Affordable housing for people with low incomes, it’s one of the pillars of an inclusive society. But Boram Kimhur, active in the housing sector, realized the experts she was working with, had different views on what housing justice was, what problems were and what possible solutions could be. For her PhD thesis Boram questioned: “Are there better solutions or policies to make housing more fair and more inclusive than focusing on distribution of income and houses?”

Boram worked as an architect, consultant and even activist in the housing sector. “The reason I wrote my thesis ‘Housing justice as expansion of people’s capabilities for housing: Proposal for principles of  housing policy and evaluation of housing inequality’ was because I wanted to know why experts had different viewpoints. And what do we need to investigate to answer these questions?”

The wrong focus

She first looked at how housing scholars have discussed the questions like: What is good housing? What are the reasons people get to live in inadequate houses? What outcome for this problem is ‘right’ for society? Boram: “The focus often is on numbers. How many housing units do we need? What percentage should be social housing? How low or high is the income threshold for social housing?” Boram realized other factors aren’t taken into account. Like the unequal relationship between landlords and their renters, the reasons people can are or can’t get a mortgage, or racial and gender discrimination in private rental markets.

Better focus on people’s capabilities

One of the most interesting finds in her research was when she compared the people living in inadequate housing versus people with a low income. Boram: “In the Netherlands, only 37% of all people living in inadequate houses had an income below the eligibility threshold of social houses.” The combined outcome of her research shows that the focus on income as the main obstacle is indeed wrong. “There are several reasons people live in inadequate housing, a good example is housing illiteracy. A couple of the topics we should consider to solve this, apart from income, are people’s ability to understand social housing programmes and regulations that protect their housing rights. Or whether or not they grasp what certain changes in the market mean for their personal situation.” Boram established the three levels of peoples capabilities for decent housing: opportunity for housing (allows you to access decent housing), security in/for housing (allows you to keep your decent housing) and ability for housing (allows you to improve it and utilise the opportunities).

Understanding the needs

Boram also realized that data about this subject is often missing and/or incomplete. “For instance, a lot of the available data focuses on household level. But doesn’t take individual members of those households in account. Like the adults living with their parents or with other housemates, but who like to make a change in to their living condition but are often very disadvantaged. I call them ‘latent households’. The fact that their data is ‘hidden’ means their situation isn’t met in the available solutions.” In other words, we don’t have a clear picture of what the problems are. Only when we see and understand the needs, we can properly address the problem and start working on solutions.

Expanding capabilities

Based on her research, Boram can indicate a couple of solutions for the problem. “First of all, we need to use the correct data and if that is not available, do new research. Then we need to enable people to make informed decisions, for instance through social programmes for housing literacy. And the most important one: We must expand people’s capabilities to choose decent housing options, based on what they need. This includes empowerment and removal of discrimination in opportunities.” And there might be more at stake here than providing inclusive housing. The solution from the government for the current housing crisis is building roughly a million new houses. But that solution could very well be based on wrong assumptions and/or data. And with the environmental challenges, scarcity of resources and rising prices, investing in a wrong solution is something we cannot afford.

Published: February 2023

More information

Boram Kimhur received her doctorate on 22 December 2022 with the defense of her dissertation ‘Housing justice as expansion of people’s capabilities for housing: Proposal for principles of  housing policy and evaluation of housing inequality’