Affordable cities

From a long time ago, people have moved to the city, in search of a better life. Even before work was found, shelter was their top priority. Shelter is a fundamental right, but it does not seem to apply to all earthlings. This article examines why even the wealthiest countries fail in this regard. The main question is how people can be housed in a humane way.

The desperate woman in the picture is one of the victims of the at least 2 million evictions, that take place in the United States every year. For her, living in the city became a nightmare.

Where people live: balancing between concentration and dispersion

For the millions who left their homes to move to the city, hope for a better life still prevails. Cities look attractive: Everything you need is within reach.

The benefits of concentration are partly offset by costs. Living in urban areas is almost always associated with high housing costs and density often leads to nuisance. This is especially true for the poor part of the population, that is most affected by noise, pollution, vandalism and has a less healthy living environment[1].

Affordable cities is part 14 of a series of essays on how cities can become more humane. That means finding a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. This requires far-reaching choices. Once these choices have been made, it goes without saying that we use smart technologies to achieve these goals.

The essays that have already been published can be found here.

If the balance of benefits versus costs is positive, the concentration of people and activities will increase. If it is negative, the spread will prevail, provided that those involved can choose something. This ever-changing balance makes cities look alike, but is also the main cause of their differences.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, in many cities in developed countries, the balance between the benefits and the costs of urbanization changed: Many residents moved to the suburbs. The free space was for offices, stores, top-end apartment buildings and for the poorest people, for whom leaving the city was not an option. Later, they also had to move because of gentrification.

Spatial segregation of functions (housing, industry, shopping, offices) in US cities has been accompanied by massive use of space – urban sprawl – and massive growth in mobility, predominantly by car, balancing the benefits and the burdens of dispersion in the other direction. Dispersion became increasingly seen as the main cause of the deterioration of the quality of life in the urban area. This short video explains the meaning of urban sprawl and which American city has the most of it.

Content not available.
Please allow cookies by clicking Accept on the banner

The difference with cities in developing countries cannot be larger. Big parts of these cities consist of thickly packed shanty town – horizontally or vertically – mixed with high-rise buildings for commercial and residential purposes as prosperity and associated contrast between rich and poor residents were increasing. The infamous example was Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong (picture), that was demolished in 1993 – 1995 and transformed into a park and new building sites. It was definitely the densest populated part of the world.

Aerial view of Kow Loon Walled City in 1989. Photo: Ian Lambot. Source: Wikimedia CC 4.0.

Gimme shelter

Although this famous song of the Rolling Stones was not exactly about housing, it is an expression of the eternal quest for a place to live happy and safely. For this reason, people have always been on the move, forced to leave beloved places or hoping to find better ones. Urban development is not just a movement from rural residents to (and from) the city, or between cities. It is also a never-ending movement of people within the city.

New York City: The Harlem case

Harlem, from the old fort in the Central Park, New York Public Library (Public domain).

During the American Revolution, the British burned Harlem to the ground. Afterwards, Harlem experienced an economic boom from 1868 on. The neighborhood remained a haven for New Yorkers, but increasingly those who came north were poor and Jewish or Italian. In 1910, Central Harlem was about 10% black. By 1930, this was 70%. In the 1920s and 1930s, Central and West Harlem was the center of the “Harlem Renaissance”. In those years it was called ‘Heaven’ and ‘Black Mecca’. Soon afterwards, the neighborhood was hit hard by job losses in the Great Depression. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Harlem was the scene of a series of rent strikes by local tenants. They wanted the city to force landlords to improve the quality of housing.  The city council tried to improve the situation by social housing but poverty only got worse.

In the 1970s, many Harlemites who were able to escape from poverty left the neighborhood in search of better schools and homes, and safer streets.

The city began auctioning its enormous portfolio of Harlem properties in 1985, marking the beginning of massive gentrification. After the 1990s, Harlem started to grow again with the percentage of blacks decreasing from 87.6% to 54.4% by 2010. In that period, the percentage of whites increasing from 1.5% to 10%[1].

Former inhabitants who were unable to afford the rising rents, exchanged Harlem for the Bronx or Brooklyn. Here, the same is happening today.

