Empowering citizens to judge housing outcomes

By Chris Foye, Knowledge Exchange Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE). This article originally appeared in Evidence, HQN's quarterly housing update produced in collaboration with UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and HSA.

‘I have – I won’t say happy – not unpleasant memories of the camp. I remember a lot of the casual brutality and beatings-up that went on, but at the same time we children were playing a hundred and one games all the time!Ballard, J. G. (2013). Miracles of life: Shanghai to Shepperton, an autobiography.

These reflections of the author J G Ballard on his teenage years spent in a Second World War internment camp in Shanghai came back to me at a conference I attended recently.

An academic was presenting her research on the experiences of people living in the Barrios in Caracas, Venezuela. Clinging onto the mountainside these self-built ‘ranchos’ are the very image of precarity, housing some of the poorest in society, and yet residents were apparently happy there, buoyed by a sense of social belonging.

This may seem a world away, but in the UK too, our CaCHE report (“How should we evaluate housing outcomes?”, with David Clapham) shows that there is very little difference between the housing satisfaction of those in ‘Decent’ and ‘Non-decent’ homes.

These likely cases of adaptation – where individuals are happy because their expectations are low – put policymakers and practitioners in an awkward situation, torn between two competing moral rationales.

On the one hand, we may conclude that if the subjective metrics tell us Barrios-dwellers are happy with their ranchos then there is no injustice, and no need for society to intervene. But this prompts the question of why someone should be left to live in poor and unhealthy housing conditions simply because they have come to terms with a bad situation.

On the other hand, we may want to act in that individual’s best interest by moving them out of the nondecent home into somewhere that is healthier, safer and more secure. However, in defining success from the top-down using objective criteria, practitioners risk unreasonably prioritising their own vision of a ‘good home’ over that of the citizen.

The ethnographer Ellen Pader (1994, 2002) has demonstrated how overcrowding regulations in the USA are used to impose a Westerncentric view of how space should be used on immigrant populations – many of whom share the same room out of choice rather than economic necessity. How then do we manage these competing tensions when deciding on a policy’s objectives and evaluating its progress?

In our report, we argue that when it comes to socially uncontroversial yet technically complex aspects of home, top-down approaches to defining success are reasonable.

Most of us want our homes to be structurally sound and would entrust an engineer to define and enforce a set of objective construction standards on our behalf. A top-down approach is too blunt, however, for designing and evaluating policies which involve the complex, diverse and often ambivalent relationships that individuals have with their homes and neighbourhoods.

This bluntness was very apparent in the case of Housing Market Renewal which was targeted at two objective metrics - house prices and vacancy rates – neither of which paid any attention to individuals’ subjective experiences. In these cases, we suggest that an empowered deliberative democratic approach to defining and evaluating policy objectives may prove fruitful. Broadly defined, deliberative democracy refers to the idea that legitimate law-making issues from the public deliberation of citizens.

It generally involves a representative group of citizens being empowered to make an evidence-informed and considered judgement about what success looks like for that community.

It differs from representative or direct democracy in that it insists citizens justify and reflect upon their views and engage with critical and expert perspectives.

Empowered deliberative democratic models have been used to shape the Icelandic constitution, inform the choices for the Irish referendum on abortion law and make budgeting decisions in Brazil and Scotland. In housing, deliberative democratic forums were also used to develop Shelter’s Living Home Standard in 2016, and the recent Labour Party report “Land for the many” proposed using citizen juries to inform local plans.

In the report, we suggest that they might also help break the impasse on some other politically contentious issues. When it comes to a significant piece of public land, or an estate in need of physical repair, local authorities could allow a citizens’ jury to decide which planning proposal represents the best long-term value to the community.

A similar process could be undertaken for determining local authority social housing allocations policies, or at a national level, the proportion of land value uplift a landowner should be entitled to as a result of gaining planning permission.

Click here for full report.