The housing shortage dilemma: more housing alone is not enough

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The issue of housing shortages is not disappearing from the headlines. According to housing researcher Miriam Meuth, the displacement of certain sections of the population from their homes and neighborhoods is not discussed enough. A discussion about the fact that more new housing can even exacerbate the problem in some cases.

Miriam Meuth, what does it take for me to feel comfortable in my home?

This is very individual. Nevertheless, there are objective criteria. A key point is housing security: is my tenancy secure or do I constantly have to worry about being evicted? Adequate space and light also contribute to well-being. It is also important that there is little noise and no harmful substances such as mold.

Why do we live how and where we live?

Our needs and wishes in terms of housing are strongly influenced by the society in which we live. Let’s take the example of the nomads: For them, nomadic life is the norm. For the majority of society here, on the other hand, living in a caravan is considered inadequate - apart from the social media "van life romanticism". The way we live is also shaped by our milieu and social class. In other words, our housing and lifestyles are determined by our socio-economic status. Those who have the necessary financial means can, for example, buy their own home or build a house. Those who do not have these means are happy to find an affordable home at all. There is no real freedom of choice here.

"Are you still living or are you already living?", the slogan of the world-famous Swedish furniture store, seems somewhat cynical in this context.

Exactly, especially in view of the rent burden: households with a monthly income of less than CHF 4,000 spend around 35% of this on rent - an enormous financial burden. For households with an income of over CHF 12,000, the proportion is just around 12%. Advertising images such as Ikea’s convey a standardized idea of self-realization in the home. This idea is based on a middle-class, middle-class understanding of living that promises the warmth of a nest. The concept of living is then equated with "home", which is associated with protection, individuality and opportunities for development. However, this narrowing down to a positively inflated concept of housing does not correspond to the actual reality of many people’s lives.

What does this living reality look like?

We know from social work and social science housing research that living space, which is highly stylized as a private place, does not have positive connotations per se. We see this in neighborhood work, child and youth welfare and also in the context of social welfare and refugees. The housing conditions here go beyond the ideas of middle-class, small-family, middle-class housing. In extreme cases, domestic violence is involved - but even "just" arguing parents shape the atmosphere that prevails in a household. A home can therefore become a place that causes fear. It is important that we take this emotional and atmospheric dimension of housing into account.

How can this be achieved and who is responsible?

First of all, society needs to distance itself from idealized and embellished notions of housing. Then there needs to be a public discussion about the issues that are emotionally very stressful in a domestic context and can even make living unbearable. Instead of cutting welfare state benefits, professional support is needed for certain groups of people and for certain situations.

In Switzerland, the debate about the ongoing housing shortage shows no signs of abating. The fronts seem to be hardening: On the one side are those calling for less regulation, and on the other those who want more guidance from the state. What do you think is being forgotten?

The current debate is only ever about the physical and material aspects of housing, i.e. the construction of apartments and houses. But housing is much more than just the roof over your head. In addition to the emotional and atmospheric dimensions mentioned above, for me there are three more: the social-structural dimension, which, among other things, sheds light on who lives together, in what form and under what conditions. The action dimension describes everyday practices such as cooking or maintaining friendships. Finally, the cultural-historical and social dimension illustrates that housing is always socially pre-structured and takes place in different ways at different historical points in time. Housing is therefore the interplay of all these dimensions, which overlap and are also mutually dependent. It must therefore be researched and treated in an interdisciplinary manner.

"But you can’t just produce more living space to counteract the housing shortage"

Miriam Meuth

In your view, don’t we also need more living space to solve the housing problem in certain regions?

Sure, that’s out of the question. But you can’t just produce more living space to counteract the housing shortage. There must also be a strong focus on reducing the amount of living space used per capita and housing must be built that is affordable and therefore available to various sections of the population. Otherwise, new buildings can trigger a process of displacement.

Can you give examples of where this has happened?

In our qualitative study on displacement, "Entmietet und verdrängt", we were given a first-hand account of this from the perspective of those affected in German-speaking Switzerland. There are countless other examples, whether of entire estates or just individual residential buildings. The renovation of the Brunaupark housing estate in Zurich, for example, made negative headlines on a large scale.

When we talk about displacement, the term gentrification is often used. What exactly is happening?

In the classic sense, gentrification refers to the process by which neighbourhoods previously inhabited by low-income or marginalized population groups are changed due to investments, renovations and the influx of wealthier residents. Interpreted one-sidedly, gentrification is about social and structural upgrading. From a critical sociological perspective, however, gentrification is always gentrification and displacement in equal measure.