The continuous movement from people within New York, as illustrated in the Harlem case, is characteristic for all major cities. It also applies to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona, cities with a progressive image but a persistent lack of affordable housing. People who cannot longer afford rent or mortgage anymore move to other parts of the city, to the suburbs or disappear from the city at all. A substantial group that fails any of these options and no longer can pay for its housing costs is evicted.  The numbers are staggering: In 2016 alone, some 2.3 million evictions were filed in U.S. courts, according to researchers at Princeton University[1]. Not everyone lost their home, but the figure does not include the myriad examples of landlords using ‘informal’ means to force tenants out. Quite a number of all evicted people became homeless.

The Wall Street wolf strikes again

In the US, the housing problem has an extra bitter dimension. Million owners of suburban homes lost their property during the housing crises. After the crisis, dozens of private equity firms began buying foreclosed properties at a discount of 30 to 50 percent and rent them out. By 2016, 95 percent of the ailing mortgages on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s books were auctioned off to Wall Street investors who acquired more than 200,000 homes creating a more than lucrative asset: the single-family-rental home. By this transaction, a total value of $60 billion went from the former middle-class owners to these firms, which in some cases rented out the homes to their former owners. These paid soaring rents as real estate prices rose steadily, as can be read in a blood-curdling long-read in the New York Times [1]

In any other civilized country, the government would have supported homeowners to restructure bad mortgages or repair their credit. Instead, US government facilitated the transfer of wealth from people to private-equity firms[2].

The title page of the New York Times’ long read on the aftermath of the housing crisis.

Living in cities has become a privilege for upper-middle class couples and for young singles that are satisfied with a small albeit expensive room in a private house or at best a co-living studio.  

The fast-growing cities of today

The dominant feature of cities in developing and emerging countries is their rapid growth due to immigration from rural parts of the country, immigration and high birth rates, just like European and American cities a century ago[1].

Urban growth will continue: Today, 55% (4,2 billion) of the world’s population lives in urban areas, by 2050 this share is expected to be 68%. Urbanization, along with the overall growth of the world’s population, could then have added an additional 2.5 billion people to the urban areas. About 90% of this increase occurs in Asia and Africa[2].

Lack of affordable housing with basic quality is also problem in developing and emerging countries. Most of the time, immigrants move in with relatives, find a home in a derelict apartment building or are satisfied with a dilapidated construction in a shanty town, often without basic facilities with respect to electricity, sanitation and water. In Africa, 65% of the entire population lives in shantytowns.

However, a more detailed look at the shanty towns shows major differences. Some are no more than a shelter; others are rather habitable places, often with television, (mostly) shared sanitary facilities and facilities for obtaining drinking water and located near the center of the town[3].

The video below is a lively impression of the many aspects of life in a shanty town in Rio de Janeiro.

Content not available.
Please allow cookies by clicking Accept on the banner

Many residents of these better-equipped places reject the prospect of leaving[1]. At the same time, developers are keen to repurpose the land for more profitable aims. City authorities are aware of the commercial benefits, and are willing to provide alternative housing, usually small apartments in high-rise apartment blocks, with better facilities, but far from the original location and without the social fabric of the shanty town. In many cities, this is a source of much discussion and conflict.  

Inhabitants of the poorest and often illegally inhabited slums are often confronted with less subtle actions by the government: bulldozers that chase away the settlers who subsequently find another piece of marginal land[2].

The twofold unjust effect of the market mechanism on housing

How much rent or mortgage households have to pay and what they can pay depends on one and the same mechanism, the market. Unfortunately, the effect differs in both cases.

The price of real estate

Real estate developers pay the land, calculate the construction and capital costs and set their margins in proportion to the expected returns. In social housing, costs are reduced by subsidies or the availability of cheap land. In the last decades, social housing in large cities has often taken place in suburban ‘projects’ that soon became notorious no-go areas, demonstrating the inhumane impact of concentrating the lowest social classes, often with a migrant background. This policy has been abandoned in many countries, but little has replaced it: A viable mixture of homes for all income group is almost nowhere to be found. And as a result, demand for housing in general exceeds their availability, except in the highest price ranges.

