Housing Essay

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Housing refers to buildings or other types of shelter construction in which people live. Types of housing have varied across time and geographic location. Housing also varies by structure, layout, building material, shape, and, to some extent, function, depending on location, culture, and socioeconomic status. A house provides semipermanent residence for one or more people, and many consider their house their home—meaning where they return every day, socialize, eat, and sleep. Housing is considered essential for physical and psychological survival in modernized societies. Modern structures generally include single-family homes (detached and sometimes on privately owned parcels of land); semidetached houses (attached to one or more houses, each including one or two housing units); multi-unit dwellings (structures with multiple separate self-contained units, sometimes referred to as tenements, apartments, flats, condominiums, or cooperatives); single-room occupancy units (a room in a multi-unit building that is rented by the week or month and does not include a bathroom or kitchen); and mobile homes (factory-built structures that are purchased and then transported to a specific location, quite often a trailer park that permits mobile homes). Housing units (regardless of type) can be owned by the resident(s) or rented (meaning someone else owns the unit and charges others a monthly fee to live there).

Housing can become the source of social problems for a number of reasons. First there are issues of affordability. If total housing costs exceed the income of those residing in the unit, then the unit is not affordable. In places where the demand for housing exceeds the supply, the cost of housing goes up. This is characteristically the case in large cities with a continual influx of people looking for employment (e.g., New York, London, and Tokyo, among others). In the United States, an accepted guideline for housing affordability is a housing cost that does not exceed 30 percent of a household’s gross annual income. However, since the late 1970s, an increasing number of households have had to pay 50 percent or more of their income for housing. Rising costs can thus result in increased foreclosures and evictions, possibly causing homelessness.

People who become homeless are forced to reside in public shelters or other temporary accommodations. Because the number of beds does not meet the need and because length of stay in many public shelters is limited, homeless people are frequently forced to sleep outdoors or find alternative nonconventional lodging, including abandoned buildings, tunnels, tents, and cardboard boxes, all of which are generally unsafe. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, shantytowns known as “Hoovervilles” emerged in major cities across the United States. Families and individuals evicted from their homes would construct makeshift, temporary housing structures with whatever they could find. Hoovervilles were normally located on vacant land right outside the city limits.

For others, rising housing costs result in “shelter poverty.” This is the circumstance in which households are forced to use a substantial proportion of their income to cover housing costs, leaving little to cover other essential nonshelter needs. Rising housing costs can also result in doubling up, where families or unrelated individuals share a housing unit initially built for fewer occupants. This can lead to overcrowding. Extreme overcrowding has health and safety issues associated with it.

Related to affordability is substandard housing. Although the definition of substandard housing will vary across cultures, typically such housing is without what is deemed adequate in terms of shelter or utilities, such as running water, heat, and electricity. Substandard housing can also include structures located on environmentally contaminated land. Habitat for Humanity defines substandard housing as dwellings with structural deterioration of the roof, foundation, porch, exterior walls, windows, or doors, all of which render it unsafe and unfit for occupancy. Housing becomes substandard when property owners neglect upkeep, typically either to save money or to make a bigger profit from rents collected. Over time, as the property deteriorates further, the cost of repair becomes too high to make rehabilitation of the structure economically feasible.

Substandard housing conditions were commonplace in the United States during the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century when immigrants flocked to big cities like New York and Chicago and were forced to live in squalid structures known as tenements, often associated with serious health problems and epidemics of typhoid and other highly contagious diseases. These dwellings were also prone to fires and other safety dangers. Federal and state housing legislation enacted during the mid-20th century brought about stricter building code enforcement, resulting in improved housing conditions, particularly in urban areas. However, experts argue that substandard housing remains commonplace in the United States, despite the fact that the United States also has some of the best housing in the world.

Discrimination in housing markets can indirectly result in affordability and housing quality issues. Property owners, real estate agencies, and lenders may discriminate based on characteristics of those seeking housing, including characteristics of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and disability. In the United States, one of the most pervasive publicly acknowledged forms of housing discrimination is that based on race. African Americans have been vulnerable to housing discrimination in urban areas since the late 1800s. Large influxes of African Americans from the rural South to the big northern cities led to widespread discrimination in housing, forcing migrants into specific geographic areas where they had to pay inflated rents for frequently substandard housing. This process resulted in widespread residential segregation where all-black or all-white neighborhoods became visible on urban and suburban landscapes and remain so today. The term American apartheid describes this phenomenon. Among the harmful consequences of segregation is the consignment of racial minorities to inferior dwellings and neighborhoods where the public schools may not be adequately funded and where property values depreciate rapidly. Although housing discrimination was officially made illegal with the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and reinforced with the Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988, it is still pervasive and particularly focused on racial minorities.

Displacement is another housing-related problem. Displacement in the United States became an issue during the 1950s and 1960s with federally sponsored urban renewal programs. Urban renewal programs authorized slum clearance to make way for freeways and new commercial development, displacing the inhabitants, who were typically poor racial minorities. Displacement can also occur through the process of gentrification. Gentrification occurs when developers or individuals with financial means buy up housing in poor inner-city areas and renovate, eventually increasing the property values of the area and driving up the property taxes and monthly rents. This leads to the displacement of lower-income property owners and tenants who cannot afford the rising prices. This also occurs when properties, including single-room occupancy housing, are converted to condominiums.

Natural disasters cause another form of displacement. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, or fires can result in the destruction of homes, sometimes leaving entire communities without shelter. Mobile home communities or those with deteriorating buildings are particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. Geographic locations, such as low-lying areas near large bodies of water, are particularly vulnerable. For example, Hurricane Katrina left the entire Ninth Ward of New Orleans without shelter, an area that housed many of the city’s poor. Although temporary shelter is generally provided to victims of natural disasters, the pathway back to permanent housing can be a long and difficult one, particularly for people with lower incomes.

Policy solutions to housing problems have been varied. Subsidized housing, in which the government pays a portion of total housing costs, is the most common policy solution. In the United States subsidized housing has taken the form of public housing, which is run by government-funded local housing authorities, and Section 8, where private landlords are given a monthly subsidy to provide reduced rents to qualified tenants. These policies have had mixed results. Location of public housing has resulted in increased residential segregation for racial minorities. In addition, since the early 1980s, public housing has been underfunded, resulting in lack of building maintenance and ultimately substandard housing. During the late 1990s, many cities began to tear down public housing, displacing those public housing residents who were unsuccessful at obtaining Section 8 subsidies or other housing.

Although Section 8 relies on the private market for housing, there is never enough Section 8 housing vis-a-vis the needs. In Chicago, for example, the waiting list for Section 8 housing has contained more than 40,000 people. In addition, not all landlords accept Section 8 vouchers, often therefore confining participants to the poorer urban areas. Nonenforced building code violations are also commonplace with Section 8 housing, rendering some of these units substandard.


  1. Bratt, Rachel, Michael Stone, and Chester Hartman, eds. 2006. A Right to Housing: Foundation for a New Social Agenda. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  2. Friedricks, Jiirgen, George Galster, and Sako Musterd, eds. 2005. Life in Poverty Neighbourhoods: European and American Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
  3. Massey, Douglas and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Miller, Henry. 1991. On the Fringe: The Dispossessed in America. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
  5. Stone, Michael E. 1993. Shelter Poverty: New Ideas on Housing Affordability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  6. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 1994. “Priority Home! The Federal Plan to Break the Cycle of Homelessness.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  7. van Vliet, Willem, ed. 1998. The Encyclopedia of Housing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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