Housing Semantics

What is housing? Is it a noun or a verb? I’m coming across literature and articles that challenge how housing is perceived and it’s beginning to shape how I pursue my research and career. My background and experience has mostly been in housing, the ‘noun’. The built form, the site plan, the lighting etc. is what facilitates the development of a healthy home. In a paper by John Turner, he writes that: Housing problems are defined by material standards and housing values are judged by the material quality of the houses produced, or by the material quantity of related products, such as profit or equity. ….. According to those for whom housing is an activity, these conclusions are absurd. They fail to distinguish between what things are, materially speaking, and what they do in people’s lives.

Although the paper was written in in 1972, there is still a lot to be learned from it. While it is evident to me that providing housing ought to be about more than bricks and mortar, this is generally the approach that is taken. However, particularly for low income households, housing is more about the development of community and home, in an incremental process, as opposed to the regulated as well as market driven design standards (granted there should be some level of building standards for safety reasons).

When we move into a new place, one of the first things that we do is try to figure out how to, in time, make it into our ‘home’. We want to be a part of the process of making our house into our home. This can mean different things to different people. For some it may mean picking out paint colours and planting a garden, and for others it may be about renovating parts of the property to make it work for their expected growing family. Either of these require some levels of savings or a micro loan, and may fall under the ‘incremental housing’ umbrella. Thus, incremental housing, which generally focuses on the poor, can apply to just about any homeowner regardless of income level. However, those seeking micro-loans to fund their incremental housing plans will likely be: of a lower income; informally employed; cannot afford the down payment for a mortgage; or does not qualify for a mortgage (this has yet to be supported). If this is true, then it may be fair to say that a percentage of households (with property) whose formal income is under a certain threshold (contextual) would be in the market to access a micro finance loan in order to transform their land into their home. And this is where we have a market for housing micro finance that supports housing, the ‘verb’ (in its most simplistic form!).

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