In many cities, land is a substantial part of the final price of houses. One of the reasons is that land has become an attractive speculation object for private persons or real estate developers. They wait for the right time to sell and make attractive profits. Often land ownership changes several times before construction starts and in the meantime its value increases. The same goes for house prices, which have become a major source of intergenerational inequality. The price of older houses no longer relates with the initial costs for land and construction. Therefore, investors often buy new vacant apartments, rent them out temporarily and at the right moment sell them at a significant higher price than they paid[1].

A thought experiment: Turn housing into mobility

Everybody pays the same for road use, with the occasional exception of road pricing, a policy in large cities to mitigate road use. Roads are constructed in public space with public funds, often after expropriation of its owners.  Imagine that roads and were private and owners could charge a toll, as was common in the past. As a result, road users paid the most for routes that allow them to speed up and pays less on congested roads. As a result, the rich drive fast and the poor are trapped in traffic. However, mobility is mainly controlled by the government and homes are subject to the market.

The affordability of real estate

Let’s face the other side of the equation: The affordability of real estate. Many households cannot afford a decent home due to their income. Income is also the effect of the market, with some interference from negotiations between unions and employers. Automation and offshoring are permanently threatening the jobs of low to medium income groups, which explains why the salaries of these groups in developed countries have hardly increased in recent decades.

In developed countries, the lower and middle classes pay a substantial part of their family income to housing and associated travel costs. One-parent families depend on grants and gifts and use food banks, thrift shops or have to move. Research by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that in the US between 1981 and 2016, the ratio between housing to income by an average of nearly 40% [1].

The city government of Berlin has frozen the rents for five year, as an act of resistance, that further limited investor activity[2]. Thus, more comprehensive government action is needed.

Affordable housing

In the post-war period affordable houses in Europe were also scarce and young couples had to wait years before a home became available. Many lived in a room in their parents’ house for years, not always without troubles. To solve the post-war housing crisis, governments in Europe and the US have spurred construction and affordable homes became available.


In this article, I refrain from speculation about the impact of the current corona-crisis on living in cities, although it deeply concerns me. It is clear that social distancing, shared mobility and growing density are at odds. Moreover, this applies to living in cities in general as well. I trust that Covid-19 will be overcome. I also hope that this will strengthen n our efforts towards a more liveable, healthy and save society and the following makes a full contribution to this.

Unfortunately, many of these houses became part of notorious ghetto’s, especially the ‘projects’ that are built exclusively for low-income groups without much prospects of a better life. This is documented in the famous documentary film, The Great British Housing Disaster (Adam Curtis, 1984). This 1984 example of investigative journalism was one of the first productions of the acclaimed BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, popular for award-winning films such as The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and Bitter Lake.

The documentary set out to investigate, not the well-chronicled social problems of 1960s council housing[1], but why they were built so poorly that many had to be demolished after two or three decades.

Content not available.
Please allow cookies by clicking Accept on the banner

But it got even worse.

The political climate in the last two decades of the 20th century changed and the market started to prevail. In the case of housing with even more dramatic consequences. In recent years, not only the construction of social housing has collapsed in the Netherlands, but also the construction of housing in general. Housing undersupply became a global phenomenon, except for houses over two or three million that are oversupplied. It explains why people move less and why social mobility has decreased[1]. As a result, cities worldwide are becoming exclusive places for the upper middle classes and the wealthy, as an interactive map of Los Angeles shows, for example[2].

Why Manhattan skyscrapers are empty

Oversupply can be found in most metropolitan areas, where luxury condos were put up. About half of the luxury Manhattan apartments built in the past five years are still unsold. From 2011 to 2019, the average price of new apartments rose from $1.15 million to $3.77 million. These luxury condos are built for wealthy foreigners looking to buy a second (or seventh) home. Supply is now outstripping demand, but developers are reluctant to cut prices as the target group of global zillionaires continues to grow. A restrictive government policy on money laundering did not help either[1].

House prices have exploded due to the general scarcity. In some cities this problem is even exacerbated because renting houses to tourists has proven to be an attractive alternative to selling or renting out to home seekers.

