sweden had a severe housing shortage after the war.

Sweden then became famous after World War II for the design and construction of suburbs near Stockholm whose construction was integrated with expanded public transportation. But Sweden needed much more new housing, and instituted an intensive ten-year housing program to construct a million new housing units (for a population then of about seven million people). Many apartments were built by local governments and by cooperative social housing corporations under national government programs. Some single-family homes were built, but these were kept to a small segment of the market. Although there were both successful and unsuccessful results, this program stimulated much increase in evaluative research, which contributed to the worldwide critique of high-rise family buildings without sufficient support services and activities (c.f. Flenström and Ronnby, 1972; Gordon and Molin, 1972). Others studied the social and cultural aspects of the growing suburbs (c.f. Daun, 1974).

Once the million dwellings had been completed, and partly in reaction to the research done on them, housing policy and research turned to more specific, qualitative concerns: care for the elderly, social contact among neighbors, easier and safer childcare, and lessened housework through housing with services provided, activity spaces, and resident-management, ecological sensitivity, segregation between ethnic groups, renovation, and resident participation in design and planning (Thiberg, 1990).

A similar discussion of contexts and research in other welfare state nations would show individual differences from the Swedish model, but would unlikely be confused with the market and socialist contexts and research responses.

Socialist States

The formerly centrally planned economies of Eastern Europe were examples of socialist societies organized on the premise that the state distributes costs and benefits, resulting from national functioning and development, equally among all segments of the population. Other examples come from the developing world (chiefly, China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea), although also here changes are in evidence. In socialist systems, housing is a legislated entitlement and, in theory, households have equal access to it. According to this egalitarian ideology, the state must maintain full administrative control over rationally conducted planning, production, management and consumption processes.

Independent housing research was difficult to carry out. There was very limited access to and strict control over relevant information, no or little funding, and opportunities to disseminate findings were few and far between. Attendance and presentations at foreign conferences had to be officially sanctioned and were rarely critical of prevailing policies. Some work illustrates research in relation to this particular societal context. For example, Szelenyi (1983) described patterns of inequality in housing resulting from bureaucratic allocation decisions that gave preferential treatment to occupants of high-ranking positions in the societal hierarchy, such as the leading intelligentsia, the party elite, champion athletes, and top officers in the military and security forces. Similar inequalities were reported, among others, by Daniel (1985) and Misztal (1990).

Note that research has observed inequalities in market-based as well as socialist housing systems. However, while the outcome has been similar, the processes through which they came about have differed markedly.

Other work on socialist housing revealed the underlying tension between the low-cost provision of housing (with households typically paying 15 to 20% of what their counterparts in market economies paid), producing a minimal return on investment, and the need to commit national resources to more productive sectors of the economy, notably heavy manufacturing. The trade-off frequently led to the use of inferior construction materials and substandard maintenance, and authorities covertly tolerated black market mechanisms.

More recently, the transition to market systems of the formerly socialist countries in Eastern Europe has brought with it new problems. For example, privatization proceeds without, for example, well established lending and real estate institutions, lacking a secondary mortgage market, and in the absence of an efficient land taxation system or provisions for management of large housing estates. The transfer of formerly state-owned units to private owner-occupiers is also fraught with inequities. Under the current, more open system of government, housing research in Eastern Europe has blossomed, a development which, in and of itself, irrespective of content, illustrates well the significance of the connections between developments of societies at large and the housing research conducted in them.

Concluding Remarks

This chapter shows the influence of societal contexts on housing research. Societal developments create the issues and opportunities that attract researchers. The effects of research on policy, legislation and housing conditions are less evident. Research neither determines societal outcomes, nor is immaterial to them. It is one of several factors playing a role, in varying ways and in varying degrees depending on a variety of circumstances. A few examples: Community surveys before 1920 of unacceptable housing conditions contributed to the development of criteria for ventilation, sanitation, space, access to light and minimum standards deemed appropriate. Later, research on the post-war high-rise boom helped produce legislation outlawing or discouraging the allocation of high-rise apartments to families with children. More broadly, research along this vein has contributed insights into the sociobehavioral needs of special user groups, which have been translated into guidelines for environmental design. A notable example in this regard concerns elderly households whose declining competencies at advanced ages require suitable housing adaptations. Research has also documented the extent and implications of discriminatory practices in housing and the (in)effectiveness of counteracting efforts.

