Social housing

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Karl Marx Hof, Vienna
Social housing is housing owned and/or managed by governments or private organizations for the aim of providing affordable or otherwise socially beneficial housing.

Whereas the term "public housing" generally describes government-owned properties, "social housing" can include a wider range of cases, including a long earlier history of charitable or philanthropic housing for the needy, and various types of development that may be non-profit-owned or partially/indirectly supported by government action. 

Various other terms are used in different places, for example: in the UK, council housing and council estates; in Germany and Austria, in 20thC, Siedlungen ('settlements') and Gemeindebau ('municipality building'); in Denmark, Almennyttigt Boligbyggeri ('non-profit housing'), etc. 



"The documented history of social housing in Britain starts with almshouses, which were established from the 10th century, to provide a place of residence for "poor, old and distressed folk". The first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Æthelstan; the oldest still in existence is the Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester, dating to circa 1133."
-Wikipedia, "Public housing in the United Kingdom."

The Fuggerei, Augsburg Germany (1516-)

"The world's oldest social housing complex still in use. It is a walled enclave within the city of Augsburg, Bavaria. It takes its name from the Fugger family and was founded in 1516 by Jakob Fugger the Younger (known as "Jakob Fugger the Rich") as a place where the needy citizens of Augsburg could be housed. By 1523, 52 houses had been built, and in the coming years the area expanded with various streets, small squares and a church. The gates were locked at night, so the Fuggerei was, in its own right, very similar to a small independent medieval town. It is still inhabited today, affording it the status of being the oldest social housing project in the world." [1]. 

19th Century - slum housing, reform, and model housing in UK and US

19th-century English cities were among the earliest sites of modern industrialization, and industrial slums, and are where many current traditions of social housing and housing regulation begin. The factories and slums of Manchester attracted many visitors and writers from around the UK and the world starting in the early 19th C., now most famously Engels who wrote based on it The Condition of the Working Class in England.  Thanks to extensive journalistic, sociological, and literary interest of these 19thC UK slum conditions, we have an extensive and diverse written record of the conditions there and how responses to them helped produce reformist movements including company towns (e.g. Robert Owens, Borneville), private social housing and model tenements, and early public housing. 
An early landmark was the planned housing and facilities in mill town New Lanark, Scotland, which industrialist and reformer Robert Owen developed from around 1800-1825 as a model workers town. It became well-known throughout Europe was visited by many reformers and writers.  
By the 1840s in the UK, there was widespread public concern about unsanitary or inhumane conditions in working-class housing, and the relative possibility of violent mass uprising such as growing out of the Chartist movement.  In the 1840s Henry Mayhew observed, documented, and described the state of working people in London for a series of articles in a newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, that were later compiled into book form as London Labour and the London Poor (1851).  Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 based on his observations of shocking conditions in industrial Manchester, and The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. 
Bagnippe Wells model housing, first project of the SICLC, 1844


This led to the formation of various reform societies, and projects such as model housing developments.

In 1842 the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrial Poor was founded in England. (noted in [Mumford 1938], p.177).

In 1844 the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes was formed, growing out of The Labourer’s Friend Society.  S.I.C.L.C. worked to impove and reform both rural housing and urban housing for industrial workers. It was a private, dividend-paying society accepting investments, but on which the annual dividend was limited by its charter.  Various other so-called "model dwelling companies" arose at that time, building housing in cities throughout the UK but particularly in London. Their model of combining philanthropic intention with capitalist return was given the label "five per cent philanthropy". The model dwelling societies received patronage from industrialist and aristocratic patrons, notably Queen Victoria's support for the S.I.C.L.C. 

Bagnippe Wells model housing, 1844

A landmark project of the model-dwelling company movement was the Bagnippe Wells estate, built in 1844 in Lower Road, Pentonville, Southwark, London.  “This scheme was the first attempt in the metropolis to provide the working class with some kind of new and appropriate housing, specially designed for the purpose, and it was the first time that an architect had lent his skill to such a humble work.” - [Tarn 1973]. 


In 1848 the World’s Fair was hosted in London and Prince Albert debuted his “Model Houses for Families,” a model tenement which was subsequently built in Bloomsbury, England. Each apartment was cross ventilated -- all rooms had windows that faced either the street of the generously sized courtyard and the staircases were moved to the exterior of the construction, eliminating any dark hallways. The architect, Henry Roberts, was an active member of the Society for Improving Conditions of the Labouring Classes."