Sometimes city governments try to bring some justice. The New York administration was not able to prevent that the costs of living for most Manhattan residents, Harlem included became too expansive. Many residents moved to Brooklyn and when this area became also unaffordable, The Bronx, Staten Island and Queens followed or they left New York at all.  The city’s policy is to allow developers to build glamourous projects such as Hudson Wharfs in exchange for inclusion of a certain percentage of ‘affordable housing’, meaning that double income middle-class couple can hardly afford the rent.

To be successful, a broader approach is needed than the offering small quantities of houses ‘below market prices’, or making available allowances.

To arrive at such as approach, the World Economic Forum recently launched a new report, Making Affordable Housing a Reality for Cities[1]. It provides a comprehensive overview of all factors that affect the affordability of housing, access to social infrastructure, the legal and regulatory environment and the state of financial markets.

As explained above, there are two fundamental causes: The market mechanism and speculation at one hand, low incomes at the other hand. In solving the housing problem, governments must tackle both causes and not just their symptoms.

To do this, the government must engage in seven main activities:

  • Making an inventory of the total housing need in the next decades, differentiated by income groups. This inventory must be accompanied by an inventory of all other claims on space, such as offices, retail facilities, factories, parks and agriculture.
  • Taking stock of available space within the city limits. This includes not only vacant areas, but also area that can be redesigned more efficiently.
  • To avoid speculation based on these plans, all real estate prizes are frozen at the level of the last transaction.
  • Tuning the desired destinations and the available space. The starting point is a compact use of the available space. In the event of a serious mismatch, plans are discussed with stakeholders.
  • Development of detailed plans, together with owners of the land, the houses and buildings, project developers, financial institutions and housing corporations.
  • Specifying further conditions, such as the priority of selling or renting to prospective residents and the limitation of rent increases or sale prices for a long period.
  • Facilitating the process of building at lower costs by investing in factory production of house components and creating a market for reuse of components of demolished houses[2].



Housing cooperations in Amsterdam and elsewhere

The city government of Amsterdam promotes a new developmental model for houses for lower- and middle-income groups. Residents develop, finance and manage an apartment building and rent a unit in it. It is comparable to the activities of the Mietshäuser Syndikat (MHS) in Germany. By 2040, 40.000 homes (10% of all) in Amsterdam must be developed this way[1].


Controlling the market mechanism and avoiding speculation on land and real-estate will increase the building of houses, balance demand and supply and make the rental and sales process smoother. However, adequate housing will still remain prohibitive for many households. The incomes of their households are too low to pay for the minimal packages of goods and services that are needed for a decent life. I have examined this problem elsewhere, and concluded that minimum wages should be increased and that in some cases allowances are indispensable[1]. In essence, the aim should be to create economic opportunity for underprivileged households, which requires decent housing but also access to education, employment, and affordable consumer goods.

A recent study[2] found, that living in more compact multi-modal neighborhoods increases the probability that a child born in poverty (lowest income quintile) will become a high earning adult (highest income quintile) by 41%. For this reason, it must be strongly disapproved to realize affordable homes in the suburbs nor in so-called projects and neither in worn-out houses formerly occupied by middle classes. Besides, when living in these places expenses for traveling will soar. Currently, the general rule of thumb is that households should not spend more than 30% of their budget on rents or mortgage, which applies to over 30% of all US families. Many experts recommend setting this limit as 45% on total housing and mobility costs[3].

In many fast-growing cities in emerging countries building activities are numerous, mostly rather sober and compact high-rise buildings, but good enough for basically existence. A major advantage is that employment for lower-income groups in emerging countries is available, which offers prospects for a more decent life and social mobility.

Towards a new architecture of space: Living with density

Urbanisation and the provision of decent housing for all, will increase the pressure on urban space within cities and especially on the urban-rural fringe. At the other hand, the liveability of cities requires to preservation and even expansion of green spaces, for leisure, carbon sequestering and urban agriculture[4]. This pressure on space must be resolved in three ways (1) by using vacant areas within the city, (2) by repurposing already built space and intensifying its use and (3) by rethinking the design of the surrounding of cities.

