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I. Social AspectsJohn Madge


II. Economic AspectsSherman J. Maisel



Although it varies according to climatic differences, housing constitutes one of the most universal forms of material culture, being found in all except nomadic societies. Housing also represents an important element in all capital formation and the largest single component in the total building effort of any nation. From a sociological point of view, housing has a major part to play in ensuring continuity of community life.

There is also a close interrelationship between housing and family organization. In all cultures and at all times the type of housing has corresponded in some way to the organization of the family and has in turn sustained and reinforced existing forms of family organization. In many parts of the world, the extended family system is reflected in various clusters of rooms within which there are sections reserved for the basic units. The long house, for example, is found in a variety of cultures, from the Iroquois of North America to the peoples of southeast Asia; while the polygamous family structure still found in many parts of Africa requires a complex of huts, one for the husband and one for each wife and her children, arranged in order of rank.

The home is a ménage for production as well as for consumption and may therefore also reflect features of economic organization; for example, in the eighteenth-century wool centers in England many cottages included an upstairs room in which family members worked, and rural cottages everywhere tend to confuse the housing of humans and of live stock. The greater systematization of modern West-tern life has eliminated most of this form of provision, at least in urban communities; but new dwellings may still incorporate doctors’ offices, art ists’ studios, or scholars’ libraries, and new shops still often include living accommodations for owner or manager.

Control of house building. Until the nineteenth century there were few specialist builders, and in most cases members of the family unit built their own houses. This is still the case in many parts of the world, with the result that there is a close cor respondence between the dwellings built and the way of life of those who build them. However, in more industrialized societies this identity of aim is easily lost. Indeed there are typically three parties to the house-building operation: the builder and his workmen, the owner or entrepreneur who com missions the dwelling, and the family that will in due course occupy it. The situation is further com plicated by the fact that in many cases the new development will be associated with the migration of families into towns, a move which in any case requires them to urbanize their way of life and may involve renouncing the extended family or tribal system to which they had previously been accustomed.

Where an entrepreneur or landlord places himself between the occupier and the designer and builder, it is inevitable that the housing type will to some extent be imposed on the occupier. The motives of a landlord can vary considerably; but whatever they may be, his control of the means and nature of house provision is very powerful.

Although public authority housing takes an important and increasing share in the total building effort of most industrialized countries, the share of the private landlord is declining even faster and is being largely replaced by a growth in owner occupancy. Even in the socialist countries of eastern Europe, an important proportion of new house building is being undertaken privately. But the number of custom-built houses in such cases is relatively small, and most owner-occupiers move into houses that were, for all practical purposes, designed without consulting them. If there is a greater correspondence in the private sector between design and family needs, it is because the unsuitable houses prove more difficult to sell and their design is therefore not repeated; such houses, however, will not be destroyed but will merely be passed down to a householder who is less able to pay for what he wants.

Trends in housing standards. In every industrialized and industrializing country in the world there is an acute shortage of urban dwellings, and a substantial proportion of the world’s population is living in severely substandard housing: slums that have survived the uncontrolled building of the nineteenth century or shacks that reflect the un controlled urbanization of the twentieth century. But in spite of overcrowding and the physical decay of buildings, it is often difficult to demonstrate that bad housing is directly responsible for bad physical health; although bad health is often as sociated with bad housing, this is because both of these are generally secondary effects of poverty (Schorr 1964, pp. 6-7, 143-145).

Space standards. There is clearer evidence that inadequate space standards can disorganize family life. The current expert consensus in European countries is that the lower limit for mental health is 170 square feet of floor area per person (Chombart de Lauwe 1955; Musil 1962), and the desirable standards established by the American Public Health Association (1950) are twice the above figures. But these represent standards for new construction; and many European and North American families probably have a current space standard of less than 80 square feet per person, while it is certain that families are to be found in Latin America, Africa, and Asia with less than 20 square feet of floor area per person.

There is also evidence that an equally important criterion is the number of rooms in the dwelling. A careful survey by Loring (1956), using paired groups of “well adapted” and “disorganized” fami lies, showed that significant differences were associated with number of rooms available, floor area, and general surroundings, but not with other supposedly significant factors such as possession of a bath or the physical condition of the dwelling.

In spite of the gigantic backlog of substandard housing, it is expected that new construction will continue to improve its minimum standards of equipment and space. In Britain during the past sixty years, the recommended minimum space standard has increased by about 40 percent (or 50 square feet per person), and it is believed that the increase may have been greater in most other industrialized societies, which started from a lower base. On the basis of a sustained 3.5 per cent annual growth in productivity, it seems very possible that the minimum standard of new housing will double in the next forty years; even if space standards increase at only half this rate, a standard for new construction of 250 square feet of floor area per person would then be commonplace by the early twenty-first century.

The family and the home

In affluent countries, the rise of general space standards to the level previously reserved for middle-class homes has coincided with, and may have helped to stimulate, the growth of indivlduation in the home. Whereas in the traditional work ing-class home family life was lived collectively in the “living-kitchen,” today there is more stress on individual privacy and a greater tendency for members of the family to follow their own pursuits. There is a consequent trend toward the use of study-bedrooms and a greater willingness to recognize the distinctive needs of children in the home.

At the same time, new dwellings continue to play a substantial part in bringing about changes in family organization. This is illustrated particularly vividly in the context of urbanization. In eastern Europe, for example, there is a traditional type of peasant cottage consisting essentially of two rooms: the white room, which contains all the most valued family possessions and also acts as a store for grain and other nonperishable food; and the black room, which is used for all normal household purposes and includes niches for sleeping. Comparable arrangements are found in most other rural economies in Europe. Obviously such a subdivision is not appropriate or even possible in a multistory apartment building; the application of urban behavior standards requires more individual privacy, for example, for sleeping, but also requires less space for food storage and for other functions around which the traditional rural home rotates.

The urban wife is increasingly employed outside the home, and the development of substitutes for household tasks—launderettes, partly prepared foods, ironing and mending services—is proceeding rapidly alongside industrialization. Meal-taking is unlikely to disappear from the home, but the habit of taking some meals in company cafeterias and in restaurants is likely to grow. The care of children will probably be increasingly shared between the family and the social and educational agencies, and there may even be an increase in the use of boarding schools (cf. Musil 1962, p. 555). This should not, however, be interpreted as indicating a reduction in the space requirements in the home. It is regarded as important for family cohesion that the child should feel a member of the household even when absent; few authorities anticipate a widespread adoption of the deliberate segregation of parents and children practiced in many Israeli kibbutzim.

It is anticipated that a decreasing proportion of households will contain three generations; if present trends continue, more separate accommodations will be provided for elderly couples and single or widowed old people. There will probably be a concurrent increase in the number of young people living alone or with their peers. The net result of these and other changes will probably be that the proportion of households consisting solely of parents and dependent children will further increase.

The ecology of housing

In preindustrial countries, the majority still live in rural settlements, which have in most cases developed a close internal communication network commensurate with their internal social cohesion. With industrialization and the accompanying urbanization, the traditional close-knit integrated community is increasingly replaced by a pluralistic type of community comprising a number of sub cultures, at once interlocking and independent of each other. To a considerable extent the ecology of the community will reflect these divisions among its population.

Invasion and succession. The ecological the ories and studies of the early Chicago school were to a large extent concerned with what classes of people occupied different zones of the city (for example, Zorbaugh 1929). Similarly the ecological principles of invasion and succession were applied by these authors to the successive waves of occupants that passed through old existing stocks of houses. That succession took place at all is a reflection of the durability of houses, which so regularly outlive their original purpose, so that mansions originally built for wealthy families and their servants survive in multiple family occupation or as small hotels and rooming houses.

As has been stated, the main tendency in industrialized countries in the past fifty years has been the convergence in space and other standards of middle- and lower-class houses. Particularly in town centers, the relatively small row houses built for lower-class families three or more generations ago are coming within the size range of the urban middle-class family; and if they survive the hazard of urban renewal they are liable to experience “succession in reverse,” reappearing with brightly painted doors as bijou residences for those who can afford to buy out their less affluent lower-class occupants. Even in the United States, with its tendency to tear down and replace, succession is now some times a two-way process.

Slums and ghettos. One of the forms of succession that has been most documented and studied, particularly in the United States, has been the process by which immigrants or visible races such as Negroes have been forcibly segregated into slum-ghettos. This has come about because earlier inhabitants have typically first resisted invasion and then fled, leaving the newcomers in possession. Housing for nonwhites and for underprivileged immigrants is generally substandard in space, amenities, and repair; out-of-bounds for mortgage investment or other private financing; overpriced for what it is; and underprovided with public and social services (Abrams 1955, pp. 74-75).

Areas with the above characteristics are not inevitably turned into ghettos. Slums and substand ard areas occur in almost all cities of any size, particularly if the population is growing. If obsolescent housing ripe for slum formation does not already exist, shacks are often built on the perimeter of the town to act as a substitute. This type of development is resisted by civic authorities with varying vigor and success.

Urban renewal and relocation. Unlike perimeter shack development, substandard areas are often well located near the city center, and some offer tempting possibilities for urban renewal. The extent to which this situation has been exploited for private gain has varied greatly, but there have been notorious examples in American cities and else where in which whole neighborhoods of underprivileged families have been displaced in favor of luxury apartment buildings, creating even greater pressures on surviving slums. Until comparatively recently the net effect of urban renewal has probably been to increase the amount of segregation; and while, by the mid-1960s (except in countries such as the Republic of South Africa, which retained a philosophy of segregation) there appeared to be a tide toward integration and interracial housing, it seems probable that the general trend toward social stratification and class division is being accentuated.

Whether urban renewal reduces or increases the problem of the slums, it is commonly believed that its net effect is to harm the community spirit of the long-established neighborhoods. Young and Will-mott (1957) and Gans (1962) have argued that relocation programs almost inevitably break up the cohesion provided by the kinship network, while Jacobs (1961) has stressed the inhumanity and monotony of many renewal projects. In discussing older neighborhoods, it is necessary to distinguish clearly between those sections containing a fluid, disorganized, and often no-family population, and those sections containing close-knit but poor families, often recent immigrants or otherwise under privileged.

The success of relocation largely depends on how it is administered. The “melting-pot” theory, based on the idea that slum dwellers can be “reformed” by placing them in a project where they will be influenced by respectable neighbors, can produce a calamitous and quite unnecessary destruction of social cohesion and lead to loneliness, anxiety, and temporary neurosis. For all families that move there is a painful period of adjustment which is only bearable if the move was wanted and if established neighbors are welcoming. It has been shown (for example, by Festinger et al. 1950) that friendships can depend on physical layout and that satisfaction and morale in the neighborhood are maximized if the layout as well as the social climate encourage interaction. European research workers (for example, Kuper 1953) support this thesis but tend to set more store on the need for the individual to be able to select and regulate the extent of his interactions.

Suburban development. Whatever the density of redevelopment, a normal result of renewal is an increment of pressure on suburban housing. Even without these pressures, improvements in transport and communications are rapidly increasing the range and popularity of the commuter areas around cities [seeTransportation, article onCommutation]. It is in the most urbanized and industrialized countries that the suburban belt is most clearly in evidence. The original “new towns,” although planned as communities and occupationally more or less self-sufficient, have so far reflected in a more organized way the same demographic tendencies as have elsewhere led to peripheral suburban development. Their populations are generally to a large extent self-selected and consist mainly of upwardly mobile middle-class families. It has been claimed (for example, by Whyte 1956) that such families have developed a new interactive way of life that leaves little room for permanence or privacy, but more recent studies (Berger I960; Dob-riner 1963) have shown that new communities set up under different circumstances can develop along more traditional workingclass lines.

Beyond the city suburbs and the “green belts” there is a still newer wave of community development. This may have started with the quest for exclusiveness of upper-class “exurbanites,” but emancipation by automobile has brought whole counties into range, and the sprawl of an even looser suburbanism lacking either physical or social focus is extending every year. This type of development is occurring throughout the Western world in all regions of relatively high density, and it has so far overwhelmed the resistances of even the most assiduous planners. In the more industrialized counties it is becoming difficult to find a genuine rural village. The old types of social activity that generations of country dwellers have gradually built up are largely inappropriate, and the older rural institutions are unable, if not unwilling, to adapt to the new pattern of social demand.

Status attributes of housing

In spite of the convergence of social class characteristics, there are distinctive class differences in ideology and behavior that transcend differences in wealth and can be readily detected by objective comparisons. The two main differences between middle-class and working-class ideologies that are reflected in their homes are the former’s greater stress on individualism, which requires a home that gives some scope for privacy and self-expression to every member of the household, and the latter’s greater stress on saving and repairing as opposed to spending and discarding, which requires greater provision for storage of possessions. The middle-class home is also used for more or less discreet displays of “conspicuous consumption.” These early insights, including those of Veblen (1899) and the Lynds (1929), were followed by the systematic attempts of Warner and Lunt (1941), Chapin (1947), Guttman (1942), and others to construct a scale of social status. In spite of various anomalies, it is clear that the importance of space and material possessions to the individual family, and the state of repair in which the home is kept, can quite properly be used as one component in the perennial search for an objective index of social class.

There is naturally a general correlation between the type of house and the neighborhood, both because of the tendency toward uniformity of standards in any particular section and also because of the physical fact that adjacent dwellings will often have about the same date of construction. As a general rule, the location of a home is likely to be even more revealing of the social status of a family than the type of house and its contents. In the United States a large number of ecological reports have been prepared since the early 1930s, with the help of the census tract data provided by the Bureau of the Census, showing social class and other related characteristics of cities and city neigh borhoods all over the country. Similar information is becoming available in Britain and elsewhere and is being used for sophisticated forms of ecological analysis.

Social policy

On a world view, very great variations are to be found in the extent to which different governments take responsibility for housing their populations. Some intervention is found necessary wherever urbanization is occurring, if only in order to prevent the outbreak of epidemics and other illnesses caused by unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Furthermore, if the government is promoting in dustrial development, it will be under pressure to provide, or stimulate the building of, workers’ housing within reach of the new plant; the incentive of good housing is an important lever in attracting suitable families into the towns from rural areas. In addition to these motives of enlightened selfinterest, governments may also be impelled on grounds of social welfare to make provision for their less privileged citizens, for example, by producing houses for special groups such as old people, by creating new interracial neighborhoods, or by subsidizing the provision of new houses in order to raise housing standards.

Historically, the provision of housing for special groups in industrialized countries has been one of the responsibilities assumed by private charities. As still occasionally happens, the close-knit industrial and professional groups looked after the housing needs of the less privileged of their members’ or ex-members’ families. Other more general private charities in a great variety of countries have built almshouses and continue to build and maintain housing projects for low-cost rentals. In the nineteenth century money for these purposes was raised in Great Britain from so-called “five percent philanthropists,” who were willing to loan money for a return at less than the current rate of interest so that these projects could be financed.

Subsidized housing. It is only in the last fifty years that the burden of subsidizing the housing of the poor has been partly assumed by the state and the city authorities. Even today there are some in dustrialized countries in which the public provision of housing is negligible. The outstanding example is the United States, where new public housing represents only 3 or 4 percent of new permanent starts (U.S. Bureau of the Census, as quoted in Van den Broek 1964), so that the total share of public housing is probably now only 1 or 2 per cent. Some states have even passed legislation containing clauses that effectively prevent any additional provision of public housing (in 1966 the constitutionality of such clauses was being tested in the courts).

In the United States and in other countries with similar policies, very substantial public funds are invested in the housing program; but they are used not as a form of social service but to help citizens to buy their own houses. This policy is intended to benefit those most able to help themselves; the assumption is that the houses thus vacated will become available for poorer families and that a general reshuffling will take place so that virtually all sections of the community may benefit.

In spite of the great divergence in philosophy between this kind of assisted self-help and the welfare-state policies now being implemented over much of the globe, the difference in practice has been far less striking. Governments have generally shied away from making direct provision by building new houses for the poorest families. This follows the experience of the private philanthropists that it is unattractively expensive to subsidize new housing to the point at which really poor families can afford the rents.

Even in countries with a relatively low economic growth rate, much of the current demand for housing at any date is from newly married couples and from upwardly (and, in the case of the urban population, outwardly) mobile families, and the provision of new housing is predominantly attuned to their needs. It is only in cities undertaking a vigorous urban renewal and slum-clearance program that a substantial number of really poor families are displaced and forced to seek new homes. Even with generous subsidies many of these underprivileged families find the new rents too high and tend to gravitate back to the remaining slums, thereby further overcrowding these areas.