See image of this in [Mumford 1938] p.212. 

iThe design was further developed on by Sir Sydney Waterlow and his Improved Dwellings Company for their building in London in 1863. [Flandro et al, 2008].

Improved Dwellings Company, Limited built the Langbourn Buildings - block of 80 dwellings, 1863. 

Around the same time, novelist Charles Dickens took a strong interest in housing condititions of the London poor. Carter [2007] observes: 
"Charles Dickens showed great concern for the despicable conditions of London slums and campaigned for their improvement. His hatred of slums and the governmental practices that allowed them to exist is especially apparent around the time he began conceiving and writing Bleak House (published in installments from March 1852 through September 1853). In the new preface to Martin Chuzzlewit of November 1849, he upholds literature's utility in social activism: "In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity to showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor" (qtd. in Butt, p. 11). He published several articles on the subject, such as "Health by Act of Parliament, "A Home Question," and "Commission and Omission," in 1850 editions of Household Words. Again in 1850, he made a speech to The Metropolitan Sanitary Association condemning slum landlords and local politicians and, in 1852, he advised philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts on the model flats she was financing for London's Columbia Square (Blount 341). In Bleak House, the theme of sanitation, or the lack thereof, surfaces prominently in Dickens's treatment of the brick-maker's house and Tom-all-Alone's. Dickens actually used "Tom-All-Alone's" as a working title for Bleak House, further demonstrating slums' importance for the novel."

Some philanthropists began to provide housing in tenement blocks, and some factory owners built entire villages for their workers, such as Saltaire in 1853, Bournville (1879),
and Port Sunlight in 1888.


"Model Tenement" projects in the U.S.

Workingman's Home, NYC, 1855

Workingman's Home, NYC, 1855

"The first truly 'philanthropic' housing in New York was the Workingman's Home built in 1855 by the New York Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor. The AICP, founded in 1845...promoted private philanthropy in housing. In 1847 plans of a model block of buildings were drawn up and circulated to builders. 

"The Workingman's Home was designed by prominent architect John W. Ritch for a narrow parcel between Mott and Elizabeth streeets, north of Canal Street...The galleries were constructed of iron beams with brick arches spanning between, a fireproof construction that had only recently been developed for industrial buildings; probably this was the first residential application.  The project is alleged to be the first tenement which provided each tenant with water and water closet

"In exchange for these superior amenities, the tenants had to abide by  a strict moral and hygienic code that was enforced by the superintendent in charge. Tenant was limited to blacks. 

"After twelve years the Workingman's Home was sold to a private investor, and it became known as the Big Flat." [Plunz 2016]

NYC Council of Hygiene's Tenement Survey & model plans

"With the United States government hesitant to intervene in housing problems (the government saw this as an invasion on private property rights), civic groups, architects and philanthropists began to look for possible solutions to the housing conditions in New York in foreign projects, particularly in Britain and France. 

"In the 1860s were established the New York City Council of Hygiene, a Citizens Association, and the Department of Survey and  Inspection of Buildings. A survey of the 15,309 tenement buildings in New York City was completed by the Council of Hygiene and was published in 1865. This study also included the plans for the plans for Waterlow's 1863 Improved Dwellings Company buildings, the first Englist model tenement English plans published in the U.S.  [American] architects that subsequently traveled and investigated these model houses included James E. Ware, Henry Atterbury Smith, Grosvenor Atterbury, Ernest Flagg, and I.N. Phelps-Stokes; and philanthropists Alfred Tredway White, Olivia Sage (Mrs. Russell Sage), Caroline and Olivia Phelps-Stokes and Ann Harriman Vanderbilt. Once back in the United States they used not only the design ideas gathered from the model houses but also the financing scheme. The first successful model tenements to be erected in New York City were the Home Building and the Tower Building in Brooklyn. Financed by Alfred Treadway-Wright and designed by William Field and Son they were completed in 1877."   [Flandro et al, 2008].


Tower Buildings, Brooklyn

Tower Buildings model worker housing, Brooklyn, 1879

This 1879 building in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn was built by Alfred Tredway White, "who was born into wealth and who was asked by his Unitarian pastor to investigate the housing of the poor" [Gray 2008]. They are considered the first US "model tenement." 

"Mr. White said the Tower enterprise returned 6 percent on his investment, and in 1880 The New York Times reported the Tower Buildings had demonstrated to commercial builders that model tenements could be made to pay." [Gray 2008].