This applies to cities in all part of the world with differences that are related to the expected population growth. European and American cities will grow moderately and the growth will be divided over many larger and smaller municipalities. In this part of the world compaction will dominate, along with retrofitting older houses to become energy neutral at least.

In cities in developing and emerging countries with already dense populations, priorities are: (1) Improving existing homes, (2) building new homes and facilities in empty spaces and (3) building new cities and enlarging smaller towns near existing cities.

Below, I will give a couple of examples from developed countries and from developing and emerging countries. Afterwards, the redevelopment of the urban-rural fringe will get attention.

American and European cities

In Europe and the US in particular, there are plenty of opportunities to intensify the use of land instead of the expansion urban territory. At the same time, the housing supply must be diversified to create mixed neighborhoods. This involves variation in housing types, the degree of compaction and social groups living together[5].

In the US, suburban densification has started, as a result of changing zoning laws, allowing for differentiation in housing types. These laws have been defended for years by the strong Not In My Backyard (NIMBY)-movement. The increasing resistance to this exclusive defence of the interests of established groups by the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBI)-movement has finally has found resonance in politics at the level of some states (Oregon) and cities (Seattle, Austin)[6] and others prepare comparable initiatives.

In their famous book Retrofitting Suburbia, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson view the redevelopment of the US suburban areas as the greatest challenge for urban development in the first half of the 21st century. They discuss eleven strategies that can be used and which almost all lead to compaction. A brief summary of their ideas can be seen in the short presentation below by Ellen Durham-Jones.

Content not available.
Please allow cookies by clicking Accept on the banner

Here are some examples: Eight relatively small houses (first photo below) are built in Clarkston on land that once held one single-family house[1].  The houses range from around 25 to 500 m2 and will cost between $100,000 and $125,000. The second photo below is an impression of 85 planned blocks of factory-made studio apartments in Seattle[2]. The third one is also a prefab building in Vancouver especially for the homeless[3].  The fourth photo shows a cluster of six houses in Austin (US) for single household people, printed by the startup ICON[4].

Each of the four examples refer to partial industrial production. Once running at maximum efficiency, a factory offers many advantages, especially when using elements of timber, which additionally provides environmental advantages from carbon store[1]. The advantages are:

  • Acceleration of construction time by 35 percent thanks to the easier assembly of prefabricated timber parts.
  • Reduced deliveries to a construction site by 85 percent, because truck can be filled in one factory.
  • Cutting waste by 75 percent, thanks to standardized construction parts that are ready for assembly.
  • Decrease in total costs up to 20 percent, which translate in lower rents or mortgages.

An alternative for singles with many things to do outside the house is co-living[2]. A startup Starcity, is developing plans for single-room apartments for adults in many places. Renters get a furnished 13- to 22 m2 bedroom and share a communal kitchen and living space. Rents range from $1,000 to $2,400 a month. Look here for a tour[3].

Low densities are not restricted to the US suburbs. Elsewhere too, there are thousands of rather big (semi)detached houses that are obviously too large for the mostly older couples that occupy them.  They do not want to leave the house, as alternatives lack. An obvious solution is to split the houses, make them energy-positive and create one or two additional units.

A large source of land to be redeveloped are roads and parking lots that account for more than 50% of the territory of an average US city, albeit less in Europe.

Developing and emerging countries

Cities is developing and especially emerging countries tend to replace shanty towns with high-rise apartments with clean water and sanitation but often far the town center. Sometimes, this policy is motivated by humanitarian considerations but it is primarily intended to create valuable space for commercial purposes[4].

Creating of rows of high-rise apartments as far the eye can see, is objectional from an urbanist view and fears are warranted that these massive concentrations will follow the infamous example of the high-rise apartments in Europe and the US. Therefore, a more varied architecture, based on local traditions with more eye for the living environment must be considered.

It also happens that slum redevelopment programs are developed together with residents. These programs include building new houses in the same location together with relatives and neighbours. The municipality takes care for provision of roads, water and sanitation. Improving housing, must be accompanied by improvements in education, medical care, support with finding jobs and law enforcement.

