Self-build Housing in a Time of Austerity

by Julia Heslop

How can democratic house-building initiatives help us combat the destructive effects of 'austerity urbanism'?

First published: 04 March, 2014 | Category: Big Society, Housing, Vision/Strategy

From tent cities and beds in sheds to overflowing hostels, shelters and B&Bs, inadequate housing and homelessness is growing. The austerity economy is putting undue pressure on housing and in the UK the bedroom tax and benefit cap are exacerbating a deepening housing crisis. The recession is quickly becoming an urban crisis, one that is both visible and invisible.

The geographer Jamie Peck analyses the effects, both present and predicted, of a localised politics of scarcity in his 2012 article “Austerity Urbanism: American cities under extreme economy”. [1] The ‘extreme economy’ that Peck describes is one of “government downsizing and rolling privatisation”[2] that is hitting the poorest communities the hardest. Austerity thus morphs into a class-based project where many localities in the US are saying farewell to welfare, as austerity conditions become normalised and localised. In Detroit, a city under the knife of austerity, 40% of the city is now in darkness. Street lights have been turned off and whole swathes of the city are now undergoing ‘managed decline’ with a ‘wipe the slate clean’ policy.[3] The city government has publicly ring-fenced some neighbourhoods “for active disinvestment while greenlining others"[4]; leaving minimal public services and retaining only ‘core services’ such as public safety and transport networks.

There are many similarities between UK and US austerity policy, which is posited by Peck as a redeployment of neoliberal ideology under the guise of a ‘crisis’. As described by Peck, the city is at the heart of austerity; not only because it is being localised, but because cities are sites of historic social need and uneven development. Whilst the effects of a very neoliberal brand of “austerity urbanism” are yet to be statistically realised, changes to welfare and local authority spending power are already having deep impacts on housing and homelessness.

With the repositioning of the state and the privatisation of services and resources, the Coalition government in the UK believes it has found “a whole new way of looking at public service delivery” in its concept of the Big Society. According to Big Society logic, anybody can now build their own home and run a community library, swimming pool, or school. With the slogans ‘build now, pay later’ and ‘become a nation of self-builders’, the 2011 Community Right to Build Act was designed to give communities the power to undertake small, local developments without jumping through the hoops of the planning system. Arguably this is all show and no substance, at best giving those with the cash the chance to undertake a Grand Designs-type scheme and at worst complicit with an austerity agenda, intent on annihilating local government and the property it owns. But are there ways that self-build housing could lead to greater community empowerment and offer a tentative solution to a deepening housing crisis?

Self-build housing strategies are double-edged. Individual self-build can be seen, on the one hand, as complicit with the marketisation of housing and a process which exacerbates capitalist power systems of production and accumulation. Through this, notions of ‘community’, ‘localism’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘empowerment’ are used by governments to off load state responsibilities to the community/voluntary sectors and then onto individual households.  On the other hand, there are ways that collective self-build can be seen as an example of community empowerment, ‘the right to the city’[5] in action, challenging and changing the balance of power, working against market relations by redistributing power and giving wider access to resources.

Self-build schemes are widespread in the global south and are often the only means to shelter for the most impoverished communities. Elsewhere, in Albania for example, where over one third of all housing is classed as ‘informal’, self-build and squatting are common. In Albania, old industrial units and factories are taken over; families building within them and extending them into conventional homes. Communities physically and socially build whole living infrastructures - streets, shops, cafes and schools - within these new neighbourhoods. Yet we must be cautious in praising such examples of community participation, remembering that this is not a political or social choice, but it is out of necessity. It is often the only option for families in a country where the welfare state has been diluted, thinned and rolled back after the fall of communism. Yet the government is now taking steps to legalise many settlements, giving rights of ownership and use.

Cuba offers a more formalised version of self-build housing. The Community Architect Program promotes citizen participation in housing through training and technical assistance.[6] Originally founded by the NGO Habitat Cuba in 1993 with the support of the Cuban government, the programme is now funded and facilitated by the National Institute for Housing. Its original aim was to go beyond the established top-down, mass-produced methods of housing that used standardised and prefabricated elements. Today, more than a thousand architects work for the scheme across Cuba promoting citizen participation in housing, creating demonstration housing models and playing a vital role in generating alternative solutions to issues of shelter. On the ground, communities work with architects and builders to create sustainable neighbourhoods through practical design and build workshops. Here, participation is not just an example of sweat equity, it involves much wider integrated processes of democratic participation and shared learning. The success of this scheme is not only based upon the specific political system in which it occurs, that of communist Cuba; although it relies on an institutional framework set up by the government, it provides an example of a community self-build support network that could work across political systems and geographical boundaries.