There is by now a fair understanding in some countries of human needs in housing and also of the means by which these needs can be satisfied. This will have to be extended to other areas and also kept up to date as new housing forms are developed. What is now needed in addition is a fuller knowledge of what conditions are most favorable to satisfactory social organization and, in par ticular, what types of social planning should accompany the massive relocation and urban renewal programs that we shall have to undertake in the coming years. In other words, the balance of effort should swing from static to dynamic studies, from social investigation toward participation and social action.

John Madge

[See alsoPlanning, Social, articles onRegional and Urban PlanningandWelfare Planning; Segregation.]


Abrams, Charles 1955 Forbidden Neighbors: A Study of Prejudice in Housing. New York: Harper.

American Public Health Association, Committee on the Hygiene of Housing 1950 Planning the Home for Occupancy. Chicago: Public Administration Service.

Berger, Bennett M. 3960 Working-class Suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Chapin, Francis S. (1947) 1955 Experimental Designs in Sociological Research. Rev. ed. New York: Harper.

Chombart de Lauwe, P. H. 1955 Le logement, le ménage et l’espace familial. Informations sociales 9:956–980.

Dobriner, William M. 1963 Ciass in Suburbia. Engle-wood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Festinger, Leon; Schachter, Stanley; and Back, Kurt (1950) 1963 Social Pressures in Informal Groups: A Study of Human Factors in Housing. Stanford Univ. Press.

Gans, Herbert J. 1962 The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans. New York: Free Press.

Guttman, Louis 1942 A Revision of Chapin’s Social Status Scale. American Sociological Review 7:362–369.

Jacobs, Jane 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Random House and by Cape.

Kuper, Leo (editor) 1953 Living in Towns. London: Cresset.

Loring, William C. Jr.1956 Housing Characteristics and Social Disorganization. Social Problems 3:160–168.

Lynd, Robert S.; and Lynd, Helen M. (1929) 1930 Middletown. New York: Harcourt. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

Musil, Jiri 1962 The Sociological Approach in Planning Workers’ Housing: The Experience of Czecho slovakia. International Labour Review 86:545–566.

Schorr, Alvin L. 1964 Slums and Social Insecurity. London: Nelson.

Van den Broek, J. H. (editor) 1964 Habitation. 3 vols. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Veblen, Thorstein (1899) 1953 The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

Warner, W. Lloyd; and Lunt, Paul S. 1941 The Social Life of a Modern Community. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Whyte, William H. Jr. 1956 The Organization Man. New York: Simon & Schuster. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Doubleday.

Young, Michael; and Willmott, Peter 1957 Family and Kinship in East London. Institute of Community Studies, Report No. 1. London: Routledge; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Penguin.

Zorbaugh, Harvey W. 1929 The Gold Coast and the Slum. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Economic problems, analyses, and policies concerning housing differ considerably between the various types of national economies. Dissimilar needs and suggested solutions appear among de veloped as compared to emerging economies. The market structure, whether planned, quasi-planned, or more laissez-faire, also strongly influences the manner in which problems arise.

Economists have approached the housing question from three rather disparate points of view: that of real investment, consumption, and technology. Most analysis has been concerned with construction and housing as investment problems. Major interest has focused on the fact that construction is a large, significant industry with one of the greatest year-to-year variances. This literature has dealt with fluctuations and possible cycles. However, other investment questions such as exploring optimum rates of construction in relation to a country’s existing and planned expansion of capital and present and expected levels of consumption have received more attention in recent years.

For over one hundred years, housing has also played a prominent role in the theory of consumption and social reform. Housing takes a large share of consumption budgets. Individual standards of living are heavily influenced by the level of housing and the amount paid for it. Criticisms of the housing level achieved are common, and economists have sought the reasons why better standards of housing do not prevail.

Other economic problems arise with respect to the methods of production. Housing techniques have developed over thousands of years, but many feel that their rate of improvement has lagged behind other fields. Studies of production have attempted to find the economic rationale for existing techniques while searching for methods to improve the production process.

New investment in housing. Table 1 shows the relative importance of construction and housing in different economies. Total construction expenditures range from 3.5 to about 15 percent of the gross national product (GNP) and from 40 to 70 per cent of gross fixed investment. Depending on the economy, housing production varies from 2 to 5 per cent of the GNP. In each case, the magnitude of housing production is sufficiently large for its movements to cause related repercussions through out the economy. The impact is heightened because construction in general, and particularly housing construction, is among the most volatile of all major industries. Housing fluctuations have had large amplitudes. In the United States, for example, the value of housing production in 1933 was less than 13 per cent of its value in 1929. In the post-World War ii period, while economies experienced relative general stability, housing remained extremely unstable.

Economists have debated whether the fluctuation pattern of building differs basically from that of the rest of the economy. The evidence is not clear-cut, but most observers note that long swings or cycles of 18 to 20 years appear to mark the indexes of building construction in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of the literature on the subject attaches the name of “the building or construction cycle” to these observed movements. Abramovitz (1962) holds that since the Civil War there has been a succession of long swings in aggregate construction activity, consisting of upsurges followed by either protracted declines or pronounced retardations, in which all the major sectors of the industry have usually if not invariably participated.

Causes of fluctuations. Many have attempted to describe the special factors which could make housing fluctuations differ from the rest of the economy. As in other areas of cycle theory, some have tried to derive simple, constant models for all past movements; the majority of theories, however, are eclectic. They hold that while housing fluctuations do take a unique form because of the nature of the industry, the proximate cause or causes of past movements differ.

The theories ascribe unique demand, supply, and market interactions to the housing market. Uniqueness arises from special demand factors, the size and durability of houses, the few times the average family enters the market and the family’s relative ignorance, the importance of credit in facilitating construction and purchases, the entrepreneurs’ small size and lack of capital, and the difficulties of market adjustment.

A high percentage of construction is that required to house or service net additions to house holds. An expanding population, either through natural growth as births exceed deaths or through migration, requires more dwellings. Another important demographic force is the splitting of extended families into separate households. Young couples may seek their own homes earlier in life rather than share units with their parents. The

Table 1 — Patterns of investment, 1960
 (millions of dollars)(as percent of GNP)GNPGross fixed investmentGNPGross fixed investment
Source: Year Boot: of National Accounts Statistics: 1962. Copyright, United Nations (1963). Reproduced by permission.
Germany (F.R.G.)67,708.
South Africa7,433.520.711.857.2**
United Kingdom71,068.816.17.948.73.018.6
United States504,404.016.410.966.64.527.4

number of single individuals, particularly widows, maintaining their own homes may rise.

In the past, waves of household additions appear to have resulted from variations in migration and from an uneven age distribution in the population. Even within given population structures the rate of family formation has varied significantly as a result of both social and economic forces.

The need to replace existing units is another demand factor. Net replacements have ranged from zero to a third or more of total demand. Several theories posit a replacement cycle. Required replacements could fluctuate as an echo of bunched dwelling construction in the past. However, replacement cycles are not evident in the data. Since the housing stock has been expanding rapidly, the percentage of the stock old enough to require replacement is minor. The useful life of dwellings is extremely long. Few buildings require replacement on merely physical grounds; most replacement takes place because the location is needed for other uses. Replacements appear more closely related to the size of the stock and to economic conditions than to the age and quality of existing units.

Over periods such as a decade, most of the demand for new construction is directly related to the number of net additions to the households in a locality, plus the net number of units demolished, replaced, or removed. Movements in unoccupied units (vacancies) are significant in short periods, but their importance diminishes the longer the time span examined.

The short-run movements in demand have causes similar to those of fluctuations in other spheres. Movements in employment, in assets (particularly equities of existing dwellings), in prices, costs, and in credit all change the demand for new units. Insofar as these variables move with business conditions, the resulting housing fluctuations resemble those of other spheres.

There are also logical reasons to expect that construction will at times fluctuate in a pattern differing from the remainder of the economy. Many authors place particular emphasis on credit. Because of size and cost of buildings, construction is highly dependent on the existence and terms of debt financing. Movements in credit availability, the required down payment, the period of amortization, and the interest rate can force individual owners and builders in and out of the market. Credit terms may move separately from other economic variables. The length of lag between the movements of credit terms and their impact in the construction market differs from that of other industries. Many writers believe that the post-World War ii experience in both the United States and western Europe gave evidence that credit did cause special fluctuations.

Housing demand has two dimensions: one consists of the number of separate dwellings required; the second measures the amount spent per dwelling. This latter amount varies with the size, quality, and features included in a house. Economic variables appear to have a much larger impact on the amount spent per dwelling than they have on the number of dwellings demanded.

When the demand for the services of dwellings shifts, still larger fluctuations occur in required new investment. This creates greater amplitude in the movements of building. The acceleration principle is at work: a 2 per cent increase in the desire for housing may cause new construction demand to double, while in response to a similar decrease new construction might fall almost to zero. [SeeInvestment, article onThe Aggregate Investment Function.]

Other reaction differences arise because of peculiar factors in the market and the real estate industry. Supply adjusts slowly. Because of lack of information much building, particularly of apartment houses, may occur even after an excess of supply exists. The “gestation period” for large structures is long. Apparent increases in demand can easily be multiplied through high expectations, easy credit, and the large number of small firms. Furthermore, builders or promoters who sell to others can often make a profit simply through the building process, even if the completed unit is unneeded.

When the new excess supply reaches the market, vacancies result. As these build up new construction is slowed down. If a demand drop occurs with vacancies already high, as happened after 1929, the disruption of the market is heightened. Since the number of units required has a low price elasticity, no fall in prices is sufficient to fill the vacant space.

Stabilization policies. Because the industry’s structure makes large-scale fluctuations probable, interest has attached to governmental policies which might dampen some cycles. Suggested policies have included better market information, credit controls, varying subsidies, and direct governmental action either to remove old units from the stock or to purchase new ones.

Stabilization programs may attempt to increase the long-run basic demand or to concentrate more demand in particular periods. Attempts to offset short-run movements are difficult. Forecasting problems, the complicated lag situation, and a slow reaction time all make it extremely difficult to inject the stabilizing demand into the market at the necessary times.

Other investment problems. Developed countries have studied housing because of its fluctuations. In developing economies, housing investment has been looked at primarily as a major drain on limited funds. Industrialization and urbanization go hand in hand; individuals and families leave the farm village to work in the city, where they must be housed. Each industrial job requires additional investment in the urban infrastructure. Analysts cannot consider merely the direct investment requirements and the payoff for a transfer of employment from farm to factory. They must take into account many additional costs, of which housing is a major item. Investments in housing tend to be expensive and slow. In developing economies, slums and urban growth are virtually synonymous. Decisions as to how to meet these additional needs are difficult and complex. Significant social costs result when investment is channeled to housing rather than to seemingly more productive spheres. On the other hand, slums and housing shortages create social costs which may in turn reduce the productive effort.

Within developed economies, major debates have occurred as to the proper amount of investment to be allocated to housing when the economy is at full employment. Some feel that housing needs were given too low a priority as western Europe attempted to fight inflation in the post-World War ii period. New housing space was rationed during a period when other parts of the economy were booming.

Consumption of housing. Housing standards vary greatly from country to country, and even wider ranges of consumption standards exist within countries. Almost everywhere some people live in shacks while others occupy mansions. Large numbers of families would occupy both more and higher-quality space if either their incomes were increased or the costs of housing lowered. The problem of why adequate housing is not made available to all income groups has received consid erable analysis, but no generally accepted answers are available (Grigsby 1963).

Table 2 shows the percentage of expenditures going to rent. It shows large variations; the average spent on rent varies from 1 to nearly 15 percent among the countries listed. Within individual countries the highest percentage spent is commonly double or triple the lowest.

Considerable effort has been expended on the analysis of these variations. The reasons for some

Table 2 — Percentage of household consumption expenditures spent on rent
Source: Compendium of Social Statistics: 1963.
British Guiana1955-19562.90.6 to 5.9
France1956-19575.24.3 to 6.4
India1950-19511.10.5 to 1.7
Nigeria1953-195510.09.5 to 10.6
Philippines1956-19579.16.8 to 16.5
South Africa195514.611.2 to 16.5
Sweden195811.69.6 to 13.5
United Arab Republic195812.410.5 to 17.0
United Kingdom195910.35.9 to 15.6
United States195011.99.5 to 17.9

differences are evident. One area’s rents may appear to exceed others purely because of definitions—what is included in rent and the services furnished vary. The relative level of housing costs, frequently based on differences in climate and standards, will be important. Tastes in housing are also extremely broad, so that what is demanded and paid for will differ. Within a given country, factors influencing family expenditures are known to be numerous. Maisel and Winnick (1960) report results similar to those of many other studies. Tenure (rental or ownership) and the type of credit available for ownership cause significant expenditure variations. Among a given tenure group, income is the most important variable. The cross-section income elasticity of housing appears to fall around .5 and .6.

Family demographic features are also important. The type of head, the age of head, and race are all related to differences in tenure and in expenditures within tenure groups. Other factors which influence housing demanded and received include education, occupation, and the location of the family by size and type of community.

Use of subsidies. Many value judgments have been made that people underspend for housing. The level of housing purchased in a free market by many groups of the population is held to be below a desirable standard based on concepts of national health and welfare. It is argued that since housing of good quality is an expensive item, low-income families can purchase or rent sound dwellings only at the expense of other budget items. Since their income is inadequate for all wants, they tend to sacrifice the quality of housing. Compared to sacrifices of food, clothing, or other items, poorer housing can more easily be accepted.

In almost all countries the problem of inadequate housing has been met through subsidies. These tend to take the form of direct housing subsidies rather than general income subsidies which could be spent as the low-income family desired. Among existing types of subsidies are public ownership of dwellings with rents charged at less than costs, rent payments, government payment of part of the costs of Construction, and government subsidies in the form of easier or cheaper credit.

The use of housing subsidies rather than income subsidies would appear to be based on the assumption that the housing market is special. It is feared that general income subsidies would be dissipated through higher rents with only minor improvements in the quality or quantity of housing. It is argued that unless the government uses its expenditures to assure an increased supply of adequate housing, the money will be wasted. Various reasons for such possible poor results are cited. Improper transmission of information in the housing market is one. The market structure may be such that unless the quality is controlled through the form of the subsidy most of the increased supply will be poor. Furthermore, if subsidies are general the recipients might choose to continue to live in housing deemed unsatisfactory by those favoring the subsidies.

Low-income housing programs have frequently been teamed with those for slum clearance. It is argued that the normal market cannot clear slums unless governmental powers are utilized. The external economies and diseconomies are such that a few property owners could frustrate the will of the majority by threatening or attempting to gather most of the joint values for themselves. Tying a housing subsidy program to slum clearance is not a necessary condition, but it simplifies the process. Joint programs make replacement units available for some of the displaced households.

Effects of rent controls. In many periods of housing shortages, rent controls have been adopted. Arguments for controls depend primarily on concepts of a fair distribution of income. Additional housing can be brought into the market only slowly, or, in periods of war or disaster, not at all. Since the price elasticity of household formation appears to be low, even rapidly rising rents would not have much impact on the number of dwellings demanded. Higher rents would have to be met from already inadequate budgets. These higher rents would increase the income of landlords, who are assumed to be among the wealthier classes. Rent controls are also used because they are comparatively simple to administer. Potential capital gains on dwellings can be limited. Whether or not it is economically sound, the ability to contain one area of prices has obvious practical advantages.

Most arguments against rent controls consider difficulties that arise if controls are extended be yond immediate emergencies. It is claimed that controls halt market adjustments. They artifically raise demand because of lower prices, while they hold down supply since higher returns cannot be earned. Also over longer periods, the redistribution effects tend to alter. Instead of tenants being favored over landlords, old tenants are favored over new and some industries over others. The costs of operating in an artificial market rise with time, while the economic advantages fall.

Production of housing. The types of houses produced vary widely. The United States and England mix single-family units and larger apartments, with most emphasis given to single-family units. In Europe a higher percentage of apartments is produced. In many other areas small, simply constructed individual units predominate.

In most countries, however, the housing industry has roughly similar characteristics. Entry is simple, and the number of firms is large. The amount of overhead and of mechanical equipment required is low. The rate of technological innovation is slow, and labor tends to be skilled in specific crafts. Difficulties arise in training and in planning the progression of jobs. People compare housing to other industries and usually conclude that it is unpro-gressive or backward.

In many countries popular comment seems to attribute the difficulties of the industry to a “devil theory.” Progress is thought to be blocked by some entrenched group, be it builders, labor, financial institutions, bureaucratic government, or others. The few economic studies of the housing industry (Maisel 1953; Kelly 1959) place much greater emphasis on its structure as a normal response to the unique problems of building dwellings.