See Gray (2008), "Architectural Wealth, Built for the Poor."  New York Times. 10 Oct, 2008.

Note: YIMBYwiki editor Tim McCormick lived for seven years near the Tower Buildings.

2 Warren Place (Warren Mews) worker housing, Brooklyn, 1870s
Alfred Tredway White also built nearby Warren Mews (2 Warren Place, 1877).. See [Hogarty 2012]. 





Early public housing in England

The City of London Corporation built tenements in the Farringdon Road in 1865.
(see image of it in [Mumford 1938] p.212.).  

The world’s first large-scale [public] housing project was also built in London, to replace one of the capital’s most notorious slums – the Old Nichol.Nearly 6,000 individuals were crammed into the packed streets, where one child in four died before his or her first birthday. Arthur Morrison wrote the influential A Child of the Jago, an account of the life of a child in the slum, which sparked a public outcry.

Redevelopment had been resisted by members of the Bethnall Green vestry (parish) who owned much of the rookery, and were responsible for electing members of the Metropolitan Board of Works. The powers the vestries and board were limited to the Torrens Act and the Cross Act which the Bethnall Green vestry refused to use.

It was in 1885, after the report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, 1884-5, that the national government first took an interest. This led to the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885, which empowered Local Government Boards to shut down unhealthy properties and encouraged them to improve the housing in their areas.

"London County Council was created by the Local Government (England and Wales) Act 1888, some 53 years after other major cities had been municipalised. It took responsibility for the housing of the working classes from the Metropolitan Board of Works.  In the first election, the progressives obtained a large majority. The Housing Committee secured from Parliament the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890, which gave it powers to implement the Torrens and Cross acts, and gave legal basis for it to manage housing estates. LCC chose Boundary Street as their flagship scheme. Initially they attempted to get the private sector involved but failed. In 1893, on the back of the 1892 Blackwall Tunnel Act they gained permission from the Home Secretary, to rebuild as small section of the scheme."
-Wikipedia. "Boundary Estate." 


Boundary Estate 

Boundary Estate, London, 1890-1900

Boundary Street 1890, three years later, the London County Council began slum clearance

Construction of the Boundary Estate was begun in 1890 by the Metropolitan Board of Works and completed by the recently formed London County Council in 1900.

"Whilst the new flats replaced the existing slums, with decent accommodation for the same number of people, it wasn't the same group of people. The original inhabitants were forced further to the East, creating new overcrowding and new slums in areas such as Dalston and Bethnal Green. At this time, no help was available to find new accommodation for the displaced, and this added to the suffering and misery of many of the former residents of the slum. The new blocks had policies to enforce sobriety and the new tenants were clerks, policemen, cigarmakers and nurses."
-Wikipedia. "Boundary Estate." 

From A Child of the Jago (1896)

"Even the gradual removal of the Old Jago itself was begun. For the County Council bought a row of houses at the end of Jago Row, by Honey Lane, with a design to build big barrack dwellings on the site. The scenes of the Jago Court eviction were repeated, with less governed antics. For the County Council knew not Jago ways; and when deputations came forth weeping, protesting the impossibility of finding new lodgings, and beseeching a respite, they were given six weeks more, and went back delighted into free quarters. At the end of the six weeks a larger deputation protested a little louder, wept a great deal more, and poached another month; for it would seem an unpopular thing to turn the people into the street. Thus, in the end, when the unpopular thing had to be done, it was with sevenfold trouble, loud cursing of the County Council in the public street, and many fights. But this one spot of the Jago cleared, the County Council began to creep along Jago Row and into Half Jago street; and after long delay the crude yellow brick of the barrack dwellings rose above the oft-stolen hoardings, and grew, storey by storey." "The dispossessed Jagos had gone to infect the neighbourhoods across the border, and to crowd the people a little closer. They did not return to live in the new barrack-buildings; which was a strange thing, for the County Council was charging very little more than double the rents which the landlords of the old Jago had charged. And so another Jago, teeming and villainous as the one displaced, was slowly growing in the form of a ring, round about the great yellow houses."


On 19thC London private social housing, some sources noted in: 
Gill, Stephen. "Notes" to Oxford University Press edition of The Nether World by George Gissing. 1992:

alt text



Gissing, George. The Nether World (1889) described new tenement buildings created by London authorities.
[look up references]. 

More information: an Interesting short history of over a century of social housing, from the House of Commons Library:

United States public housing

USHC worker housing at Mare Island, Vallejo, California. 1915 plan

World War 1 worker housing

Ben-Joseph, Eran. "Workers' Paradise: The Forgotten Communities of World War I."  Online research project, MIT School of Architecture+ Planning.