In this mould, Planners Network, a US alliance of planners, architects, students, activists and community groups, facilitate discussion and dialogue into alternative and participatory planning processes. They specifically serve those who have been excluded from mainstream housing and planning practices and work, through local branches, to assist in campaigns and projects that include neighbourhood voices in planning. Originally conceived as a radical group during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in response to the New York rent strikes and the vast, often brutal, ‘urban renewal’ projects of this decade, Planners Network today works in a “broad array of disciplines, focusing on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and environmental justice.” Their stated objective throughout their history has been “to advocate that planning be used to eliminate inequalities and promote peace and racial, economic and environmental justice".  In a sense Planners Network open up much-needed dialogue to support communities in planning. Habitat for Humanity is a more project-based organisation, working internationally to promote grassroots participation and democratic engagement in housing for the most disadvantaged. They recently completed Miller Road and Donaldson Court, a ten-flat development in Banbury, UK. This project engaged young disadvantaged people from the local area to help build their own homes with support from local colleges and construction firms. This work-based training gave the young people the necessary qualifications to become employed in the construction sector following the project, whilst also giving them more wide-ranging experience and personal development with the support of mentors.

So if participation within housing is able to have positive social effects, can it be a means to politically interrogate neoliberal housing policy? Sociologist Fran Tonkiss has written about resisting austerity urbanism through practical engagements with the urban fabric.[7] Making use of dead inner city spaces she proposes transient interventions into everyday city space that capitalise on the ‘cracks’ within the formal city. She questions how we can use the conditions of austerity to create the ‘possible city’ through small-scale interferences: squatting, guerrilla gardening, occupying public space. However, Tonkiss also warns of the potential danger of such localism and questions whether such methods may be complicit with the austerity agenda, pandering to ‘Big Society’ politics, and devolving responsibility of state resources to local groups where no alternative public system exists any longer.[8] Yet perhaps collective approaches can work both within and against economic and political constraints, using austerity conditions to ‘rework’ the city space as a site of opposition?

These examples are in no way exhaustive, and additionally, in trying to find solutions they may themselves create problems. Yet if we stand by, if we do not attempt to find alternatives to boom and bust housing, to accumulation and dispossession, the results could be much more dangerous. Do we want a future of beds in sheds, caravan communities and tented shelters, whilst gated communities go up around us, locking wealth and opportunity in and creating fear in our cities? We must question the rhetoric of the Big Society, and use this enquiry to forge new, truly democratic methods of housing and urban planning. Community initiatives do not need to be complicit with austerity politics, or with the ‘rolling-back’ of the state, they can generate citizen empowerment - social development as well as land-based development – whilst not removing land, resources or responsibility from the state. Furthermore, by “exploring new social meanings for cities”[9] as the aim of Planners Network, we can start a dialogue that does not purely associate housing with the market-led processes of capitalist production and accumulation, and start seeing it as a shared right.

Networks of association need to be created in order to make this happen; practice-based networks that bring together architects, planners, local authorities and communities to make planning and building processes more integrated and open. Thus, within the UK, there is space for a politically radical association of organisations, individuals and groups to merge together, to begin a practical dialogue that is much needed. In this sense it is learning and sharing knowledge across physical and social borders that becomes key to challenging austerity urbanism and creating genuine, workable alternatives. Current market-based discussions have disembedded housing from life[10], creating a worrying detachment between the provision of housing and the people who need it. Networks of support and shared learning may enable us to overcome this rupture and give residents of the city the chance to become active participants in their environment.

This article is part of NLP’s series, The Contemporary City

Julia Heslop is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Human Geography at Durham University. Her website is here and she blogs here.

[1] Jamie Peck, ‘Austerity Urbanism: American cities under extreme economy’, City, 2012: 16:6, 625-655

[2] Ibid, 626

[3] Ibid, 637-638

[4] Ibid,  636

[5] The Right to the City is an idea that was first written about by Henri Lefebvre (see Writings on Cities, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996)). This concept involves a collective right to city space, but also to remake city space, and in the process to remake ourselves.

[6] Arturo Valladares ‘The Community Architect Program: Implementing participation-in-design to improve housing conditions in Cuba’, Habitat International, 2013: 38, 18-24

[7] Fran Tonkiss (2013) ‘Austerity Urbanism and the Makeshift City’, City, 2013: 3, 312-324

[8] Ibid

[9] Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots (Berkley: University of California Press, 1983), xv

[10] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990)

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