Houses are primarily assembled and attached to individual plots of land. Land costs are significant, and each lot is unique. The joining of the land and building is complex and expensive. The buildings are large, heavy, bulky, and durable. A great deal of the expense in housing construction results simply from moving materials from point to point rather than from fabrication. In the assembly process, many different skills must be used because the variety of materials and finishes is great.

The industry produces a wide variety of custommade products. Its demand is fickle and fluctuates widely; builders must be prepared to expand and contract production rapidly. Flexibility is possible through drawing on the labor and materials available in the much broader area of total construction; however, such flexibility tends to be at the expense of specialization and large-scale automated production.

Probably the rate of innovation has been some what greater than is commonly believed. On the other hand, it has certainly been slower than in most highly industrialized parts of the economy. It is virtually impossible to separate the structure of the industry and the uniqueness of the product and market from the rate of change. Many different types of control, of management, and of labor exist in various countries; nevertheless, no country or form of organization has developed a vastly different product or obviously more efficient techniques.

There is some indication that because of the industry’s fragmented structure, research expenditures and results are less than elsewhere. Firms work on their own product but pay little attention to the process as a whole. No firm controls enough of the final product to make an over-all point of view worthwhile. While there appear to be potential external economies, governments have done small amounts of research; and their efforts and results thus far are minor.

Many observers conclude that any major changes in structure and technique will depend upon the discovery of new materials and vastly different methods of production. As long as houses continue to be built approximately as they were in the past, changes can only be gradual. No single part of the structure, or individual material, or task is important enough for a saving in its cost to be truly significant. More rapid progress appears to require the elimination of whole groups of materials and functions.

Sherman J. Maisel


Abramovitz, Moses 1962 Long Swings in Economic Growth in the United States. Pages 46-48 in National Bureau of Economic Research, Annual Report, Forty-second. New York: The Bureau.

Beyer, Glenn H. 1958 Housing: A Factual Analysis. New York: Macmillan. → Contains a bibliography.

Burns, Arthur F. 1935 Long Cycles in Residential Construction. Pages 63-104 in Economic Essays in Honor of Wesley Clair Mitchell. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

California, University Of, Los Angeles, Real Estate Research Program 1966 Essays in Urban Land Economics in Honor of the Sixty-fifth Birthday of Leo Grebler. Los Angeles: The University.

Columbia University, Institute For Urban Land Use And Housing Studies 1953 Housing Market Analysis: A Study of Theory and Methods, by Chester Rapkin, Louis Winnick, and David M. Blank. Washington: U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency, Office of the Administration, Division of Housing Research.

Compendium of Social Statistics: 1963. 1963 United Nations, Statistical Office, Statistical Papers, Series K. No. 2. New York: United Nations.

Grebler, Leo; Blank, David M.; and Winnick, Louis 1956 Capital Formation in Residential Real Estate. Princeton Univ. Press.

Grebler, Leo; and Maisel, Sherman J. 1963 Deter minants of Residential Construction: Research Study Four. Pages 475-620 in Commission on Money and Credit, Impacts of Monetary Policy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → Contains a bibliography on fluctuations.

Grigsby, William G. 1963 Housing Markets and Public Policy. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. → Contains a bibliography.

Kelly, Burnham 1959 Design and the Production of Houses. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Maisel, Sherman J. 1953 Housebuilding in Transition. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Maisel, Sherman J. 1963 A Theory of Fluctuations in Residential Construction Starts. American Economic Review 53:359–383.

Maisel, Sherman J.; and Winnick, Louis 1960 Family Housing Expenditures: Elusive Laws and Intrusive Variances. Volume 1, pages 359-435 in Conference on Consumption and Saving, University of Pennsyl vania, 1959, Proceedings. Philadelphia: Univ. of Penn sylvania Press.

Ratcliff, Richard U. 1949 Urban Land Economics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Twentieth Century Fund, Housing Committee 1944 American Housing, Problems and Prospects: The Factual Findings, by Miles L. Colean. New York: The Fund.

Winnick, Louis 1958 Rental Housing Opportunities for Private Investment. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Yearbook of National Accounts Statistics: 1962. 1963 New York: United Nations Statistical Office, Department of Economic and Social Affairs.


views updated May 23 2018


Craig Keating

Housing is of interest to social historians mainly to the extent that access to housing and to housing of a certain quality have long been important measures and determinants of social standing. Houses are capital and reflect a certain economic status. Tenancy, by contrast, often betrays a lack of economic wherewithal. More tellingly, tenancy tends to perpetuate socioeconomic divisions insofar as the percent of income spent on housing varies inversely with the amount of income. Yet housing is also interesting because many of the material aspects of the house (from its internal spatial arrangements to its proximity to the built human environment to its relation to the natural environment) play important roles in the cultural construction of class, gender, and individual identities, and in defining the boundary between public and private. Indeed, no discussion of the history of housing would be complete if it did not recognize that the ownership of a house or access to housing of different kinds and quality are not merely material facts of social existence but have symbolic and ideological values that have been important in the structuring of European society in the past.


Peasant houses in early modern Europe reflected the divisions in that omnibus social class, which included freeholders, farmers, tenants of a lord, sharecroppers, and day laborers. Houses reflected these divisions most importantly in their size. Houses of freeholders and farmers tended to be the most substantial. So-called long houses excavated in England and northern France and dating from around 1500 were from 40 to 90 feet long and 15 to 20 feet wide with steeply pitched timber beam thatched roofs and rock walls. While these houses may have had sleeping areas in the loft, the main floor was divided into two main areas: one for human habitation, the other for livestock. Often humans and livestock would share the same entrance. These houses were almost always enclosed behind a fence or hedge and they tended to incorporate the yard area as an external extension of the house, an area where a variety of domestic chores were completed in the privacy that fence or hedge provided. For more marginal peasants (such as agricultural laborers or widows without family) houses were no more than huts, often comprising no more than one room.

The materials used in the construction of peasant households also varied. In part this was because of regional variations in materials available. Sod or wood and cob houses were commonly used in northern Europe, where large forests were common and readily accessible. In the south, stone of varying sorts was more common. But the materials used were also a matter of economics. Stone or brick were comparatively expensive, as were roofing tiles. Furthermore, the investment of a significant amount of labor and capital in the construction of a substantial house of wood or stone was a luxury not open to all.

As the foregoing indicates, peasant houses were functional, useful largely as aids to agricultural production. The cohabitation of humans and livestock as well as the very basic character of the human portions of peasant houses attests to this. So, too, does the evidence of an excavation at Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, where archaeologists have found that over three centuries nine different houses were built on the same site. Peasant houses were tools, and house and work were not distinguished as separate realms of everyday existence.

Nonetheless, the peasant house was not completely without cultural importance. However rudimentary, the physical form of the peasant house was intimately linked to certain social and cultural functions, especially to the notion of family. Indeed, as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has pointed out in his study of Montaillou, peasants made no important disctinction between physical house and family. The house embodied the family and was a symbol of stability and prosperity that distinguished substantial peasants from agricultural laborers, who were often excluded from the compact of village society. It also formed the basis of possible future consolidation of wealth, standing, and privilege in the bringing together of goods, lands, and hearths through conjugal alliance. Also, the walls of both the house and its enclosure offered a measure of security, both real and imagined, against an uncertain world of war, beggars, and, often, wild animals.

By the 1600s, the houses of freeholding peasants and more substantial farmers were being built in two stories with stone foundations, wood construction, and, where available, slate or tile roofs (which posed less of a threat from fire). The cohabitation of animals and humans became less tolerated. Indeed, this commonplace of rural life (which persisted even into the twentieth century in some regions) came to be viewed as impossibly rustic and uncivilized by social observers as early as the 1600s. Increasingly, farm houses were separated from a variety of outbuildings, which served as barns and granaries. The houses of more substantial farms were built in two stories with clearly defined rooms for eating, sleeping, entertaining, and so forth. But if the traditional peasant cottage came to be viewed with disdain over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it ought to be remarked that rural peasants were all too well aware that there were other less savory alternatives: the one- or two-room huts of agricultural laborers, just big enough for their family; or, to lose one's purchase on any house at all and become part of a mass (of indeterminate but clearly large numbers) of beggars who populated the countryside and who, if apprehended within the bounds of a city, would be imprisoned.

Equally notable both as a reflection of economic standing and cultural importance were the chateaux, manor houses, and seigneurial homes of rural Europe. In economic terms, the very size of these houses displayed the socioeconomic standing of their occupants. Owned by a single person, they housed, in some cases, hundreds of domestic servants. While the interior space of the peasant house in its sparseness and the melange of human and animal occupants manifested its functionality, the interior space of manor houses was clearly defined and divided. Different rooms were devoted not only to different daily functions (such as dining and sleeping), but some were clearly ceremonial in character. Nobles' houses, too, had exterior enclosures. Yet in the case of nobility these enclosures served as gardens or parks, created both for pleasure and as symbols of the refinement and culture of the owner.

As the very fact of the aristocratic garden implies, the houses of aristocrats and gentry were cultural entities rather than mere shelter. Accordingly, their function derived in part from their very aspect. They were meant to be seen. They were symbols of power and, to this extent, mechanisms of power. This specular function is manifested in countless contemporary prints in which castles are an almost omnipresent feature of the background. The symbolic presence of these houses also developed over the course of the early modern period, as the blank walls and stern towers of the fortified medieval castle gave way to the architectural flourish of the exteriors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The highpoint of this transformation was Louis XIV's construction of the palace of Versailles. Yet this palace, which set the standard for royal homes throughout Europe, differed only in size and scale from the kinds of houses that were constructed by the wealthiest aristocrats of this period. The important point for social historians in these developments is that houses were becoming cultural and ideological variables. Indeed, it seems that certain aristocratic ideas about houses developed in the early modern period (such as the relationship between house and nature, in the guise of the park) informed later, bourgeois notions of housing.

Urban housing in the early modern period reflects both similarities and differences with rural housing. Cities were distinct from the countryside in several respects. One of the most important differences was the very durability of cities and consequently of the houses within them. Construction was more often of stone with tile roofs and many of these kinds of houses (along with some of timber and mortar) survived into the twenty-first century. Early modern cities also had a distinct legal and political status that permitted a certain degree of land-use planning that sometimes limited the size and character of houses. But these powers were haphazardly enforced, leading to the housing densities and mazelike streets that virtually define the medieval and early modern city.

Cities were also unique because of their mixture of classes. Perhaps the largest single group in the city was artisans and shopkeepers. Most of these people would have occupied a single house that they also likely would have owned. As with peasant houses, there was no important distinction between the house as a place of residence and a place of work. The lower floors (including an enclosed courtyard) that opened onto city streets served as the location of workshops and offices as well as the kitchen, the larder, and the hearth. In other words, there was a thorough intermingling of what we would call the "domestic" sphere with the workplace. This blurring of the distinction between houses as homes and places of work was most advanced in the houses of master artisans, where the master and his family would sleep on the second story and the journeymen and apprentices on the floors above, and all would share a common table.

A variety of other groups in society were housed in the city with an equal variation in the kinds of houses to be found. At the top of the social scale were aristocrats and wealthy merchants, whose houses were correspondingly grand. At the other end of the scale were day laborers, students, the aged, vagabonds, and others who had no position within a household. For these groups housing was defined by its scarcity, its consequent expense and its very poor condition. Merchants and artisans would rent out unused rooms in the uppermost floors of their buildings. These were dirty, pestilent, cold (by dint of their distance from the hearth) and hard to access. One family often occupied just one room. In periods of demographic crisis, cellars, appentis (lean-tos attached to the sides of buildings), and stables were pushed into service as housing. Rude huts were constructed in courtyards. The construction of speculative rental housing began in the eighteenth century in larger centers like Paris. But, here, too, the desire of landlords to extract profit from every possible inch of floor space merely added to the available stock of deplorable housing available to the poorest elements of society. Increasingly these included the bulk of the working population, as the guild structure that had in part supported the cohabitation of masters, apprentices, and other servants slowly faded. This also reflected the phenomenon, which emerged more clearly in the nineteenth century, of the literal social disintegration of cities as neighborhoods came to be divided along class lines.


Throughout the early modern period, demographic changes played an important role in the social history of housing. Because houses were relatively expensive to build, the expansion and contraction of the European population directly affected the numbers of people who had to occupy them. In the eighteenth century, the expansion of the population of cities in particular (a function of the commercial revolutions of that century) was the chief demographic fact that affected housing. Population density per house increased significantly. Entire families living in just one or two rooms were common. In the nineteenth century, as the commercial revolution gave way to the industrial revolution, the steady growth of cities became an explosion. The scale of this growth in selected European cities is reflected in Table 1. Under these demographic conditions urban housing rapidly deteriorated in quality and became much scarcer. By the end of the century, housing was broadly recognized as a major social problem.

The declining condition of urban housing was documented and denounced as a social evil by social revolutionaries, social reformers, and social conservatives alike. The chief problem was the simple paucity of housing in urban centers. Migration from the countryside to cities was rapid and unplanned and easily outpaced the ability of already saturated housing markets to meet demand. For example, while the population of Paris grew by 500,000 between 1801 and 1851, only 4,000 new houses were built between 1817 and 1851. A variety of expedients to accommodate demand emerged. Among the forms of working-class housing that developed in industrial towns in England were cellars (the most degraded of urban housing, home to the city's most marginal elements), lodging-houses (intended for short-term stays by "tramp" labor, they were eventually pressed into service to house whole families on a permanent or semipermanent basis), tenements (preexisting houses subdivided into separate apartments), and the "back-to-back" or "one-up, one-down" (purpose-built speculative housing constructed in double rows where the front wall was the only nonparty wall). Shantytowns became common on the outskirts of industrial cities, and huts and other makeshift constructions such as wagons housed the most marginalized of the urban poor, such as ragpickers.

A second major problem with worker housing in the industrial city was sanitation. Clean water and adequate sewage disposal were especially wanting in non-purpose-built housing such as tenements and cellars, although these were problems of far wider scope in cities lacking sufficient infrastructure in these areas. Once again taking Paris as an example, in 1851 only 82 miles of sewers serviced 250 miles of streets. Therefore, the streets themselves, as well as rivers, were open sewers. As a result, deaths outpaced births in many major cities in the first half of the nineteenth century. Also dangerous to the sanitary condition of working-class housing was its proximity to industrial enterprises, major sources of air- and waterborne pollutants.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the conditions of cities and housing in particular had captured the attention of national governments. These conditions, it was believed, were the breeding ground of not only disease but also other vices such as crime and, more worrisome in the wake of the revolutions of 1848, social discontent. In 1850 the government of the French Second Republic passed the Melun Law, which gave municipal government the power to investigate and improve substandard housing. Subsequently the government of Paris established the Commission on Unhealthful Dwellings in 1851. Similar public health bodies with powers to investigate housing conditions of the poor were established in Britain and Belgium around the same time. These bodies were empowered to condemn houses as unfit for human habitation in the enforcement of public health standards.

While some have argued that these developments set the stage for a later, larger role for the state in matters relevant to housing and health, most European governments in the nineteenth century were reluctant to intervene in the question of housing. Indeed, many policies merely exacerbated what remained the central housing problem of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: availability. Probably the most important outcome of the cultural construction of the problem of housing as one of social hygiene was the rebuilding of Paris begun in 1853 under Georges Haussmann, the prefect of Paris. Emperor Napoleon III gave Haussmann wide powers of expropriation, overriding the rights of individual property owners. The broad boulevards that Haussmann created using these powers were purposely planned to eliminate as much of the working-class slums of central Paris as possible. It is estimated that during his tenure as prefect, 27,000 residences were destroyed and their 350,000 occupants were forced to the outskirts of Paris. Industry, too, was cajoled into setting up on the fringes of Paris. Central Paris became a zone of apartment buildings of varying degrees of luxury inaccessible to all but the respectable middle classes. No plans were made to house the displaced poor and working classes, and the new working-class districts north and east of Paris merely replicated the grim realities of urban housing as they had been prior to Haussmann's reforms.

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Haussmann's work in Paris inspired similar reforms of varying scope in Brussels, Rome, and Vienna. In all cases, cities became more socially distinct. Whereas the pre-nineteenth-century response to population pressure had been to build up, adding more floors to preexisting buildings (with the social class of occupants declining as one went up), later developments led to distinct and more socially homogeneous neighborhoods. In these cities the urban center became a bourgeois enclave, but in others such as London and Amsterdam, different political cultures that placed a greater emphasis on the rights of individual property owners impeded Haussmannian programs of social hygiene through slum clearance. In England, for instance, municipalities like London lacked the powers of expropriation given Haussmann. Indeed, each expropriation required a separate act of Parliament, making wholesale urban reforms almost impossible. Most housing improvements were left to the owners of individual properties, giving them a patchwork character. The only exception to this role was Parliament's aid to railway companies in the purchase of five percent of the buildings in central London by the century's end. This displaced 100,000 occupants with no plans for their rehousing.