The pictures below of a renovated favela in Rio de Janeiro show the possible result.

Renovation favela Rio de Janeiro. Photos: New Castle University (left); Viator (right).

iBuild – Empowering self-building

iBuild allows citizens to take control of
the building process. Photo: iBuild.

iBuild is a citizen-centric app that supports building homes. The goal of the app is to empower citizens to control of the construction process, improve transparency, and collect data to inform policymaking. Most housing in developing countries is self-built, mostly for financial reasons. Using the mobile platform iBuild, users find contractors, make quotes, purchase materials, and track the progress. E-wallets help ensure that government subsidies are used for their intended purpose.[1]

Redesigning the urban-rural fringe

Cities around the world have expanded their territory by annexing neighbouring municipalities or by expropriating farm land. At the newly acquired land new neighbourhoods were planned and sooner or later, road or rail connection with older parts of the city followed. This process went on for years and was at the expense of the green environment. New insights are based on creating new neighbourhoods, by compaction and expanding existing village. At the same time, the rural environment was preserved, by integrating farms in the regional food chain, by creating parks and leaving nature as it is.

In the case of biomorphic urbanism, nature is allowed to penetrate the urban area[1]. It strengthens and restores natural systems, rather than reducing them. The picture below depicts the Wild Mile, a proposed 17-acre, eco-park that will create new opportunities for habitat restoration, education, and recreation. It is located along a formerly industrialized stretch of the Chicago River.

The Wild Mile in Chicago. Image: SOM Architects.

Housing in the humane city

In a humane city, the supply of homes for lower- and middle-income groups is sufficient and varied, the incomes of these group are adequate to pay for a decent house and the house prices or rents reflect the land price, their building costs, capital cost, depreciation and – if applicable – maintenance. Speculation with land and houses is prohibited. Cities that own all the land, lease parts of it to developers for a price that depends from the planned destination. They never sell it.

The housing supply will be mixed and will vary from low-rise to medium-high and from single family homes, to co-living apartments, and from compounds of tiny houses to small clusters of more expensive ones. The average compaction is much larger than we are used to: In addition, clusters of residential houses are mixed in a thoughtful way with other destinations: Shops, clean workshops or small industry, offices, recreation and simply unbuild areas for playing or placemaking by inhabitants. Parking places will disappear gradually and are replaced by places for shared cars.

Below, the contribution of housing to a humane city is summarized.

How housing will contribute to a humane city

  1. Urban growth is primarily concentrated in the available space within its borders. Redundant and excessively wide roads, former industrial complexes and accompanying railroad yards are repurposed.
  • The shape and character of the rural area will be respected and even improved if the growth of the urban population requires construction outside the city limits, thanks to the concentration of buildings in villages and small towns.
  • The starting point for further development of cities is a realistic estimate of the use of space in the future. This applies to homes, but also to shops, industry and recreation. Much of it will be needed to build a diverse range of decent houses for singles, families, co-housing initiatives. These houses are for sale or can be rented, and their prices reflect a more equal division of incomes than today.
  • Land, houses and other buildings can be public or private property. In both cases, policy must prevent speculation and unjustified price increases for homes, rented or owned. Buying real estate for the sole purpose of selling or renting it out is prohibited.
  • Investment in real estate is only permitted through an investment fund or a community land trust. Both are instructed to fund a new project at community agreed prices for rental and sale and pay a fair return to the investors.
  • Creation of an attractive living environment is part of the design of (mixed) neighbourhoods. For all houses to be built or renovated, playgrounds and green space are in walking distance and public spaces for shopping and socializing within are within walking or cycling distance.
  • In a humane city, the use of private cars is discouraged. As a result, parking spots near each house will disappear in favour of concentrated parking places for shared cars at short distance.
  • In no neighbourhood, one specific type of homes predominates, neither in shape (high-versus low-rise), nor in terms of social stratification.
  • Architectural innovations such as sustainable timber construction, flexible modular buildings are stimulated, from a perspective of variation, aesthetics and cost reduction.

Written by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Header image: Eviction – Photo by Princeton University Eviction Lab (Public domain).


































[1] en

Tags from the story
, ,

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *