Why we should go back to the Addison Act to build cities fit for the future

Sociologist Dr David Madden sees a future worth fighting for in a new commitment to well-designed, state-built public housing

What should the urban spaces of the future look like? Many city planners, policymakers, and trendspotters today are obsessed with complicated digital ‘solutions’ to the problems of urban life, such as autonomous vehicles, sensor-embedded streets, and delivery drones. But I’d argue that those are just higher-tech versions of the status quo. 

In contrast, the future of cities should be shaped by an idea that first found large-scale expression in the UK one hundred years ago: the right to good housing for everyone. The 1919 Addison Act provided financing for the construction of half a million council houses, which more than any other policy embodied the idea of a right to housing. This year’s 100th anniversary  is a good opportunity to think about the role public housing should play in the towns and cities of the future.

Society and politics today are dominated by multiple, intersecting crises. Not only is there a housing crisis, with spiking rates of unaffordability, overcrowding, displacement, and homelessness in cities across the UK and around the world. There’s also a climate crisis, which threatens human existence and requires radically new forms of inhabiting and moving through cities. At the same time, there’s a political crisis, as states are increasingly unable to ensure that their citizens can access the resources to live decent lives. All of these crises are driven by systems dominated by market mechanisms, and exacerbated by inequality.

It’s notable how many of these crises could be addressed with a new commitment to building well-designed public housing at scale. This isn’t an unrealistic idea, as the experience of public housing in the UK and other countries show. In fact, at many points in urban history, it was precisely maintaining the status quo that was unrealistic.

One such moment was the early 20th century. Cities began building public housing and adopting other urban reforms because the unequal cityscape which fuelled their wealth also threatened to destroy the whole system. Elites were terrified of the combined threats of disease and insurrection emanating from the ‘slums’. This provided a political opportunity for the tenant organisers and municipal socialists who were struggling for better housing for the poor and working class.

The status quo can’t continue. The housing crisis is undermining urban life

The council housing and other public facilities that emerged as a result of this situation was never allowed to fully live up to the utopian ambitions of its theorists and proponents. But it did provide good homes for millions of people. And it showed that, with the political will, the right to housing could be made a reality.

Today cities are in a similar situation. The status quo can’t continue. The housing crisis is undermining urban life, just as the climate crisis is undermining planetary life. As a result, many people feel that the future has been stolen from them. So an alternative kind of urban future needs to be created.

A new Addison Act-style approach would be an opportunity to begin creating a different kind of city, one oriented towards meeting actual needs, rather than being hyper-focused on profitability no matter how socially or ecologically damaging. Around the world, activists are seeking to do just that. 

After sustained mobilisation in Berlin, the city’s Senate approved a five-year rent freeze. Housing groups in New York recently managed to pressure the government to strengthen tenants’ rights. Activists and thinkers associated with the Green New Deal and the environmental justice movement are reimagining housing, transportation, and other parts of urban life.

And in the UK and beyond, voices are calling for the construction of new public housing. The city of the future should build upon the tradition that sought to provide housing and urban amenities for all. That would be a future worth struggling for.

Dr David Madden is an associate professor in the sociology department and co-director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. He is co-author, with Peter Marcuse, of In Defense of Housing, the Politics of Crisis

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