This is not to say, however, that ideas about urban reform were absent in England. On the contrary, the concept of the garden city advocated by the social reformer Ebenezer Howard launched a housing movement that spread to many places in Europe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Howard advocated the creation of estates of detached or semidetached houses separated from the city proper by the green spaces he deemed necessary for the physical and moral improvement of the lower classes. In so doing he was advocating for the less fortunate a mode of living that the English middle classes, having turned their back on housing in the city center, had already begun to practice.

The single-family, owner-occupied, suburban home, which the garden city epitomized, was at a cultural level arguably the most important housing development of the nineteenth century. For it incarnated a host of peculiarly modern ideas about housing, ideas that informed housing-reform initiatives well into the twentieth century. Perhaps the most important was the new separation of home and work, a separation daily ritualized in that peculiarly modern phenomenon of the commute. In part this was inspired by a desire to escape the urban conditions of industrial cities outlined above. But it cannot be understood without also taking into consideration ideas about gender and family that had become prevalent by mid-century. In many countries women's political and civil rights were officially limited. Laws restricted hours of work for women and children, justified by notions of the distinct physical and mental capabilities of women and men. The idea of a house physically separated from the hurly-burly of the industrial city was merely an extension at the cultural level of these developments. The very feminine nature of women (and, as some like Ferdinand Tönnies argued, of youth as well) demanded the separate space that the suburban house provided. Francis Place, secretary in the 1820s of the radical London Corresponding Society, spoke out against the morally degrading effects of the intermingling of men's work and women's work within the space of a single house, arguing for a separate study in which men might conduct their labor. The suburban house, proximate to nature through its garden, further recommended itself because of the perceived moral and physical benefits of that relationship. Also, home ownership, which the suburban house further embodied, was conceived by socially conservative paternalists as a great social stabilizer, endowing the owner with a greater sense of responsibility. And this house was above all a private space, the ground on which the family confronted society and public authority. Ideals of privacy further stipulated bedrooms clearly separating children and adults and, ultimately, individual bedrooms for children themselves.

However much this middle-class suburban house remained an ideal (it was hardly common in Europe as a whole and the middle classes of Paris, even as they espoused its virtues, betrayed in practice their preference for rental apartments), it was a powerful one. Beyond the garden-city movement, it formed the basis, in England at least, of working-class demands for housing. And it arguably informed the preference of government throughout much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries for housing policies that promoted private home ownership over government-owned and managed social housing.

The cultural construction of housing and the ideological commitment of governments to private enterprise solutions to the problem of housing supply help explain why, at the end of the nineteenth century, this problem still had not been adequately addressed. Nonetheless, all across Europe at this time, central governments undertook very modest interventions in the housing market. In 1890 the British government passed a Housing Act that empowered municipal governments to collect taxes for the construction of low-cost housing. The Belgian Housing Act of 1889, passed by a paternalist Catholic majority in parliament, offered low-cost loans to working-class families interested in buying or building a home. A home owning working class, it was believed, would be a respectable and politically stable working class. Elsewhere, tax incentives were used to encourage private-sector house construction. Ireland is exceptional in that some 48,000 rural laborers' cottages were constructed at the expense of the public purse between 1883 and 1926. Almost everywhere else the trend was to allow the private sector to take the lead in building houses and to encourage workers, either individually or through cooperative building societies, to find their own solutions to the general housing shortage.

Not surprisingly, attempts to address housing shortages by these means were far from successful. Given the wage rates of the urban working class and the relative expense of land and developments in the city, what private sector speculative house construction there was served an almost entirely middle-class market. Other private sector initiatives included company housing. Some company housing was on the military model, with dormitory accommodation and correspondingly martial discipline and regimentation of workers. Often it was simply exploitative, as in the case of coal miners' housing in the English Midlands which, despite its very low quality, was exorbitantly priced. Some employers, though, were of a philanthropic bent (a philanthropy bolstered by the economic necessity of retaining skilled workers in under-housed regions) and sought to create well planned colonies on the garden city model. The Cité Ouvrière created by the Mulhouse industrialist Jean Dollfus was a well laid out community of single-family homes that a worker, after fifteen years of payments, could own (though recent work suggests that this was only possible so long as wives and children also worked). It was a model copied by many large industrial concerns in Germany.


At the outbreak of war in 1914, neither the modest initiatives of the state, nor company housing, nor other, more honestly philanthropic plans, nor workers cooperatives had even come close to meeting housing needs in Europe. In Germany, where the proportion of the population living in towns of 100,000 or more had gone from 4.8 percent in 1871 to 21 percent in 1910, there was a need for 800,000 apartments for working families in 1914. By 1919 this figure was 1.4 million. Nor was Germany exceptional. But by the end of World War I, in the context of social revolution, real (as in Russia) or imagined (everywhere else), demands for housing could no longer be ignored. Britain's prime minister, David Lloyd George, fanned expectations by promising, with direct reference to the housing that returning soldiers might expect, "a country fit for heroes to live in." At the same time and for many of the same reasons, housing was further politicized by modernist architects like Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and others associated with the Bauhaus movement, who believed that mass-produced, functional dwellings could not only house workers but could also aid in the transformation of society and culture at the dawn of what appeared to be a new age.

Both postwar political tensions and the utopian visions of modernist architects played a role in housing between the two world wars. So changed was the political and ideological balance of European society between the two wars that in the major industrialized nations there was bound to be some further move away from liberal solutions to the housing question. In Britain, no less than four Housing Acts were passed between 1919 and 1924 (eleven were passed between 1919 and 1945). These acts either provided national funds to local authorities to build what came to be called council houses, or paid out lump sums or ongoing payments to private interests building low-cost housing. Even in countries such as France, where politics shifted to the right after World War I, policymakers realized that the national state would have to assume a far larger role in the provision of housing. In France, Loucheur's Act of 1928 provided state funding for the construction of 200,000 low-cost dwellings and 60,000 medium-cost ones. Similar developments occurred in Germany, where the Weimar Constitution of 1919 gave the new Republic wider powers in the area of housing. In Scandinavia, where Social Democratic governments undertook reforms that set the stage for the modern welfare state, private house building and housing cooperatives far outstripped public housing.

The net result of all these initiatives was to radically increase the pool of affordable housing. In France, 300,000 new low-cost housing units were built between 1919 and 1931. In England the figure was a staggering 1.785 million. Yet even this level of construction failed to fill the need for low-cost housing. In some jurisdictions the failings of public housing initiatives were functions of ill-considered government intervention. For instance, in France wartime rent controls remained in force throughout much of the 1920s. This policy, which was supposed to make housing more affordable, deprived private builders of any incentive to construct low-cost housing at a time when the French government was relying almost exclusively on the private sector to add to housing stock, thereby making housing scarcer and more expensive.

Perhaps the boldest experiment in public housing occurred in Vienna under the municipal administration of the Social Democratic Party elected after World War I. Here, too, rent controls severely depressed private house construction and augmented the need for new housing. To address these problems the Viennese government launched an ambitious plan of public housing funded by a steeply progressive income tax (which further depressed the private market). Eventually 64,000 new dwellings, mostly in large tenement blocks, were built under this program. But the initiative was distinct as well because of its broader social goals. Turning bourgeois notions about the social and cultural functions of housing on their heads, the architects of the "Red Vienna" experiment, as it came to be called, believed that the new communal housing would play a part in the constitution of a "new man" for a new, socialist age. Even though the socialist government rejected the designs of the architectural modernists, it embraced the modernists' utopianism as regards housing.

Utopian housing designs were given a fuller airing in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Throughout the 1920s plans were proposed for the rebuilding of Russian cities and the provision of housing for the working classes. Here, too, the garden-city model had a certain currency. Indeed, the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, was a devotee of Howard's ideas, and the garden-city movement in Russia persisted into the 1920s and found its way into official plans (though without Kropotkin's involvement). Plans for communal housing were also advanced. Here, as in Vienna, the culturally and socially transformative potential of communal living was viewed by its proponents as integral to the transition to socialist society. By the 1930s, however, when the Soviet Union's industrial needs had emerged as the most pressing concern, experimentation in housing lost out to grim necessity. At Magnitogorsk, a new industrial town in central Russia, communal housing persisted as a preferred option for local communist authorities largely because of its efficacy in meeting the needs of the hundreds of thousands of workers who were coming to work there. While it was justified in local Party publications in terms of a collectivist social vision, when the preference of workers for independent living (manifested in the repeated erection of mud huts despite ordinances against them) became apparent, the construction of bungalows by workers was not only tolerated but eventually encouraged. In fact, as in Western Europe, the Communist authorities extended credit to workers for this purpose. Nonetheless, such houses remained a dream rather than a reality for most Russian workers.


The destructiveness of World War II increased the need for housing everywhere, although the response to this need varied from state to state. The war left 1.5 million dwellings in France uninhabitable. Added to preexisting housing needs, this meant that something like 2 million housing units were needed immediately and 14 million were thought to be needed over the following twenty years. By 1950, however, only 90,000 new dwellings had been erected. This feeble effort led to new measures, one of the most important of which in France was the creation of zones à urbanisation prioritaire, or ZUPs, which allowed governments to acquire land and to extend easy credit for the construction of large-scale housing projects. Some 140 ZUPs were established, mostly around Paris, and it was in these developments that the modernist architectural ideas of LeCorbusier, for instance, had their greatest effect. (Although only involved in four projects, he was an important influence on younger architects.) The average size of each development was 5,300 dwelling units, adding up to a total of three-quarters of a million.

Of course the ZUP projects, aided by public funds, were not the only source of new housing stock. Private sources contributed a great deal as well, such that between 1945 and 1990 French housing stock doubled with the addition of 14 million units, of which only 17 percent were social housing units. There was a significant increase in home ownership and an even bigger increase in rental social housing, both to the detriment of private rentals. Similar patterns prevailed in West Germany, where 16.5 million new dwellings were added to the national stock between 1945 and 1986, with a significant rise in home ownership. In Britain, only 9 million new dwellings were added between 1939 and 1989, but home ownership more than doubled, rising from 33 to 68 percent.

One of the important consequences of postwar housing developments was to offer an unprecedented degree of interior space. This is a function both of the raw increase in numbers of available dwellings (which by no means completely resolved the need for housing) and of the regulation of new housing stock when it was built. Governments around Europe established minimum size requirements for rooms, and in some cases also specified the kind and number of rooms that had to be built in dwellings. New regulations also required that amenities such as running water, toilets, baths, and central heating be installed. These regulations revolutionized housing in its material aspect. They also revolutionized the individual's relation to himself and others by providing a far greater degree of personal and private space than ever before. Earlier, the exile of children to corridors was often a necessary prequel to many couples' conjugal relations. The sharing of beds by two or more siblings (and sometimes even parents and children) had been the norm throughout European history. But by the mid-1970s, the average French home had 3.5 rooms, and there was a ratio of more than 200 square feet per person. This increase in individual private space is entirely consistent with the emergence of a consumer society that emphasizes as a chief marketing tool the fulfillment of personal needs through consumption. Space is not the only factor in housing's role in individualizing social experience. Running water, in-house laundry facilities, and the omnipresent radio and, later, television allowed tasks that were formerly done in a public space (such as a neighborhood pub, in the case of the communication of news) to be conducted in private. Detached housing estates integrated into broader transportation networks through the automobile served similar functions.

It is unclear, however, whether home ownership, which state policies continued to support throughout the postwar period, works in exactly the ways its original paternalist sponsors wanted. It has been assumed that the sale of over one million council housing units to their tenants under Margaret Thatcher's Right to Buy program (which was merely an expanded form of the selling of council flats that both Labour and Conservative administrations had pushed for decades) altered the political attitudes of their new owners and could account, at least in part, for the success of the Conservatives in the 1980s. Quantitative research suggests that new owners of council housing were no more or less likely to vote Conservative than any other voter. Qualitative evidence further suggests, against popular perceptions, that few of these new owners wanted to use the capital embodied in their homes as a means to escape their old neighborhood for a better one.


If housing emerged since 1800 as an important question for both the state and individuals, it is because of the linked demographic and economic changes that made it increasingly a scarce commodity. Yet as this essay has shown, it is not only in its simple material form that housing is important for social historians. The efforts of the state, of individuals, and of other organizations to access and provide safe and affordable housing surveyed here were undertaken at a time when the house became an important cultural construct. Housing is indissociably linked to ideas about the family, gender, the environment, privacy, and respectability. Thus the efforts referred to above cannot be understood outside these cultural associations. Indeed, it may well be asked whether the general preference of both states and individuals to develop housing solutions based on private ownership is not a function of the fact that housing emerged as a social problem as it also came to be defined in cultural terms. It may well be asked whether the possibility of addressing the remaining major deficiencies in the available housing stock in Europe does not reside in moving beyond this particular cultural construct.

See alsoThe City: The Early Modern Period; The City: The Modern Period (volume 2);Peasants and Rural Laborers; Public Health (volume 3);The Household (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism: 15th–18th Century. Vol. 1: TheStructures of Everyday Life. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York, 1979.

Brumfield, William Craft, and Blair A. Ruble. Russian Housing in the Modern Age:Design and Social History. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Burnett, John. A Social History of Housing, 1815–1985. London, 1978, 1986.

Cole, Ian, and Robert Furbey. The Eclipse of Council Housing. London and New York, 1994.

De Vries, Jan. European Urbanization, 1500–1800. Cambridge, Mass., 1984.

Duby, Georges, and Philippe Ariès, eds. A History of Private Life. Vols. 2–5, Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass., 1988–1991.

Forrest, Ray, and Alan Murie. "Transformation through Tenure? The Early Purchasers of Council Houses, 1968–1973." Journal of Social Policy 20 ( January 1991): 1–25.

Gruber, Helmut. Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture, 1919–1934. New York, 1991.

Guerrand, Roger H. Les origines du logement social en France. Paris, 1966.

Harloe, Michael. The People's Home?: Social Rented Housing in Europe and America. Oxford, 1995.

Hohenberg, Paul and Lynn Lees. The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

James, Simon, Bill Jordan, and Helen Kays. "Poor People, Council Housing, and the Right to Buy." Journal of Social Policy 20 ( January 1991): 27–40.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York, 1979.

Pensley, Danielle Sibener. "The Socialist City?: A Critical Analysis of Neubaugebiet Hellersdorf." Journal of Urban History 24 ( July 1998); 563–602.

Pooley, Colin G., ed. Housing Strategies in Europe, 1880–1930. Leicester, U.K., 1992.

Power, Anne. Hovels to High Rise: State Housing in Europe since 1850. London and New York, 1993.

Shapiro, Ann-Louise. Housing the Poor of Paris, 1850–1902. Madison, Wis., 1985.

Sutcliffe, Anthony. Towards the Planned City: Germany, Britain, the United States, and France, 1780–1914. Oxford, 1981.

Wagenaar, Michael. "Conquest of the Center or Flight to the Suburbs? Divergent Metropolitan Strategies in Europe, 1850–1914." Journal of Urban History 19 (November 1992): 60–83.


views updated May 29 2018


Housing plays a vital role in the lives of older adults due to the amount of time they spend at home and their desire to age in place. The features of housing are strong determinants of safety and ability to get out into the community. In addition, the cost of housing is a major expenditure for most older adults. The aging of the population necessitates a broad array of housing alternatives that provide different levels of onsite services, supervision, sociability, privacy, and amenities. These housing options range from single-family homes and apartments to nursing homes. The following sections describe the wide array of housing options available.

Independent housing

Private sector housing. Most independent older persons reside in private sector homes or apartments. Over three-quarters (77 percent) of older adults own their own home. While rates of home ownership decrease with advancing age, 67 percent of adults over age eighty-five still own their own homes. Certain groups, however, have lower rates of home ownership (HUD). For example, home ownership rates are highest for whites and lowest for black (64 percent) and Hispanic households (57 percent) (Naifeh). Older renters differ from homeowners in that they have somewhat lower incomes, have lived in their units for relatively shorter periods of time, and occupy housing in somewhat worse condition.

Accessory units. Accessory units and elder cottage housing opportunity (ECHO) housing (i.e., granny flats), are private housing arrangements in or adjacent to existing single-family homes. These units are complete, self-contained units, usually with a separate entrance. Older adults who are frail and need to be close to their children or other family members can benefit from this option. Another possibility is that older homeowners can rent these units to younger persons at below market rent in return for certain services, such as shopping and meal preparation. Homeowners may also benefit from this situation because it provides an extra source of income to help with living expenses. Zoning in communities designed for single-family housing generally prohibits accessory apartments or ECHO housing, so a special use permit may be needed. Such impediments have restricted the growth of this option.