"In 1917 the United States Government embarked upon an unprecedented experiment- the planning and construction of neighborhoods and housing for American workers and their families. Within a period of two years over 83 new housing projects in 26 States were designed, planned and had commenced construction. The achievements of this effort are staggering. Within few years 5,033 acres were developed into housing for over 170,000 people. Almost 30,000 families lived in 9,543 single and 3,996 semi-detached homes while 5,000 apartments housed single workers. Eighteen schools, 8 hospitals, 17 churches and 8 theaters provided social and cultural services. Over 649,505 liner feet of state of the art sewer and water infrastructure insured an unprecedented level of hygiene and health.

"After the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917 a federal agency was created to build housing for workers near war-related industries and shipyards. The United States Housing Corporation (USHC), was formed for this purpose. This agency designed and planned over 80 new housing projects within a period of two years. Although some were small and consisted of a few dozen dwellings, others were larger and approached the dimensions of new towns. For example, Cradock in Norfolk Virginia was designed on a 310 acre site with over 800 detached houses. Mare Island, in San Francisco Bay had 231 detached and 200 semidetached houses, schools, community centers and stores on a 52-acre site.

"These housing projects far exceeded in design and planning any immediate needs brought on by the housing shortage. The architects, planners, and engineers involved were equally as interested in developing housing as in developing ideas that heretofore had been only subjects of theoretical debate. These ideas developed into concrete proposals about town planning, housing, and social construction, as well as decentralization of the industrial city, promotion of regionalism, infusion of nature into everyday life, and enriching of culture though the improvement of habitat conditions of the working class. Ultimately it was the success of these projects that inspired many American designers to examine new ideas about town planning, housing standards, and the government's involvement in housing well after the war was over.

typical house plan, UHSC Mare Island

"USHC not only planned and built new communities, but it also published booklets on design principles and standards for neighborhood planning. Presumably this is the first time an agency of the Federal Government reviewed and adopted standards and norms for development. These guidelines and standards became the most comprehensive manual on town planning and housing standards in existence in the United States at that time. It covered a broad range of topics from large scale site planning down to the design of individual houses and street lamps. Clearly these documents and built projects provided a prescription for an ideal model of community planning and mass housing.

This Agency is also important because it employed many of the first city planners and landscape architects who later became the leading town planners throughout the country. Renowned individuals such as Henry Wright, Clarence Stein and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. were among the 120 professionals employed by USHC. This unique group of reformers, who had successfully won recognition for their profession, was posed at the end of the war to establish the country’s leading urban planning institutions. In 1923, for example, many of the architects and planners who had worked for USHC during the war formed the Regional Plan Association of America (RPAA), which was responsible for both the spread of the Garden City Movement and the building of model developments across the country."


Milwaukie's Garden Homes development,1923

The City of Milwaukee, under socialist mayor Daniel Hoan, implemented the country's first public housing project, known as Garden Homes, in 1923. This experiment with a municipally-sponsored housing cooperative saw initial success, but was plagued by development and land acquisition problems, and the board overseeing the project dissolved the Gardens Home Corporation just two years after construction on the homes was completed.

"The Gardens Homes housing project had its start during the 1910 election campaign of Milwaukee's first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, who ran on a platform that included construction of low cost, city-built, homes for workers. Though Seidel was soundly defeated in 1912, the city's second socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan, was able to get a project started to ease Milwaukee's housing shortage. The shortage, caused by the rapid growth of Milwaukee's manufacturing sector, was worsened by the World War I-era moratorium on new housing construction. Because the city's housing shortage had started before World War I, and it could not prove the lack of housing was delaying the production of war materials, it was unable to obtain federal aid.

"Instead, after the war, Milwaukee's housing commission proposed a cooperative housing project. It was funded in two ways. The initial cost was to be financed by the sale of preferred stock in the Garden Homes Project, sold to city and county governments, and also made available to any other investor. The preferred stock was expected to pay a 5 percent dividend per year. The occupants of the housing would purchase common stock in the project, equal to the value of the home. They would put 10 percent down, and make payments over the next 20 years, including interest, taxes, upkeep, and other costs. After about 20 years, the preferred stock would mature and be retired, and the tenants would then own the corporation. At that time, the common shareholders could elect to convert the project to individual ownership.

