Large social housing estates – often high-rise post war blocks – are common in Europe. Frequently seen as problem neighbourhoods, these estates have become unpopular and hard to let, fallen into disrepair, gained reputations for crime and poverty, and from time to time been the scene of riots.
In both England and France these problems have led to major programmes run by both local and national government agencies. In recent years there has been a move towards the policy of ‘mixed communities’ – the idea that in order to improve these neighbourhoods, an influx of middle class working families is needed, to improve not only the income base but also the social and moral capital of the area.
But does this work? And who benefits, even if it does work? The evidence suggests that this is not a magic bullet, despite the political popularity of the approach.
In the period after 1945, there was a crisis of housing due to the very high levels of need created by bomb damage and the pre-war legacy of inner city slum housing. Driven by this housing crisis, and informed by architectural and welfare state notions of modernity and state provision, high rise system built estates were rapidly constructed. Apart from anything else, their pre-fabricated structure mitigated the need for skilled building workers, who were in very short supply.
In many cases the initial reaction of residents was very positive – they had new, light and airy flats with central heating, indoor plumbing, and separate rooms for their children, which was a great improvement from what they had before.
The problems emerged after only a few years – buildings were poorly constructed and damp, estates were isolated and poorly served by transport, and design problems led to high crime rates.
With these problems came difficulties in letting the flats, not least as other housing options were becoming available with continuing high rates of construction. The estates could only be let to households with few other options, including homeless people and people with very low incomes, and a cycle of decline let to the entrenchment of these problems.
Government intervention and mixed communities
Government intervention started in the early 1970s in both England and France. Programmes were invented, implemented, inspected, interrupted, and re-invented every few years, dealing with a variety of factors from the quality of the buildings to attempts to build community identity and social capital. There was very mixed progress in significantly improving the outcomes for residents. Although decline was halted and the neighbourhoods mainly stabilised, they remained pockets of poverty within their wider city framework.
The arrival of ‘mixed communities’ as a new putative solution came in the early 2000s. The proposal was to transform these estates into areas where there was a mix of all classes, ethnicities, and capacities to engender higher social capital and community cohesion.
Part of the implementation of this approach can be seen in planning frameworks in England and France, where there are strict (if not entirely watertight) regulations around the need to achieve a specified level of ‘mix’ of what are now termed ‘affordable’ homes within any new housing and community developments or area renewal projects. In France this laudable aim is covered by the “law of city solidarity and renewal” indicating the egalitarian impulse behind it.
When social ‘mixing’ becomes problematic
However, this aim of ‘mixing’ becomes much more problematic when applied retrospectively to existing neighbourhoods with concentrated poverty and dense social housing. The first problem is the underlying objectives of the programme.
One way to look at it is as a means to bring new families, businesses, finance for better housing, social capital, and a better image to the neighbourhood.
Another way is to see it as a morally driven imposition of ‘middle class morals of hard work and good living’ on an estate mainly inhabited by some kind of ‘criminal classes’ or benefit cheats, and expect that the overall standard of behaviour can be raised.
This rather exaggerated sounding second option reflects many more historic characterisations of the residents of poor neighbourhoods (for example in England, Booth’s poverty maps). But in fact even today these attitudes often form part of political rhetoric about poor areas - and for evidence of this we can recall ex-President Sarkozy’s 2005 characterisation of the residents of these areas as “racailles et voyous“ (scum and hooligans).
Experiences of the residents
For residents, things may appear and be different. One key element emerging from some of the many varied programmes mentioned above is the existence of strong local communities, with high social capital and levels of self-help and cooperation on these estates.
Many programmes have worked to develop the existing capacities of residents, driving improvement from the inside and building on existing strengths. Not only do large scale demolitions and rebuilding with middle class housing undermine this, they also very often result in the forced or inevitable eviction of existing residents from the neighbourhood.
Where ex-residents go is also seldom studied, but the limited evidence suggests that they often go to neighbourhoods or to housing conditions which are no better than those on the estate they left. Evidence from the slightly different and more systematically studied US experience of moving families from similar neighbourhoods of ‘project’ housing had clearly shown that even if they move to better (more ‘mixed’) neighbourhoods, the outcomes in terms of levels of achievement of the families are little changed, or poorer, compared to families remaining in their original homes.
There is also a version of this poor outcome in existing attempts to create ‘mixed communities’ which often quickly morph into areas of gated middle-class households who go to different schools, shops, and clubs, and seldom if ever mix with the original residents.
Beyond the ‘mixed communities’ approach
But if the ‘mixed communities’ approach does not work for existing problem neighbourhoods, what should we do?
This is not a problem that can be ignored, and good social policy and city governance considerations suggest that better solutions to tackle these pockets of poverty and disadvantage should continue to be developed, despite the patchy results of past programmes.
Perhaps we should start by accepting that mass displacement of poor residents undermines existing capacities and social capital. We can also recognise that many of these programmes are driven by the unfounded fears of more affluent parts of a city rather than a real desire to address the concerns of residents on these areas.
One key thing that the range of original improvement programmes have shown is that stability and progress can be made not by exporting the residents to unknown and unsupported places. Instead, these poor neighbourhoods need to receive not only their fair equal share of economic and social investment in jobs, schools, hospitals, transport and training, but also require high quality housing improvements, local management and control, and specific attention to the needs of the vulnerable residents.
Bert Provan is an Occasional Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
This article is adapted from a piece in The Political Quarterly journal. You can read the full article here.