Shared housing. Shared housing is an arrangement in which two or more unrelated people share a house or apartment. Each person usually has his or her own sleeping quarters, and the rest of the house is shared. Surveys suggest that 2.5 percent of older adult households have at least one nonrelative living in their home, and almost 20 percent of older adults would consider living with someone who was not a family member or a friend. This living situation may occur naturally when individuals decide to form a household, through matches facilitated by an agency, and in small group homes operated by nonprofit or private organizations. In certain cases, agency-sponsored shared housing in small group homes may include services such as meal preparation, housekeeping, and shopping.

However, there are problems and considerations that arise in shared housing, especially in small group homes. Planning and zoning commissions may categorize shared housing with residential care homes, nursing homes, and other types of homes for older adults, all of which are excluded from residential areas zoned for single-family housing. A second problem is that elderly living in shared housing situations who receive food stamp benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) may lose a portion of their benefits or be declared ineligible altogether. Nevertheless, shared housing can provide a source of additional income, reduce housing costs, and provide social, emotional, and physical support.

Government-assisted housing. Since 1959 the federal government has played a major role in increasing the housing supply for low-income older persons through financing housing for the elderly and reducing rents through tenant subsidy programs. Approximately 1.7 million older persons live in federally subsidized housing nationwide. The largest program serving low-income older persons is public housing, in which approximately half a million elderly reside, primarily in special housing for the elderly. Section 202 housing, initially authorized under the 1959 Housing Act to serve moderate-income older persons, has provided the funds for nonprofit sponsors to develop about 325,000 units in which about 387,000 tenants live. Sections 515 and 516 of the Housing Act of 1949 provide housing assistance to rural residents and farm laborers through tenant subsidies.

In addition, older persons live in a variety of housing developed through other federal programs (e.g., Section 236 of National Housing Act of 1968, Section 8 new construction), that have reduced the interest rate on loans for developers. Such programs have generally produced shallower subsidies than public housing. In order to make these programs affordable by low-income persons, many residents receive Section 8 rental certificates or vouchers, which reduce housing expenses to 30 percent of income and can be used to rent units in the private sector.

Supportive housing options

Because frail older persons are likely to need a more physically supportive dwelling unit, greater supervision (e.g., with medications) or services, or more companionship than can be efficiently provided in conventional homes or apartments, a number of supportive housing options have developed since the 1980s. Estimates of the absolute and relative sizes of the populations that live in supportive housing vary considerably because of inconsistent definitions of supportive housing, the difficulty in identifying unregulated facilities, and problems that older persons have accurately answering survey questions about the type of housing they occupy.

Estimates of the number of older persons living in supportive housing settings range from one million to two million. By all accounts, however, the stock of supportive housing is still insufficient to meet the needs of a growing population of frail older persons; much of it remains unaffordable to those with low and moderate incomes, and its quality remains difficult to judge.

Continuing care retirement communities. Also called life care communities, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) are unique in that they offer various levels of care within one community to accommodate residents who have changing needs. Most CCRCs offer independent living areas, assisted living, and skilled nursing care. Services that are offered include transportation, meals, housekeeping, and physician services. Some communities provide most of their own services, whereas others obtain many of them through contracts with outside organizations.

Each community houses between four hundred and six hundred older persons, often in a campus-type setting. CCRCs generally require, as a condition for entry, that new residents be in reasonably good health. Once a person is admitted, however, CCRCs are the most accommodating of all settings because residents can remain and obtain services in the community even if they experience physical or mental limitations.

The typical age of entrants is seventy-nine and the majority are women (75 percent). The primary reason that older persons select CCRCs is security, represented most clearly by the assurance of high quality nursing care and personal care services.

By 1992 there were approximately a thousand CCRCs, housing approximately 350,000 to 450,000 older persons. It is predicted that the number of facilities could double by 2010, though growth may be tempered by an increase in other options, such as home care and assisted living.

Most CCRCs require residents to pay an entrance fee and monthly fee, for which the community guarantees a dwelling unit, services, meals, and nursing care. Entrance fees typically range from $20,000 to $400,000 with an average of $40,000; monthly fees range from $200 to $25,000. Generally, CCRCs are an option affordable only by middle- and upper-income older persons, for most residents must pay out of pocket. Residents generally are required to have Medicare parts A and B. In order to reduce their potential liability for long-term care, some CCRCs offer or require long-term care insurance.

As of 2000, thirty-five states have regulations in place for CCRCs; though they vary greatly in stringency. Government involvement usually takes the form of measures to improve the ability of residents to make informed decisions and to guard against the bankruptcy of these facilities. CCRCs, fearing overinvolvement by the government, have formed their own regulating agency, the Continuing Care Accreditation Commission, which adopts basic standards that focus on finance, residential life, and health care.

Board and care homes. Board and care homes are residential facilities that generally offer on-site management, supervision, a physically accessible environment, meals, and a range of services for physically or mentally vulnerable older people and younger disabled people who cannot live independently. In facilities serving primarily seniors, the average age is approximately eighty-three, about eight years older than residents of government-assisted housing.

Data from a 1991 survey suggest that over thirty thousand board and care homes exist in the United States, more than double the number of nursing homes (Sirrocco). However, owing to their smaller size (usually between five and twenty dwelling units), board and care facilities house only about one-fourth as many residents (about four hundred thousand persons) as nursing homes, and include about two hundred thousand persons under age sixty-two.

The cost of living in this type of facility varies with location and the services provided, but in general the average monthly fee ranges from $450 to $2,000. Many of the older residents in board and care homes are subsidized by state governments, which add an amount to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that many residents use to pay for their accommodations and care. Most board and care homes are very modest in nature and require that residents share rooms. Though theoretically licensed and regulated by state governments, many of the smaller board and care homes remain unlicensed and enforcement is lax.

Congregate housing. Congregate housing refers to a wide range of multiunit living arrangements for older persons in both the private and the public sector. Older persons who live in this type of housing generally have their own apartments that include kitchens or kitchenettes and private bathrooms. Most of this housing has dining facilities and provides residents with at least one meal a day (frequently included in the rent). There are common spaces for social and educational activities, and in some cases transportation is provided. Congregate housing generally does not offer personal care services or health services. It is therefore not licensed under regulations that apply to residential care facilities or assisted living.

In line with the physical characteristics of the buildings and the limited provision of services, congregate housing attracts older persons who can live independently. It especially appeals to older persons who no longer want the responsibility of home maintenance or meal preparation, and positively anticipate making new friends and engaging in activities. Problems may arise later, however, as residents age in place and need more assistance than the facility provides.

Residents, who are usually sixty-five to eighty-five years old and widowed, typically live in a one- or two-bedroom unit in a facility with fifty to four hundred units. Units are rented monthly, for from $700 to $2500 a month, and paid for out of pocket. Nonprofit facilities are usually subsidized by government agencies or religious organizations, and therefore are less costly than for-profit facilities. Most Section 202 housing falls in the congregate housing category.

Assisted living. During the 1990s assisted living (AL) was the fastest growing segment of the senior housing market. Assisted living is a housing option that involves the delivery of professionally managed supportive services and, depending on state regulations, nursing services, in a group setting that is residential in character and appearance. It has the capacity to meet scheduled and unscheduled needs for assistance and is managed in ways that aim to maximize the physical and psychological independence of residents (see Table 1). AL is intended to accommodate physically and mentally frail elderly people without imposing a heavily regulated, institutional environment on them (Kane and Wilson).

The typical AL resident is female, age eighty-three or over, and widowed. In 1999 there were approximately thirty thousand to forty thousand facilities in the United States housing approximately one million individuals (ALFA). Costs vary from $383 per month to $6,150, with an average of $2,206 in 1998 (ALFA). Most residents must pay out of pocket for their care (see Figure 1). An individual's health insurance program or long-term care insurance policy is another possible source of funding. As of 2000, there are few governmental funding sources for ALs. Some states and local governments use Supplemental Security Income along with Medicaid to pay for low-income residents, or the Medicaid waiver program to reimburse for services. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 2000 allow HUD vouchers to be used in certain AL complexes and provide grants to convert some Section 202 buildings into AL facilities.

Varying definitions of ALs around the nation have produced difficulties with regulation and accreditation. With little leadership from the federal government, states have established regulations on their own. By the beginning of 1999, 25 states had regulations in place, with three more states pending (ALFA, 1999). In 2000, both the Rehabilitation Accreditation Commission (CARF) and the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) developed an accreditation process to promote quality care and outcomes for AL residents.

Aging in place

Although the continuum of housing identifies a range of housing types, there is increasing recognition that frail older persons do not necessarily have to move from one setting to another if they need assistance. Semidependent or dependent older persons can live in their own homes and apartments if the physical setting is more supportive and affordable services are accessible. Indeed, most older adults express a strong desire to age-in-place in their own homes and communities. Yet often, these older adults live in physically unsupportive environments, disconnected from services. Instead of facilitating older persons' ability to grow old safely, independently, and with dignity, many settings have instead become a source of the problem itself. The following section examines various methods and programs that enable older adults to age-in-place.

Home modifications. Home modifications are adaptations to home environments that can make it easier and safer to carry out activities such as bathing, cooking, and climbing stairs. Increasing evidence suggests that home modifications can have an important impact on the ability of chronically ill or disabled persons to live independently (Mann, 1999). In addition, environmental factors such as lack of privacy or insufficient space may impede family and formal caregiving (Newman, 1985; Newman et al., 1990).

Estimates by the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that 7.1 million persons live in homes that have special features for those with impairments (La Plante et al., 1992; see Table 2). In conventional homes and apartments of persons 70 and older, grab bars and shower seats are the most common home modifications at 23 percent, followed by wheelchair access inside the home such as wide hallways (9 percent), special railings (8 percent), and ramps at street level (5 percent) (Tabbarah et al., 2000). However, a large number of older persons who report health problems, mobility limitations, and dependency in ADLs and IADLs (instrumental activities of daily living), live in housing without adaptive features. It is estimated that at least 1.14 million households occupied by older persons need additional supportive features (HUD, 1999).

The overall low incidence of supportive features in the home is due to three major barriers. First, there is a lack of professional and consumer awareness concerning problems in the home environment. For example, several studies have found that many disabled persons, especially among the elderly, have a low level of awareness of the risks that the environment presents or a lack of knowledge of how home adaptations might make living safer and easier. In fact, older persons are often reported as having adapted their behavior to the environment (e.g., stopped taking baths or showers because of the danger of falling) rather than having adapted their environment to their changed capabilities (e.g., installing a handheld shower, adding a grab bar). Among professionals such as doctors, knowledge about home adaptation also is low. Concern has been expressed that even case managers, the gatekeepers for many long-term care services, may overlook home modifications.

Second, some home modifications may be unaffordable. The cost of home adaptations ranges from less than $100 for the purchase and installation of a simple handrail or grab bar to more than $1000 for a roll-in shower or several thousand dollars for a stair lift.

A third barrier reported by individuals and social service agencies in obtaining home modifications has been the delivery system (Pynoos). Simple home adaptations are often made by persons with disabilities and their family members. However, many persons lack the ability to identify environmental problems and make adaptations. Even installing an uncomplicated grab bar on a wall requires the ability to attach it to a stud and locate it at the correct angle and height in relation to the person using it. It is often necessary to employ a provider to assess problems and make changes, especially those that are complex, such as a roll-in shower. Overall, the modest nature of many jobs, the need for specialized skills, the low income of many persons who need adaptations, concerns about the reliability of private providers, and the difficulty of accessing specialists, such as occupational therapists, contribute to service delivery problems in home modifications.

Clustering services. Clustering services involves consolidating fragmented services for multiple clients. This strategy can reduce travel time and costs, enable more efficient worker assignment, and lead to service of more consumers. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing realization that economies of scale, as well as opportunities for peer support, exist in providing services to large numbers of frail elders living in one place. In addition to assisted living, several demonstrations and programs have been carried out in more conventional housing settings to test models of planning, organizing, and providing services.

One of the earliest of these demonstrations, the Congregate Housing Services Program (CHSP), authorized under Title IV of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1978, provides a service-enriched setting for frail older persons. Advocates for the CHSP promoted it on the basis that it would prevent "premature" institutionalization of elderly and handicapped residents of federally subsidized housing. The CHSP was carried out initially in sixty-three public housing and Section 202 sites, using HUD funds to pay for services such as meals, homemaking, and transportation to select groups of tenants with three ADL and/or IADL needs. A service coordinator and professional assessment team oversaw eligibility for and organization of the services. Between 1979 and 1985, approximately $28 million was spent on services to 3,500 residents of sixty-three public housing and Section 202 projects.

Because of controversy about whether the CHSP actually prevented institutionalization and HUD's continued reluctance to pay for services, the program did not expand until the early 1990s (Redfoot and Sloan) with the passage of the National Affordable Housing Act of 1990. By this time the CHSP, initially funded solely by HUD, required a significant state and local match that discouraged many sites from applying. Nevertheless, by 1994 the program had grown to more than one hundred sites.

The concept of clustering services has been the basis of several other innovative delivery systems. For example, the New York City Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) has used Medicaid waivers to provide services to groups of residents living in government-assisted housing. Personnel and health care staff are assigned to clusters of frail residents in senior housing. Staff can therefore move from one resident to another, performing various tasks, rather than spending long blocks of time with individual residents. An evaluation of the VNA project found that it saved money, although residents were somewhat less satisfied because individually they received less service (Feldman et al.).

Service coordination. The concept of service coordination is an outgrowth of the CHSP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Supportive Services Program in Senior Housing demonstration. Through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992, Congress authorized expenditures for a service coordinator program. Service coordination is often described as the glue that holds a program together or the linking mechanism between residents of housing complexes and services. It is a less intensive model than the CHSP and relies more on linking residents up with services rather than providing them directly.

Services coordinated for residents include meals-on-wheels, in-home supportive services, hospice care, home health care for those who eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, transportation services, on-site adult education in areas of interest, and monthly blood pressure checks. There is also assistance with locating other living arrangements, such as an assisted living facility or a nursing home, when it becomes necessary, but the primary focus is on assisting residents to continue living in their current apartments.

Though the coordinators in this program do not have budgetary authority for services, they can serve a broad group of frail older residents. By 1999 there were approximately a thousand service coordinators connected with public and Section 202 housing complexes across the country. An evaluation of the program revealed that service coordinators successfully marshal a number of new services for residents, who report high levels of satisfaction with the program.

In 1999 HUD acknowledged responsibility for adapting its stock of housing for the elderly into more supportive settings linked with services. HUD's Housing Security Plan for Older Americans, approved by Congress as a part of its 2000 budget, includes $50 million to expand the service coordinator program and $50 million to convert some existing Section 202 housing for the elderly into assisted living.

A comprehensive system of community-based care. The Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) is a major health care based demonstration project that provides a range of services to older adults in the home. PACE, which is expected to include approximately fifty sites and ten thousand participants by 2005, attempts to replicate the On Lok Senior Health Services Program in San Francisco, which integrates Medicare and Medicaid financing and provides medical and long-term care services to frail persons who are eligible for a nursing home in a daycare setting. Participants in the program are assigned to an interdisciplinary team for regular needs assessment and care management. PACE's purpose is to address the needs of long-term care clients, providers, and payers. The comprehensive service package allows clients to continue living at home while receiving services, rather than in institutional settings. Nevertheless, many PACE sites have added housing, having found that a number of participants live in deficient settings or need more supervision and help with unscheduled needs than can be provided in individual home settings.

The challenges to incorporating housing into an integrated continuum of care are evident. Much must be done to develop housing as an environment that supports health, particularly as people age and/or become disabled. Conversely, health care providers and payers must recognize the impact that housing situations can have on health. Then, efforts can be made to integrate housing and health services. Housing settings can begin to develop informal affiliations and strategies that enable services to be coordinated on a client-specific as well as a buildingwide basis, taking advantage of the economies of scale inherent in delivering or "clustering" services for groups of older people living together. The organizations that have integrated housing with health care should be examined as models of how such integration works and what the potential would be to increase the integration in the future.


It is increasingly becoming recognized that housing plays an important role in the lives of the elderly. While new strategies and approaches have been developed to increase housing options, a range of affordable supportive housing choices for older persons remains an elusive goal. Progress in this area necessitates the recognition that housing should be an integral part of long-term care policy, and that more can be done to encourage aging in place.