"This concept was based on a similar plan in England, promoted by Ebenezer Howard's garden city concept from the Garden Cities of Tomorrow published in 1900. About 60 housing associations had been established there by 1919. Several streets in Garden Homes would initially be named after garden cities in England, including Ealing, Hampstead, Port Sunlight, Bourneville, and Letchworth."

"Shortly after construction problems involving the annexation of the Garden Homes project by the city ensued...Tenants were also unsure about the value of private improvements to their units if the plan was not eventually converted to individual ownership."

"By June 1925, state lawmakers had voted to permit the sale, rather than lease, of the project houses. Soon thereafter, the Garden Homes project board of directors disbanded the cooperative, allowing the tenants to purchase their units." 

Today the area is Garden Homes Historic District, containing all of the 93 original buildings, comprising 105 housing units.


New York City Housing Authority - First Houses, 1935

First Houses take their name from their distinction of being the first public housing units constructed in the United States, opening for the first tenants on December 3, 1935. Victorian-era tenements existed on the site before they were cleared to build the project, which was also the very first project undertaken by the city's new Housing Authority. The units opened in December 1935.

[note: YIMBYwiki editor Tim McCormick lived for 5 years a few blocks from First Houses, and occasionally visited friends who lived there.]


Federal Public Works Administration (PWA), 1933-

"Permanent, federally funded housing came into being in the United States as a part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Title II, Section 202 of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed June 16, 1933, directed the Public Works Administration (PWA) to develop a program for the "construction, reconstruction, alteration, or repair under public regulation or control of low-cost housing and slum clearance projects...". Led by the Housing Division of the PWA and headed by architect Robert Kohn, the initial, Limited-Dividend Program aimed to provide low-interest loans to public or private groups to fund the construction of low-income housing."

"Too few qualified applicants stepped forward, and the Limited-Dividend Program funded only seven housing projects nationally. In the spring of 1934, PWA Administrator Harold Ickes directed the Housing Division to undertake the direct construction of public housing, a decisive step that would serve as a precedent for the 1937 Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, and the permanent public housing program in the United States. Kohn stepped down during the reorganization, and between 1934 and 1937 the Housing Division, now headed by Colonel Horatio B. Hackett, constructed fifty-two housing projects across the United States, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Atlanta's Techwood Homes opened on 1 September 1936 and was the first of the fifty-two opened."



Karl Marx-Hof, the most famous municipal public housing building in Vienna. 

"Public housing was an important issue right from the foundation of the Republic of German-Austria in 1918 after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The population was faced with a great deal of uncertainty particularly as regards food and fuel. This led to a significant number of less affluent people to move to the periphery of towns, often building makeshift homes to be closer to where they could grow food. They were called Siedler(settlers). As the political situation became stabilised with foundation of the First Austrian Republic in September 1919, the Siedler movement started creating formal organizations like the Austrian Association for Settlements and Small Gardens. The electoral victory of the Social Democratic Party of Austria in the elections for the Viennese Gemeinderat (city parliament) gave rise to "Red Vienna" (1919-1934). Part of their programme was the provision of decent homes for the Viennese working class who made up the core of their supporters. Hence the German word Gemeindebau (plural: Gemeindebauten) for "municipality building". In Austria, it refers to residential buildings erected by a municipality, usually to provide low-cost public housing. These have been an important part of the architecture and culture of Vienna since the 1920s."

"A large number of Gemeindebauten, usually large residential estates, were built during that time. Including those buildings that were finished after the events of February 1934, 64,000 apartments where completed, which created housing space for about 220,000 people. Apartments were assigned on the basis of a point system favoring families and less affluent citizens."

"The classic interwar Gemeindebauten typically have a main entrance with a large gate, through which one enters into a yard. Inside, there are trees and some greenery, where children can play without having to go out on the street. Apartments are accessed from the inside."

"This fortress-like structure made the buildings adaptable to military use. Several Gemeindebauten in Vienna, most notably the Karl-Marx-Hof, were sites of fighting during the Austrian Civil War of February 1934, when they were defended as Social Democratic Party strongholds."

"Gemeindebauten continued to be built after 1945, but the style of architecture changed over the decades. During the 1960s and 1970s, the municipality began to build extensive residential blocks consisting of high-rise buildings."

"Today, about 600,000 people (not necessarily poor ones), about a third of the population of Vienna, live in apartments owned by the city."


French contract units system (contemporary)

contracting for affordable units in private developments is how France mostly does it:


Inclusionary housing (on-site)