On a more general level, housing research fulfils at least five functions with respect to policy making. (1) Informative: Research of this sort typically consists of routine data gathering. A regular housing census is an example. These data can form an initial basis for the formulation of policy. (2) Evaluative: Often conducted as purposely designed surveys, this research aims to offer an assessment of a particular program or policy. Governments may also undertake demonstration projects to test out experimental initiatives. (3) Monitoring: Some research occurs to help oversee the orderly functioning of the housing system. This work usually occurs at the national level in the form of simple statistics periodically collected and calculated to keep track of basic trends. Examples are housing starts and completions, median sales price, affordability indices, and various lending statistics. (4) Prognostic: Before implementing a particular program governments may carry out prospective assessments of the likelihood of success and to anticipate possibly needed adjustments. Such research is based on assumptions about the behavior of housing consumers and producers. (5) Conceptual: Taken together, the above functions may help to alter the perspectives of policy makers on housing. Accumulated research evidence may demonstrate the significance of housing in overall urban policies, for example, or may show how narrow bricks-and-mortar approaches are less effective than more comprehensive ones that also recognize the social, political and economic significance of housing, thus setting out basic policy paradigms.

The evolution of housing research invites several additional observations with respect to methods, emphasizing further its linkage with societal developments. Early studies, done in the late last and early part of this century, were descriptive. Sampling techniques were still undeveloped. In ecological investigations, popularized by the Chicago School starting in the 1920s, researchers showed more interest in analysis of cause-and-effect relationships, although the favored technique of correlational analysis was ill-suited to that end. With the advent of the computer, multivariate analysis became easier. More sophisticated methodological approaches emerged, making it possible to examine relationships in which housing was implicated, while controlling for the confounding influences of extraneous variables.

Along with the methodological advances in housing research, the nature of the field changed. Studies today concern many more topics. This expansion is reflected in the greater multidisciplinary nature of housing research. The literature contains contributions from sociologists, geographers, economists, political scientists, lawyers, and many others. Indeed, this multidisciplinarity is a defining characteristic of a major new reference work (van Vliet, 1998). Multidisciplinary, in turn, has stimulated methodological triangulation, i.e., the use of multiple methods to examine a given issue. Homelessness, for example, has been studied through participant observation, survey research, and program evaluation. Finally, research on housing has become increasingly comparative. As countries experience common challenges, they have developed a growing interest in learning from each other’s experiences. These days it is common, for housing ministries to have an international division that dispatches study teams to visit foreign countries. The globalization of economic and political systems has forced policy makers and researchers alike to look beyond national boundaries. In Europe, cross-national housing research has flourished in tandem with the integration of the European Community.

The International Sociological Association’s (ISA) Research Committee on Housing and the Built Environment is a direct expression of these developments. It grew out of a group of individuals who used the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association in the late 1960s to exchange information informally. Aware of the more organized growth of housing research in Europe, this group arranged with ISA for ad hoc group sessions during the 1978 Congress in Uppsala; researchers from 14 nations attended, and a book with some of the proceedings was published (Ungerson and Karn, 1980). Meetings have since been held at subsequent ISA meetings, as well as at international conferences in the years between in places such as Amsterdam, Paris, Hamburg, Prague, Budapest, Nairobi, Beijing, and Montreal. Over time, participation became increasingly international. The 1997 meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, included over 150 papers, from 22 nations and all the continents. Parallel developments, such as the emergence of the European Network for Housing Research and the establishment of the European Social Housing Observation Unit, provide further testimony to the viability and relevance of multidisciplinary, international housing research in an increasingly interdependent global world.