Jon Pynoos Christy Matsuoka

See also Aging In Place; Assisted Living; Board and Care Homes; Congregate Housing; Continuing Care Retirement Communities; Government-Assisted Housing.


American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Understanding Senior Housing into the Next Century: Survey of Consumer Preferences, Concerns, and Needs. Washington, D.C.: AARP, 1996.

Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA). The Assisted Living Industry 1999: An Overview. Fairfax, Va.: ALFA, 1999.

Feldman, P. H.; Latimer, E.; and Davidson, H. "Medicaid-Funded Home Care for the Frail Elderly and Disabled: Evaluation of the Cost Savings and Outcomes of a Service Delivery Reform." Health Services Research 31, no. 4 (1996): 489508.

Kane, R. A., and Wilson, K. B. Assisted Living in the United States: A New Paradigm for Residential Care for Frail Older Persons? Washington, D.C.: American Association of Retired Persons, 1993.

La Plante, M. P.; Hendershot, G. E.; and Moss, A. J. Assistive Technology Devices and Home Accessibility Features: Prevalence, Payment, Need and Trends. Advance Data no. 217. National Center for Health Statistics, 1992. Pages 112.

Mann, W.; Ottenbacher, K.; Fraas, L.; Tomita, M.; and Granger, C. "Effectiveness of Assistive Technology and Environmental Interventions in Maintaining Independence and Reducing Home Care Costs for the Frail Elderly." Archives of Family Medicine 8: (1999): 210217.

Naifeh, Mary L. Housing of the Elderly: 1991. Current Housing Reports, Series H123/93-1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

Newman, S. J. "Housing and Long-Term Care: The Suitability of the Elderly's Housing to the Provision of In-Home Services." The Gerontologist 21, no. 1 (1985): 3540.

Newman, S. J. et. al. "Overwhelming Odds: Caregiving and the Risk of Institutionalization." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 45, no. 5 (1990): S173S183.

Pynoos, J. "Towards a National Policy on Home Modification." Technology and Disability 2, no. 4 (1993): 18.

Redfoot, D. L., and Sloan, K. S. "Realities of Political Decision-Making on Congregate Housing." In Congregate Housing for the Elderly: Theoretical, Policy, and Programmatic Perspectives. Edited by L. W. Kaye and A. Monk. Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth Press, 1991. Pages 99110.

Sirrocco, A. Nursing Homes and Board and Care Homes. Advance Data No. 244. Hyattsville, Md: National Center for Health Statistics,1994.

Tabbarah, M.; Silverstein, M.; and Seeman, T. "A Health and Demographic Profile of Noninstitutionalized Older Americans Residing in Environments with Home Modifications." Journal of Aging and Health 12, no. 2 (2000): 204228.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Policy Development and Research. The Challenge of Housing Security: Report to Congress on the Housing Conditions and Needs of Older Americans. Washington, D.C.: HUD, 1999.


views updated May 18 2018


HOUSING. The ancient Greek word for household, oikos, is the root of the modern word "economy." In early modern Europe, housing was associated both with living and working, consuming and producing. This combined function shaped the outward form and internal organization of houses during the era. It also introduces complications to explicating the theme of housing, because the focus could be equally on the domicile itself or on the groups of people who inhabited it. Contemporary officials often used the term hearth to refer to households, though the term refers to the structure used to heat a room as well. A lack of sources makes it difficult to determine who actually lived together in the early modern era: in some cases, several households lived together under one roof, perhaps in separate rooms or all together. It is also difficult to determine how people used space inside the house: there are very few descriptions of house interiors and little way of knowing how representative those descriptions are.

There was no single "typical" house of the early modern era. For one thing, there was a strong tendency toward regional cultural patterns, both among and within linguistic and political units, which were expressed in housing styles. Few things more readily distinguish different regions than the prevailing style of houses, especially in the countryside. Regional differences resulted in part from local variations in building materials, but they clearly had deeper cultural roots as well. Housing types were also shaped by the fundamental difference between urban and rural living conditions. Though the overwhelming majority of Europeans lived in the countryside, the urban world was often more dynamic and exhibited a greater variety of living conditions. Town size magnified those differences. A few great cities, such as Paris or London, had a completely different housing mixture from the typical "large" city of about 20,000 inhabitants, not to mention the numerous small towns of the era. Variation in status and the work people performed also affected how and where they lived. The houses of nobles and patricians were quite different from those of peasants and artisans. Higher status homes certainly displayed a greater variety of styles than did lower status homes. Even more importantly, however, higher status homes comprise the greater body of evidence about what was in early modern homes and how they were used. Thus, while one may talk about some general trends in all housing during the era, the key features of housing must be viewed in wider social and geographical contexts.


There were no significant technological changes affecting living conditions in early modern Europe. Building materials and practices did not change much. As a rule, the types of houses that people lived in at the end of the eighteenth century would have been familiar to those of the early sixteenth century, aside from external ornamentation. Indeed, many houses remained standing for the entire period, though wood-frame houses typically needed replacing every century or so. This continuity of building styles was particularly pronounced in the housing of peasants and artisans. However, elite housing did change in function and style over the period, so that a noble palace at the end of the early modern era would have appeared quite different from one at the beginning of the era.

There were three main building materials for houses: wood, stone, and brick. One may divide European housing into three zones according to which of those materials was predominant in buildings because of local availability of that material. There was, however, a status hierarchy of building materials, so that some towns would include a few stone or brick buildings in among a majority of wood-frame houses. In the great cities, homes of the elite were constructed of stone or brick, while homes in poorer districts were built of wood. Stone and brick also became more prevalent building materials over time. By the seventeenth century, Paris had (poorly enforced) regulations prohibiting wood construction. London also built more extensively in stone and brick after the devastating fire of 1666. The progress of stone building in large cities was varied. The French city of Cambrai had numerous stone houses by the middle of the seventeenth century. Nearby Rouen did not begin to build in stone until the end of the eighteenth century. The German city of Nuremberg built houses with stone first floors and half-timbered upper stories.

Wood was the favored building material in both the towns and countryside of the heavily forested parts of northern and central Europe. It was unusual for houses to be built entirely from logs. Instead, most structures were half-timbered: large hewn logs formed the frame for the house, while the spaces within the frame were filled with wattle and daub (a mixture of sticks with mud or plaster), with bricks, or stucco. Timber for housing construction was not, in fact, a highly developed industry in the era. Timber exports were more likely to be sent for shipbuilding than housing, so half-timbering eased demand for large logs. Indeed, in some port towns, the primary source of timber for house construction was old ships. Half-timbering created a distinctive colorful urban landscape, remnants of which exist today in some German, French, and English towns. By the late eighteenth century, however, half-timbered town houses were often considered excessively rustic. The facades of such houses were plastered over to create a more classical effect.

A major danger of the widespread use of wood in construction was fire. Fires leveled many towns, such as Stockholm, Sweden, in 1625. Fear of arsonists was a common concern of householders and town officials alike.

In most of southern Europe, and some parts of northern Europe, timber was much scarcer than stone, so stone and mortar were the preferred building materials for both towns and the countryside. The quality of stone used in construction could vary widely. Almost all structures were constructed from stone quarried locally. Small towns and villages took on a unified landscape from the color and texture of the locally quarried stone. For example, the all-red sandstone of the village of Collonges-la-Rouge in France distinguished it from the mostly golden or gray stone of neighboring towns. More elegant housing might rely on stone imported from a greater distance, but most quarries were small operations that depended on major public projects such as churches to drive most of their activity.

In the coastal regions of northern Europe and in the larger cities of southern Europe, brick was the preferred building material. Brick making was a significant industrial operation, the center of which was usually located in the countryside near a town. Unlike stone and wood, brick was used almost exclusively for urban housing. Farmhouses in regions where urban brick houses predominated were usually half-timbered or wattle and daub. Bricks were well designed for constructing geometrically proportioned, stable houses, which produced regimented streetscapes. In northern European cities in the Netherlands and coastal Holy Roman Empire, exposed brickwork helped define the city landscape in the same way that colored stone defined some southern European towns. In the southern European cities that used bricks instead of stones, the bricks were usually covered with stucco, so that it was not immediately apparent that brick rather than stone was the primary building material.

Roofing material was equally subject to the interplay of local availability and a slight status hierarchy of materials. In the countryside, both stone and half-timbered houses were usually roofed with thatch. More substantial houses in the countryside and most urban houses were covered with shingles, which might be made of wood, locally quarried slate, or kiln-dried tiles. Only the houses of the wealthiest people would be sheathed in lead or copper.

The building trades themselves also underwent little change during this era. Most rural houses and houses of artisans were built by guild craftsmen, masons, and carpenters, without the assistance of architects. Some towns enforced building regulations to ensure effective design. In sixteenth-century Nuremberg, for example, the town building department acquired many drawings of new structures and additions that were to be built, few of which were created by architects. By the end of the early modern era, architects began to play a more prominent role in constructing housing for urban professionals as well as noblemen.


The majority of the European population lived in villages. Most villages exhibited a uniform housing type, because there were only small disparities of wealth and work among most peasants. Nevertheless, one can find some differentiation between the houses of the rural poor and those of the more substantial farmers. The most common dwelling for the rural poor was a one-room house, sometimes called a "long house," where the residents slept, ate, and worked in the same space. In its most basic form, it had an open hearth in the middle of the room and a hole in the ceiling to let the smoke out. The house was built on the ground, which served as the floor. Straw or grass was strewn on the floor to reduce dampness. Light could enter the house through windows, which lacked glass but could be closed by wooden shutters. More advanced houses had a brick or stone hearth with a chimney located on one side of the house instead of a centrally located firepot. Such houses had glass windows to let in light and keep out the cold. It also became increasingly common for even simple farmhouses to be built on excavated foundations and wood plank floors rather than simply resting on the ground.

For modern observers, and even for some contemporaries, one of the most striking features of the single-room house was that animals would be housed under the same roof as people. Writers who stayed at such rural farmsteads commented on being kept awake by the noises of the cows. However, animals did not have free rein of the house: there was usually a barrier between the human inhabited space and the stalls for the animals.

Sometimes, more than one family shared the one-room house. In any case, privacy was very rare. The poorest households possessed a very small repertoire of furniture. The most important item in a peasant household after the hearth was the bed. It consisted of a frame, a mattress, and usually a canopy whose curtains could be closed to attain some privacy. There was usually a long table for eating, with benches rather than chairs for seating. Many benches served double service as chests. Extra clothing, linens, and personal effects were kept in chests or armoires, which were rudimentary in the poorest households and more elaborate in wealthier ones. Though almost all parts of Europe had colorful folk-art traditions in furniture or pottery, the overall appearance of the interior of most peasant houses would have been dark and unadorned.

Many peasants lived in a slightly more elaborate version of the long house. Instead of consisting of a single room, the house was divided into two spaces: a foyer and rooms. Cooking, eating, and work all took place in the foyer. The rooms were separated from the foyer by walls, with doors that could be closed and locked for at least some privacy from the work environment. Such houses might also have a separate cellar and storeroom for grain and an upstairs room, which could be used as a bedroom. This room was usually accessible by a trapdoor and ladder rather than a stairwell. It was less common for animals to be housed under the same roof as humans in these larger houses; instead they had stalls in a barn.

The main work of rural households was, of course, agriculture. So the main house was usually built as part of a larger courtyard in which the everyday tools of farming were kept: wagons, plows, harnesses, a dung heap. More prosperous peasants might have several buildings built around the courtyard, such as grain storerooms, separate stalls for animals, sheds, possibly even a baking oven, though that was usually a communal building rather than part of an individual's property. The courtyard itself might be separated from the street by a large gate or doorway that could be closed. Some of these gateways provided an opportunity for self-expression. In Germany, it was fairly common for a married couple to inscribe their names, the date of construction, and a pious statement over the entryway of a new house.

There were also some specialized forms of housing in the rural world. There were three structures which, while not present in every village, were central to peasant life: the parsonage, the tavern, and the mill. The parsonage, or priest's house, was usually just a large version of the typical peasant house of the region. Throughout the early modern era, the pastor or priest participated in the broader agricultural economy as well as attending to his spiritual duties, so his house had to be arranged to perform both kinds of tasks. Rural inns, like their urban counterparts, had to provide lodging and meals to travelers, but relied primarily on a local customer base for support. Mills were fundamentally important for rural society because they converted grain to flour; their living space was subordinated to their economic function. The sites of both windmills and water mills depended on geography. Building a mill was a greater capital investment than building a house, so most mills were built with higher quality materials with the intention that they would last for several generations. Millers, innkeepers, and pastors were usually the wealthiest members of the community, so their housing was the most elaborate in the village.

In most parts of Europe, peasants lived in nucleated villages. It was possible to survive in a village with only a one-room house and no elaborate courtyard because much work was done communally, so one's house did not have to have all the required work materials. But large isolated farmhouses were characteristic of Alpine lands, in which raising animals was more important than tending cereal crops. Isolated farmsteads had to be self-sufficient because there were no neighbors to rely on. As a result, the houses of isolated farmsteads were significantly bigger than those in villages, even if the farmstead occupants were sometimes poorer than some of the more successful inhabitants of villages. The farmstead houses almost invariably consisted of two or even three stories, with stalls for animals in the lower story. Since these houses were often built in hilly country, they were arranged with ground access to the upper story, which was a large open space for storing grain and supplies.


Perhaps the most important distinction within the towns of early modern Europe was between citizens and noncitizens. In almost all towns, ownership of a house in town was a prerequisite for citizenship. The single-familyowned house, therefore, was the norm for merchants, professionals, and most independent craftsmen, the bulk of the citizens in urban Europe during this era. Not everyone aspired to or acquired citizenship, however. Many of the working poor lived crowded together with other families in single houses. For example, in seventeenth-century Augsburg, 70 percent of the households lived in houses containing an average of four families. Though there was some tendency for the houses of the wealthiest citizens to concentrate in the center of town near the public buildings, different trades were usually mixed together throughout town. This mixing of wealth and occupation was one of the most striking characteristics of the small- and medium-sized towns of the era.

Space was at a premium in urban areas. House facades directly abutted the street and were built one on top of the other. The characteristic urban street was a narrow alley with houses built close enough to block out the sun on the street. In some towns, the upper stories of houses overhung their entrances, almost touching the houses across the street. Houses generally showed a narrow front to the street and extended deeply to the rear. In the far rear, there was usually a garden or courtyard. In smaller towns (and earlier in the sixteenth century) ordinary houses tended to be only two stories tall. The first story was taller than the second. In those cities that experienced strong population growth, houses tended to be built upward, though it was very rare for them to reach more than five stories.

The interior of an artisan's house was organized for craft production, not as a haven from work. It often made sense to have one fairly undifferentiated room on the main floor of the house. That room would serve as kitchen, eating area, and workspace. Sometimes journeymen and apprentices would also sleep in the work area, rolling up their bedding at the start of the workday. There was usually at least some sense of separation between work areas and living areas, even in the large rooms, but that separation sometimes blurred. As late as the eighteenth century, one could still find blacksmiths' houses where the kitchen hearth also served as the foundry for the iron. The specific craft of the homeowner influenced home design and location. Tanners, for example, had to be located near a watercourse (and tended to produce unpleasant odors), so they were concentrated in the same neighborhood. Their houses' interiors included built-in vats for soaking and treating of hides, which had to be separate from living spaces. Such occupational needs placed constraints on housing design.

Most artisan houses had two or three rooms on each floor. There was often a parlor on the first floor, in addition to the main work area or shop. This room was also a public space of the household. The upstairs rooms were usually for sleeping. It is possible that one could find greater privacy in a typical urban home than in its rural equivalent, but it was still mostly a shared rather than isolated living situation.

Though it is unlikely that conditions were quite as squalid as they would become in the first decades of the industrial revolution, it is clear that many urban workers throughout the early modern era lived in dingy, crowded conditions, with little that could be considered luxuries or even comforts. Furnishings in artisan households were mostly comparable to those of the peasantry: sturdy furniture and supplies with perhaps a smattering of folk-art coloring. Studies of inventories at death show that the most important piece of personal property of the poor was the bed and accompanying linens. Urban houses differed from rural ones in some other respects. Most rooms in the urban house had fireplaces to keep them warm in the winter. Latrines inside the house became commonplace in the sixteenth century; in some cities, such as in Rouen in 1519, interior latrines were mandated by law. These comforts suggest that urban housing was more advanced than rural housing, even for the poor.


Dutch genre paintings by Vermeer, Steen, and de Hooch, among others, show sumptuous interiors that are not at all like the rather drab artisan households. The Dutch Republic was in the forefront of a broader based development of a self-confident "bourgeois" culture. Indeed, the explosion of genre painting in the Netherlands was partly a symptom of the new culture that it portrayed. Urban elites, and even those who possessed above-average wealth, no matter what their status, began to decorate their homes in a more elaborate style, akin to that of the nobility. Inventories show that paintings and prints were some of the decorations that became commonplace in bourgeois homes.