Displacement is when a household is forced to move out and the conditions that lead to this cannot be created or averted. This can be direct displacement, for example if the existing tenants are given notice or the heating is turned off as a result of harassment or unsustainable rent increases have been implemented. Another form of displacement is exclusionary displacement. This means that a structurally identical household can no longer afford the newly rented apartment. A third form is displacement pressure, which arises because the neighborhood changes, other people live there and existing networks are lost.

When we think of gentrification, we primarily think of urban neighborhoods. Do these displacement effects also exist in rural areas?

Such displacement processes were first identified for cities in England in the 1960s. For many decades, gentrification research therefore only focused on cities. However, there are now studies that also investigate this phenomenon in rural areas. In Switzerland, we are particularly familiar with the problem in tourist mountain villages with a high proportion of vacation apartments and only a small proportion of affordable rental apartments. In addition to the effect that some of the existing population is displaced for the reasons already mentioned, we also see a second effect: Seasonal workers from the tourism sector and newcomers with lower incomes find it difficult or impossible to settle here. In other words, they simply can no longer find accommodation or are living in precarious conditions without legal tenancy agreements.

"From a critical social science perspective, however, gentrification is always gentrification and displacement in equal measure"

Miriam Meuth

Back to the upgrading of neighborhoods: Can this happen without displacement effects?

In this respect, upgrading is always a balancing act. Ultimately, neighborhoods cannot never be renewed. In my view, however, we need to proceed cautiously and strategically. A key factor in preventing displacement is ensuring that affordable housing is still available for people on low incomes after the upgrade.

Now, densification and energy-efficient refurbishment in favor of CO2 reduction have been a spatial planning requirement for years. As an ETH 2023 study was able to prove with figures for the first time, renovations in the city of Zurich are displacing households with lower incomes.

Precisely, the ETH study calculated that displaced households earn 4,800 francs less per month than the average in the canton of Zurich. The foreign population and single parents are disproportionately affected by such direct displacement. We also see this in our qualitative displacement study. In many cases, it is also single, older women who have lived in the apartments for decades and have built up a social network. Some of them then move into retirement homes prematurely due to a lack of alternatives - costs that have to be borne by the public purse.

How do people experience it when their home is to be demolished for a new building?

What unites people is the feeling of being controlled by others. They feel powerless and are afraid that they will not be able to find a new apartment in time or will have to make massive sacrifices. It is interesting to note that the termination of tenancy initially causes a certain degree of solidarity and defensiveness within the affected tenants. In view of the competitive situation on the housing market, however, this quickly becomes fragile.

Can the tenants understand the reason for the renovations?

Our interviews with the people affected show that many of them fully understand why renovations are necessary - be it due to densification, ecology or because the building fabric is simply old. What many people cannot understand, however, is the extent of the renovation or even the need for demolition. We heard more than once that the residents would have preferred to keep their apartment instead of getting a kitchen island or a modern bathroom. For many, however, the worst thing was the way they were treated. They had no real contact person on the part of the owners and had nowhere to turn with their criticism and frustration.

Where do you see possible solutions?

It’s not about stopping energy-efficient renovations or densification projects. It is about that and also about who carries out these construction measures. Unfortunately, recent years have shown that profit-oriented and globally active property owners use densification targets and energy-efficient renovations to legitimize their construction projects - unfortunately at the expense of social sustainability. Non-profit housing developers, for example, are looking for interim solutions for their tenants in their portfolio whenever possible when it becomes necessary to move out for refurbishment or replacement construction. They also show how ecological refurbishment or new builds, together with the cost rent and a mixed tenant base, can at least reduce segregation. Finally, within the existing legal framework, municipalities could set more specifications as to who should build and for whom.

Dr. Miriam Meuth has been a lecturer, project manager and head of continuing education at the Institute for Sociocultural Development at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts since October 2022. Here she is co-program director of the MAS Community, Urban and Regional Development. Her main topics are housing and social work, institutional and precarious housing, gentrification and displacement, participation and exclusion in urban development as well as child and youth welfare, socio-pedagogical transition research. In 2017, she completed her doctorate in educational science at the University of Frankfurt am Main on "Wohnen: Erziehungswissenschaftliche Erkundungen" (Beltz Juventa, 2018). In 2023, the open access publication "Entmietet und verdrängt", Meuth/Reutlinger was published by transcript.

In March 2024, Miriam Meuth chaired the "Housing for All" conference. All kinds of information, documents and presentations on the individual workshops and program items are available here.

Interview: Rahel Perrot
Image: Adobe Stock
Publication: 01.05.2024