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Bernardette (39) and her son Tamek (11) just moved into their new two-bedroom flat in Central St. Giles, in Central London. Although they were in Camden’s social housing waiting list for several years, today Tamek takes just a couple of minutes to go to school by bus and her mother can walk to work. They pay around £500 per month for their flat’s rent, yet their neighbor – the Malaysian from the pent-house – has just paid £5m to buy his. 

In order to be able to build in one of the most expensive urban areas in the world, St.Giles developers had to include 35% of social housing in their scheme. Although this term has multiple definitions, social housing in their different versions – from the subsidized to the shared property one – is intended for those who can’t pay the market price or rent. A sector that embodies 1/3 of London’s housing stock and which represents, in many cases, the only choice for those pretending to live in the capital. 

Regardless its global city status – or maybe because of it – London estimates a deficit of 325 thousand housing units – 50% of national’s deficit – by 2025. The majority of the financial sector recognizes this as an essential problem, as it reduces the productivity and employability in a city that is constantly competing with other global cities. 

“Housing must be located there where it can maximize the use of land, save energy and be close to schools, workplaces, shops and public transport (…) likewise, it should be able to contribute to the economic development as well as offering a variety of options to the population”. It’s one of London’s plan visions signed, amongst others, by Richard Rogers, the Mayor’s advisor in architecture and urbanism. 

Unlike many other European cities, where the housing problem was intended to be overcame by “storing” people in isolated blocks in monofunctional peripheries, the way London has been built has always sought to include them in central areas, trying to find a social equilibrium in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world. Therefore, the fact that Bernadette and Tamek live close to their job and school is not a luxury at all; it is the consequence of a city vision with more integrated communities, a compact and sustainable city. 

The reasoning behind is pretty simple and, although it has a necessary idealist and ethic component, it’s absolutely pragmatic. The less resources you have, the less you can spend in transport. Why should people waste 30% of their day, spending 30% of their wage trying to get to their school or workplace? Why two people who work on the same building – one at his office and the other cleaning it – should live miles away? Less transport means less energy loss and less pollution. Less segregation means less dissatisfaction, which allows governments to save in education, safety and health. 

This is not a recent approach though, but part of a policy held in the city throughout many years. In his film “Utopia London” the young director Tom Cordell describes a postwar period where “the most ambitious of London’s architecture served the common men and women, instead of the church or banks.” A period where social housing used to be located next to London’s main parks, surrounded by wealthy neighborhoods; always with the intention of not just building housing but making communities. An interesting but short period, which started its decaying until almost disappearing with the “Right to buy”, one of Thatcher’s political pillars; a free market which resulted in the decrease of social housing stock for rent for the next 30 years. 

Nowadays, most of the housing programs are linked to large mixed-used urban redevelopments. One of the biggest in London – King’s Cross Central – will provide 2000 new housing units next to the Eurostar Station, The National Library and The University of Arts. 40% of these units will be for social housing of different size and types; in order to accommodate students, families and elder people; a mixed and balanced community. 

Exceptionally, developers are allowed to build part of the social housing outside the project and, in some cases, they are allowed to pay a fee that will later be used for its construction in other projects. In any case, the general policy requires these units to be spread out throughout the whole scheme and not focused on one spot; and to be integrated using the same aesthetics as the rest of the project. 

It might be thought of this as an opium dream, something only possible in a developed socialist environment. However, this happens in London, the center of the world’s capitalism. Each pound the state invests in social housing not only intends to solve the inhabitation problem per se, but also pretends to be an impulse to the economy and the social welfare.

Published in El Comercio the 19th of May 2012

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