The interiors of urban elite homes reflected two important cultural trends. The first was a sharper separation of public and private lives. Unlike in the houses of urban artisans, the kitchen, storerooms, and servants' quarters were in the basement of the houses of merchants and members of the professions, separate from the general living and working space. A modern eighteenth-century town house consisted of ten to fifteen rooms spread over three or four stories. The first floor was mostly for interaction with the public. The key room was the parlor, where guests were greeted. Merchant houses also included a counting room or study that could be a place of repose but also a place to meet clients. The second floor contained the main dining room for entertaining guests, but also semi-private rooms such as the drawing or dressing room. Architects recognized that homeowners might conduct some business in the drawing room and thus advocated separating the drawing room from the bedrooms, which were often placed on the third floor.

The second cultural trend reflected in urban elite homes was the emergence of a consumer culture. Simple comforts that characterized most artisan homes by the eighteenth century, such as hearths in every room, internal latrines, and glass windows, were widespread in elite homes at the beginning of the early modern era. In addition, the rooms of bourgeois town houses were decorated profusely with moldings, wainscoting, marble mantlepieces, carpets, drapery, and mirrors. The increasing importance of new decorative objects such as mirrors, clocks, and sofas can be traced through inventories. Again, these trends were most conspicuous in large cities such as London and Paris, but they also extended to medium-sized towns. The Dutch were particularly noted for their comfortable and clean houses. In Germany, clocks were becoming an accessory in professional homes by the 1720s. A building boom in the late eighteenth century, exemplified in towns like Bath, created town houses appropriate for such conspicuous consumption.


Housing in towns and villages in the early modern era consisted primarily of elaborations on medieval forms. But noble housing underwent a conspicuous change between the medieval and early modern eras, caused mostly by changes in the quintessential noble activity: warfare. Gunpowder weapons and artillery rendered the fortified castle useless as a safe haven for nobles. Some saw their castles destroyed during royal pacification campaigns; others decided that castles were uncomfortable and incompatible with the kind of splendor that went with living nobly. So noble housing became oriented toward display rather than defense.

Already in the Renaissance, urban nobles in Italy had revived the country villa as a retreat from urban life. The villa was modeled on the ancient Roman estate, but without the slaves. Architecturally, it incorporated classical notions of proportion and harmony that typified the Renaissance. In northern Europe, some royal palaces were built as a retreat from the hectic pace of urban life. Many were used primarily as hunting lodges. But many northern nobles were already primarily based in the rural world. The palace replaced the castle as the house from which nobles exerted their control over the countryside. The pace of the conversion of castles or construction of noble palaces in the countryside varied from region to region in Europe. Poorer noblemen had to be content with modest additions or remodeling of already existing castles. The largest concentration of new construction was in France and England. In England, the secularization of the monasteries opened large properties to development by regional elites. A wave of "great houses" went up beginning in the early sixteenth century. In eastern Europe, by contrast, rural palaces continued to exhibit clearly their function as agricultural centers as well as centers of noble power.

Part of the function of noble housing was the extravagant display of wealth and authority. A rural palace was symbolic as well as domestic architecture. It achieved its impact by its setting as well as by its facade and furnishings. Noble landowners might divert a river or extend a moat to make the approach to the main buildings more dramatic. Extensive formal gardens were an important accompaniment to the main structure.

The impact created by the approach to the building was then reinforced by its interior layout and decoration. In the country houses of England, the centerpiece of display was the hall, which one entered from the front door of the house. This was the most public space in the house and was decorated to focus attention on the head of the house, even when he was not present. Placing a great stairway in the hall became increasingly common, turning what had been a necessary but decidedly secondary architectural feature into another element of prominent display. Great houses had innumerable other rooms branching off from the hall, with increasing degrees of privacy associated with them.

The most prominent room in the house after the hall was the great chamber. Originally, it had been a general-purpose sleeping, eating, and meeting room of the head of the house. Increasingly, the sleeping area of the householder developed into a suite of rooms, including an antechamber and dressing room. An important part of the work of a nobleman was entertaining other noblemen. Great houses and palaces contained apartments in the family's own wing of the house and also in other wings to accommodate visitors. The status of visitors could be seen by where they were lodged in the house. An apartment consisted of four rooms: a sleeping chamber, a dressing room, an antechamber, and a room for personal servants.

As in bourgeois houses, the service rooms of the house were generally kept separate from both the public and private spaces. Some servants, of course, lived in rooms adjacent to their masters' or mistresses' chambers, but others slept in a separate section of the house, often dormitory style, when they were not on duty. Undoubtedly the central service room of the house was the kitchen. Along with the pantry, buttery, bakehouse, larder, and brewery, kitchens were kept out of the way of regular traffic. There was almost no space devoted exclusively to children, though most great houses had a separate nursery for the very young.

Noble houses experienced the same expansion of domestic comforts as bourgeois homes did. By the eighteenth century, it was commonplace for palaces to have running water, interior latrines, and fixed lighting. Instead of a single public room, such as the parlor, noble houses had a library or study, galleries, and a chapel. Formal gardens and outbuildings such as an orangerie (akin to a greenhouse) or folly (akin to a gazebo) provided another setting for nobles to meet or enjoy privacy. Indeed, gardens, in addition to their function as display, played an important role in noble intimacy and escape from the very public activity of much of the house.

The growth of the state drew more and more nobles to capital cities. The same issues of display and representation affected the housing nobles chose to live in or build in cities such as Paris and London. City layouts made it difficult to recreate the dramatic effect of the approach to a rural palace. Instead, the interiors and courtyards became the primary areas for dramatic display. Italy, which already had an established urban nobility in the Middle Ages, set the initial standards for the urban palazzo. In most respects, they followed the same internal organization as their rural counterparts. The architectural principles of "classicism" established in Paris became the norm for urban noble housing throughout Europe. In the eighteenth century, court cities such as Berlin, Vienna, and Munichexperienced a building boom of noble houses based on variants of the classical and baroque styles.


The populated areas of Europe had already developed clear property lines at the beginning of the early modern era. New buildings were visibly constrained by these legal boundaries. This situation was particularly acute in urban areas, where the existing structures meant that the only way to increase the area of one's house was to build it upward, with additional stories, or to purchase a new plot of land with greater space. But even in villages, property lines defined housing spaces in the core of the village that were clearly differentiated from the croplands and pasture. Houses were restricted to that core. Once built, a house was expected to survive for a long time before being replaced. Increasing population in the countryside spurred the construction of new housing in the eighteenth century, often on subdivided plots. But, except in cases of a major catastrophe, such as fire, building a house was an infrequent phenomenon in most villages. Many structures built in the early modern era survived into the industrial era. The most extensive building projects for new housing were in the expanding suburbs of major cities or in newly founded court cities such as Versailles, Karlsruhe, or Turin, built explicitly on a grid pattern on property made available by the prince for the purpose of dynastic display.

Relatively clear property boundaries fostered a real estate market. One can, of course, find many instances of a single family residing on a piece of property for several generations. But some property became available because a lineage died out, and still more became available because of a change in the economic fortunes of a lineage. So purchasing a house was not at all a rare occurrence. Prices, of course, varied greatly. Even within the peasantry and artisan class, there were clear gradations in the quality of housing. Fancier peasant houses were worth about five times as much as cheaper ones in the housing market. Joint ownership of houses was also possible.

In the great cities, urban expansion was fostered by speculation in real estate. Urban elites invested in numerous building projects in suburbs and occasional renovation projects in the center of town. Some of these projects, the most famous of which is probably the Place Royale in Paris, completed in 1612, attracted elite buyers. Many others appealed primarily to people of middling means. Still others were rented out, either short term for noncitizens or long term for the working poor. The Fuggerei in Augsburg is perhaps the best-known example of housing for the working poor built by elite investors, but it was exceptional in being built primarily as a charitable institution rather than as an investment. In some cities, rental housing was a significant part of the housing stock. Fifteen percent of the population of Lübeck lived in rented cellars or rented row houses in alleys. The owners of such rental properties were often the urban elites of the towns.

By the end of the eighteenth century, urban housing was beginning to take on characteristics that would become widespread in the nineteenth century. Increasing population in towns such as Manchester put pressure on the housing stock for the working poor. At the same time, town house developments targeted at the upper middle classes, such as New Town, Edinburgh, became an important economic factor reshaping cities. They fostered speculation in both land and houses, which in turn fed urbanization on an unprecedented scale.

See also Architecture ; Aristocracy and Gentry ; Artisans ; Cities and Urban Life ; City Planning ; Daily Life ; Engineering: Civil ; Estates and Country Houses ; Peasantry ; Technology ; Villages .


Baumgarten, Karl. Das Deutsche Bauernhaus. East Berlin, 1980.

Collomp, Allain. "Families: Habitations and Cohabitations." In A History of Private Life. Vol. 3, Passions of the Renaissance, edited by Roger Chartier, pp. 493530. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1989.

Cooper, Nicholas. Houses of the Gentry, 14801680. New Haven and London, 1999.

Cruikshank, Dan, and Neil Burton. Life in the Georgian City. New York and London, 1990.

Dirlmeier, Ulf, ed. Geschichte des Wohnens. Vol. 2, Hausen, Wohnen, Residieren. Stuttgart, 1998.

Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House. New Haven and London, 1978.

Goldthwaite, Richard. The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History. Baltimore, Md., 1980.

Mohrmann, Ruth-Ellen. Alltagswelt im Land Braunschweig. 2 vols. Münster, 1990.

John Theibault


views updated May 14 2018



The development of European housing through the twentieth century was shaped by two major influences. First was the legacy of nineteenth-century industrialization, which brought in its wake urbanization on a scale unknown in history. Much of northern and central Europe witnessed unprecedented population growth, a huge scale of rural to urban migration, and major changes in patterns of social life based above all on the redivision of society into new social classes. The second seminal influence was the traumatic events of the two world wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945) that shattered the European economy, destroyed millions of homes, and laid waste whole towns and cities. Civilian housing became a target for the war aims of both sides. Both of these issues, the nineteenth-century legacy and the wars, in their different ways created the problem that dominated housing policy in the twentieth century: how to provide enough dwellings at an affordable price for the growing number of households.

A key theme in pan-European housing throughout the era from 1914 to the early twenty-first century was the extent to which state-led solutions or the private market should spearhead the replacement of the nineteenth-century slums and/or repair the damage caused by the two world wars and build up housing stocks. Generally speaking the balance struck was different in different countries depending on political traditions and institutional arrangements.


What happened to housing policy after 1914, like so much else in society, was largely an inheritance from the nineteenth century. Housing for the new industrial working classes was almost always provided in the privately rented sector either by factory owners who built and then rented at a profit housing for their workers or by rentier capitalists investing in housing as a business. Because wages were low and there was an expectation of profit, the rents that could be charged sustained only the most basic standards. As a result overcrowding was a common experience, with two or more families sharing small rooms or basements. Sanitation was primitive. Toilets, when they existed at all, were shared among dozens of families. For millions of working families water was bought from barrels and human excrement disposed of in so-called soil carts. For the better-off middle classes the coming of new forms of transport in the middle of the century offered the prospect of moving to the "suburbs," where housing was often detached with a garden, offering a much better environment, less prone to the diseases that were endemic in the inner cities.

Architectural forms varied from country to country. In central Europe rapidly growing cities such as Berlin and Budapest developed a tradition of tenement building with small flats facing onto a courtyard and with no outside windows. This was the same in Scotland but not in English cities, where terraces of so called back-to-back, two-story housing (houses facing away from each other and sharing a back wall) was the normal form. In France working-class housing was mainly of the tenement type in Paris but not in smaller towns and cities such as Bordeaux or Amiens. This diversity can be explained only by reference to local housing-market conditions and cultural and social histories; for example, a tradition of tenement building is sometimes associated with cities and towns that had medieval walls. The nineteenth-century legacy was thus one of rapid urbanization, the provision of large quantities of low-amenity housing by private landlords, and considerable diversity in built forms.

Because of the insanitary conditions of slum housing and the continuing shortages of affordable housing, the state became more involved in housing issues in the decades before 1914. What precisely happened varied according to political institutions and traditions. In countries such as Belgium, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, where landlords were an organized part of the political elite, demands by new working-class organizations for the state to be directly involved were resisted. Instead a variety of workers' cooperatives, trade unions, and specially created housing associations built their own housing using cheap loans subsidized by the government. By 1914 in Vienna, for example, 20 percent of residential building had been constructed using cheap government loans. In Berlin cooperative housing flourished, with nearly eleven thousand dwellings built by using government loans by the outbreak of World War I. In Britain private landlords were a disparate, politically unrepresented class, mainly amateurs owning only one or two properties. Here the new Labour Party embraced the state and looked to government to ameliorate the housing conditions of the workers. Beginning in 1919 it was local councils subsidized by central government that spearheaded the housing program for low-income families and went on to own and manage, at its peak in the mid-1970s, nearly one-third of the housing stock. In the mainstream of European housing the British case was unusual.


World War I had a traumatic impact on Europe. Old cultural certainties and social structures were literally shattered. For the first time in history war embraced the whole of society. In the combatant nations, the state conducted the war effort mobilizing and commanding the population of all classes. Revolutionary movements swept across Europe, culminating in the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917, leading to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. Aware of the danger to their own nations, European governments initiated a period of social reconstruction in which nineteenth-century slums began to be cleared away and new visions of a fairer and more equal society emerged. Housing was at the center of this. In Britain the postwar Liberal government was elected on the slogan of building "homes fit for heroes." Drawing on Ebenezer Howard's idea of the "garden suburb" (combining the best of town and country in low-density developments away from the city) and the ideas of the Arts and Crafts estates of "council housing," low-rise, cottage-style terraces began to be built using generous central government subsidies. This was the first genuinely European housing form built on any scale in response to unregulated urbanization.

In the 1930s modernist architects and town planners began to believe it was possible to literally construct a new society. These radical ideas emanated mostly from Germany. From 1928 onward the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) brought together leading modernist architects and had a massive impact on how housing was thought about and how it could shape society, particularly in its advocacy of high-rise building. At the second congress Victor Bourgeois proposed that housing should be a tool for living encompassing the revolutionary idea that every flat should have running water, indoor toilet, bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, and refuse disposal chute. At the third congress in 1930 the Swiss architect Le Corbusier introduced his famous Ville Radieuse (Radiant City), at the center of which were blocks of high-rise flats, where most people would live. In the USSR a deformed variant of high-rise living was already being realized in the 1930s with the appearance of large-scale mass housing in many towns and cities. The "Stalin model" of housing involved the mass production of small, low-amenity flats (often unheated) in huge housing estates for very low rent, putting into practice Stalin's utopian dream of building a socialist society. In reality this dream became a nightmare of repression and appalling housing conditions. When the USSR collapsed in 1991 nearly half the population lived in flats with only two rooms.


Less dramatic in its impact in the interwar period but significant nevertheless was the continued expansion elsewhere in Europe of middle-class suburbia. This phenomenon is best illustrated in the case of Britain, where millions of owner-occupied semidetached houses were built by thousands of small speculative building companies on estates on greenfield sites. These properties were heavily marketed to the new classes of white-collar workers and came with a distinctive lifestyle built around the nuclear family and a domestic culture that echoed Victorian values. Men went out to work while "housewives" stayed to create an "ideal home." The growing availability of electricity ended dependence on gas and open fires for lighting, heating, and cooking and enabled the mass production of household products such as electric cleaners made by Hoover. The Bendix "automated laundry" saved many hours of toil for women. Servants, who were common throughout the social spectrum before 1914, became too expensive and were replaced by these labor-saving devices. One of the major consequences of all this was that middle-class and upper-working-class standards of living began to converge, although the difference between working-class council estates (state housing) and middle-class estates (owner occupied) was still demarcated by housing design and location.

Suburbanization was a common feature of interwar Europe and was based on the development of more stable salaried incomes. Easier transport (electric trams, the early metro systems, cars) and the availability of mortgage finance began to spread the idea of home ownership across Europe. Many rural communities were traditionally owner occupied—in low-amenity, often self-built dwellings—and the more peripheral and predominantly rural nations of Europe (Ireland, Spain, Greece, and southern Italy, including Sicily) have always had a strong tradition of owner occupation that has persisted up to the present.

Britain is an unusual case. In 1914 almost the entire nation was housed by private landlords, but by the outbreak of World War II, Britain was already becoming a modern home-owning society (more than 30 percent of households by then) with the unusual addition, as has been shown, of a large and expanding state housing program owned and managed almost exclusively by local councils. The private rental sector declined sharply, not least by sales to sitting tenants as landlords quit the market for better investments.

This was not the case in the central Continental nations where private landlords were a much more politically powerful class than they were in Britain. Although wartime rent controls persisted in France and Germany after World War I, as they did in Britain (it was not politically feasible to allow sudden and sharp rent increases after the war), rental subsidies were still considered necessary for post-war economic recovery, and state involvement in housing was everywhere increasing. In Germany the collapse of the economy and hyperinflation under the Weimar Republic caused rents for newly built housing to soar. Without state intervention nothing would have been built under these circumstances. State subsidies to housing companies were paid for by a special tax on owners of housing whose mortgages had been wiped out due to inflation. As a result, house building slowed from prewar levels and the state assumed a very large role in funding the housing program, almost all of it for rent. In other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, where the working-class movement was less organized and the political crisis was less severe, there was more pressure for a return to privately financed renting. New housing for better-off workers' families continued to be built until the early 1930s, when the global economic collapse swept through Europe.

There are thus very different stories to be told nation by nation and between town and countryside, though everywhere the state played a bigger role than before 1914. For the new middle classes—teachers, insurance salesmen, office workers, accountants, civil servants—unaffected by the economic catastrophes that devastated Germany and then the whole Continent in the 1930s, housing conditions and the "ideal home" vision began to take hold. Suburbanization brought with it a new way of life, of residential repose and respectability. But of course for the less well-off millions of working-class families, life continued to be a struggle for daily survival in small, aging, badly maintained flats and houses mostly without gas, electricity, hot water, indoor toilets, or bathrooms. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 heightened these problems and made the prospect of improvement even more distant.


The housing consequences of World War II were devastating. The war set back the advances that had been made before 1939 by a quarter-century. This was the result of the massive level of destruction suffered by the European mainland, with whole towns and cities reduced to rubble by tank battles and aerial bombardment. Equally as significant was large-scale population mobility due to refugees, the breakup of families, and new household formation. Moreover, there was no new building for the duration of the conflict. In Britain, for example, it is estimated on the basis of prewar rates of construction that some 1.75 million properties were lost. Added to the war damage, as a result of the Blitz and "doodlebug" attacks the losses to a stock of eleven million dwellings were very serious. New household formation (some two million during the war) worsened the deficit of dwellings to households, the problem that dominated housing policy for the next three decades. Similar and worse stories can be told for every European country directly involved in the war. As Europe approached mid-century the demand for housing had never been more urgent or the scale of the problem greater.

As was the case after World War I, the state played a major role in the reconstruction period. People expected benefits for the sacrifices of war, and housing was a key social policy objective all over war-torn Europe. Governments had led the war effort, and people expected their governments to lead the peace. Hence, for example, Britain's war leader, Winston Churchill, was swept from power by a landslide victory of the Labour Party in the postwar general election, committed to a state-led emergency house-building program (almost all of which was council housing) and the implementation of a welfare state.

The Communist bloc

Crucially, of course, the political settlement after World War II caused the division of Europe for nearly half a century, from 1946 to 1990, into the Western capitalist nations and an Eastern bloc of socialist states dominated by the USSR. In the Communist bloc, state-led solutions to housing shortages predominated, although private self-help (and self-building) was not uncommon. To begin with, housing was a second priority after rapid industrialization. Until the housing program began, many people commuted long-distance from the countryside to the new factories. The Stalin model of state-built high-rise blocks eventually became a common feature of all these countries, although the timing, quality of the building, and degree of state control varied from country to country. For example, after the 1956 revolution against communism in Hungary the housing program was accelerated and incorporated a substantial number of statebuilt but privately owned flats. In Bulgaria high-rise building did not begin on a large scale until the 1980s, and here low-amenity state-built flats were sold rather than let.

In Eastern bloc nations new flats were often allocated to people favorably positioned in the Communist Party or as an inducement to key workers—teachers, engineers, and medics—to relocate to where they were needed. It was only toward the end of the communist era in the 1980s that waiting lists more generally catered to ordinary working families. The built environment was altered through the development of high-rise housing mainly in larger towns and cities, but low-rise properties continued to be built—mostly by self-building—although the extent of this varied considerably from country to country. In Hungary, where there was financial support for some forms of private self-build construction, 80 percent of new house building was of this type, whereas in Romania, under the bizarrely deformed Stalinist regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu, such activity was outlawed.

Western Europe

In Western Europe new technologies involving the same prefabricated building techniques familiar in the USSR and emanating from the modernist prewar architectural movements quickly led to the large-scale industrialized building of high-rise blocks of flats. This was partly a response to slum clearance but mainly to the idea that bombed-out sites from the war could contain much higher densities of people if the housing was built vertically. Although built and managed by governments or social housing agencies with state subsidies, this new housing, unlike that of the Communist bloc states, was almost exclusively used to house low-income households, and despite attempts to engineer a social mix of population these huge estates often became sources of social tension. For two decades beginning at the end of the 1950s high-rise housing transformed the skylines of many northern and central European towns and cities. Almost all of this form of state-led construction was social housing, owned and managed by a variety of nonprofit companies, housing associations, and co-ops and overseen by local and federal governments. Only in the United Kingdom did local authorities exclusively manage social housing. Once the social defects of this form of housing became apparent its popularity and use declined sharply in the mid-1970s.

After the worst problems of postwar shortages and reconstruction were dealt with, private sector housing, especially home ownership, also made a major contribution to the housing recovery that dominated the two or three decades after 1945. This was clearly the case in some of the more peripheral, more agricultural countries such as Ireland, Spain, and Greece, where, despite rapid industrialization and postwar modernization, housing never encompassed strong state involvement apart from indirect support through their tax systems. Finland also had a long tradition of home ownership, and the share of owner-occupiers grew from 57 percent in the early 1960s to nearly 70 percent by 2004. Most other countries also saw some growth in home ownership in the later decades of the century, but the scale varied from country to country. Home ownership in Italy grew from 45 percent after the war to nearly 70 percent by 2004, whereas Germany only moved from 25 percent to 38 percent over the same period. The most unusual case here is Britain, which, as explained above, after 1914 began a long process of transition away from being a privately rented nation (90 percent of households), as the state sector of council housing was expanded and home ownership became more popular and widespread. These interwar trends simply carried on after the immediate postwar crisis abated, and by the early 1990s home ownership had grown to 70 percent of households, although council housing had declined significantly as a result of government policy.

It should also be noted that since the collapse of the Eastern European socialist states in 1989–1990 there has been a large-scale sale of state flats, usually to sitting tenants, because the economies of these countries were so damaged that they could not sustain even the most basic services and maintenance. In 2005 home ownership was in excess of 90 percent in almost all these nations and there was hardly any social housing provision. The creation of super-owner-occupied nations is one of the more perverse consequences of the collapse of state socialism.

In most of the major economies of Europe, however, the state continues to play a significant role in housing. This mainly operates through the mechanism of local authorities supervising rent levels so that the various public housing agencies and the private rented sector are treated as a common rental market in which the companies compete with each other on the basis of type of accommodation, location, and facilities.

It is possible, then, to identify two broad models of European housing in the early twenty-first century. In the social market economies of central Europe and Scandinavia, public and private renting are basically treated as a unified market, and while home ownership is available, it is not the dominant force. In the home-owning societies (Britain, Finland, Ireland, Spain, Greece, and the postcommunist nations) there is a clear separation between the three main housing tenures of home ownership, private renting, and social housing, and the public and private rental sectors are not connected. Thus, while the deficit between dwellings and households caused by two wars was a Europe-wide phenomenon, the ways in which that deficit has been addressed since 1945 have varied considerably, and in the early twenty-first century there is no one "European" housing system.

See alsoArchitecture; Reconstruction; Welfare State; Working Class.


Burnett, John. (1986) A Social History of Housing. 2nd ed. London, 1986. An account of the development of British housing from the Industrial Revolution to the 1980s, with a focus on architectural styles and social conditions.

Donner, Christian. Housing Policies in the European Union: Theory and Practice. Vienna, 2000. Incorporates short historical accounts and up-to-date statistics on all the European Union countries (not those later acceded from the former Communist bloc).

Lowe, Stuart, and Sasha Tsenkova, eds. Housing Change in East and Central Europe: Integration or Fragmentation? Aldershot, U.K., 2003. Collection of papers that give brief accounts of the communist era followed by research findings on the next fifteen years.

McCrone, Gavin, and Mark Stephens. Housing Policy in Britain and Europe. London, 1995. A mixture of one-country studies (includes the list in Power's book but includes Spain and the Netherlands) and chapters dealing with European integration, labor mobility, and mortgage finance.

Power, Anne. Hovels to High Rise: State Housing in Europe since 1850. London, 1993. Detailed accounts of housing policy in France, Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Ireland with an emphasis on the role played by the state.

Stuart Lowe


views updated May 18 2018


population growth and urbanization
working-class housing
middle-class housing
landlord-tenant conflict
the "housing question"

Nineteenth-century Europe witnessed remarkable improvements in housing, but the benefits of new building were not equally shared. For Europe's growing middle classes, suburbs offered new possibilities for family life and individual privacy, while the outfitting of homes fueled the new consumer economy. The middleclass home came to exemplify, in theory if not always in practice, a transformation in Europe's physical and moral landscape. For the majority of workers, however, Europe's demographic and industrial revolutions ushered in a century of residential dislocation and difficult living conditions. Indeed, what middle-class reformers referred to as the "housing question" was in fact a housing crisis of immense proportions, brought on by factors beyond the control of individuals or governments. The failure of individuals and governments to meet the persistent demand for housing laid the basis for government intervention in the early decades of following century.

population growth and urbanization

Population growth and rapid urbanization were the underlying factors behind Europe's housing shortage in the nineteenth century. With the decline in mortality rates after about 1780, Europe's population began to increase. Between 1800 and 1850 population grew from an estimated 205 million to 275 million. By 1900 Europe's population was more than twice that of 1800, or 414 million. This demographic increase fueled industrialization and urbanization throughout Europe, most notably in Britain. In 1801 the population of England

and Wales was 38 percent urban. By 1851 that figure had increased to 54 percent, and by 1881, 70 percent. By 1900 London's population (6.5 million) was nearly twice that of Paris (3.3 million). Berlin (2.4 million) and Vienna (1.7 million) also housed large populations, but Britain commanded the highest urban densities, with Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow all reaching above one million by 1900, while France's rural exodus would not occur until well into the twentieth century.

In every major city, urban developments, suburbs, and mass commuter transportation in particular, transformed the social landscape. European cities were no longer what urban historians call "walking cities," in which noble rentiers, bourgeois professionals, artisans, domestics, and unskilled day laborers all lived in the same neighborhoods, and often within the same multistory dwellings. The social diversity of walking cities began to give way when, between 1780 and 1830, a growing number of families, spurred on by developers and a desire for increased living space, built "suburban" villas on converted farmlands on the urban periphery. With the appearance of general contractors (as early as 1790 in Britain), such developments increasingly involved the subdivision and development of entire tracts of land. Railway construction added to this trend and, after 1850, urban peripheries became full-blown streetcar suburbs, allowing ever-increasing numbers of middle-class (and some skilled artisan) families to flee the city. For most workers, however, the new suburbs remained beyond their reach. Unskilled workers in particular could not afford the cost of daily commuting. Since much employment was irregular or seasonal, most working-class families tended to reside in close proximity to sources of employment.

Rural and urban industrialization, along with significant changes in agricultural production, meant that the working and residential lives of most Europeans were in a constant state of transition. Many workers engaged in both rural and urban occupations on a seasonal basis, often preempting the possibility of owning or even renting their own home in a fixed community. With the expansion of large-scale industrial factories (and later, department stores), the role of cottage industries and sweatshops actually expanded as sources of employment for working men, women, and children. In both rural and urban areas, housing became increasingly scarce for this segment of Europe's working population. In response to this situation, from the early decades of the century, paternalistic employers in the emerging textiles, mining, and iron (and later, steel) industries, and even some department store owners, provided worker housing, in some cases creating veritable "company towns." The minority of workers able to secure these forms of housing fared better than the majority who could not. Whether company housing or urban tenement, it was not at all uncommon for workers to share their living space with extended family, coworkers, or even strangers. Pooling meager resources was one strategy for surviving a high-rent housing market, especially in urban centers.

Scholars interested in the comparative history of suburbanization have often distinguished between an "Anglo-American" model, in which middle-class residents fled the urban center to create new, socially segregated neighborhoods on the urban periphery, and a "Continental" model, in which working-class families were cast to the periphery in order to make way for gentrified (often quite wealthy) neighborhoods in the urban center. Napoleon III's (r. 1852–1871) Paris has provided the most notorious case for the latter. Under the guidance of the prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–1891), and in the name of public order and public health, a combination of large government subsidies and speculative lending were used to demolish working-class slums in order to make way for wide avenues (the better to maneuver troops and artillery into the city center, and to connect traffic to nearby rail terminals) and the immense, bourgeois apartment blocks that lined them. Many workers were pushed to the new industrial zones on the northern and eastern edge of the city, where housing was often makeshift, while those remaining in the city found their living quarters increasingly cramped and their rents high. In imitation, Brussels, Vienna, and Budapest each embarked on their own "Haussmannization" policies, as did Lyon, Marseille, and a few other provincial French cities, though on a far more modest scale. These examples aside, suburbanization on the Continent could also resemble the Anglo-American model in many respects, especially by the period 1900–1914. In much of Germany, where professional urban planning was employed more than in any other European country, town extensions were greatly preferred over the rebuilding of urban centers. And on the southern and western periphery of Paris, where only a century earlier aristocratic villas had dotted an agricultural landscape, dense and solidly middle-class suburbs like Coubevoie and Neuilly-sur-Seine emerged in a continuous arc of comfort and privacy.

Most new building, whether in Britain or on the Continent, was the work of private hands, especially land developers and local builders, and relied very little on government-directed planners. The type of housing developers built usually involved a combination of factors, including existing local vernacular forms, property values, the availability and cost of investment capital, municipal regulations and building codes, and the internal dynamics of the local building industry. The luxury apartment buildings that lined the avenues of Haussmann's Paris and Vienna's "Ring" were exceptions that proved the rule. The same could be said of the Hampstead Garden suburb, outside London, which sought to overcome the monotonous drab of most new building through explicit use of landscape architecture and urban planning. Very little of the new building involved the work of architects and when it did, local reactions were more often circumspect than celebrated.

working-class housing

With the exception of Germany, systematic planning, when employed at all, was most likely to be found in the development of company-sponsored worker housing. It is true that, in many cases, including the industrialist Robert Owen's "cooperative" factory village at New Lanark, Scotland, employers usually sought to impose moral discipline on workers as well as control their movements. But these experiments often improved worker living conditions in measurable ways. In Ireland during the 1840s, the Quaker John Richardson built a picturesque company town for workers at his linen mill. Similarly, at Essen in the 1860s, the Krupp works erected attractive, lowdensity housing for its workers, in a planned residential zone complete with parks, recreational areas, and shared facilities. While such instances were indeed remarkable and occasionally successful, they were exceedingly rare. Most company housing consisted of cheaply constructed dwellings, often without adequate heating or proper sanitation facilities. Overcrowding was common, as was the tendency of some owners to use a combination of low wages, high rents, and high-priced company stores to bind workers financially to their creditor-employers.

In urban areas, workers were often forced to reside in slumlike conditions. With relatively little new construction or renovation taking place in urban working-class neighborhoods, workers in these areas tended to live in increasingly dilapidated buildings, in which five or six individuals might share a small one- or two-room apartment. In the second half of the century, retailers, commercial interests and especially railroads were—in Haussmannesque fashion—displacing workers through demolition and eviction. In England, some four thousand workers were displaced in this way between 1850 and 1900.

Conditions were somewhat better for skilled workers who could more often afford to rent one of the newer dwellings, which took a variety of forms across Europe. In England and Scotland, new worker housing often took the form of terraces and tenements. But self-contained cottages were also common in England and Wales and on the Continent in Belgium. As at Glasgow, France's major cities (Paris, Lyon, and Marseille) tended to house their workers in tenements. By contrast, workers in provincial cities like Bordeaux, Amiens, and Lille often resided in terraced or detached houses, or two-family flats. Compared to both England and the United States, these French dwellings tended to have fewer rooms and less "private" space. English workers often had their own yards, while kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, and parlors all were separate. Even the "back-to-backs" of Yorkshire (so called because these units shared a back wall) had by 1900 achieved greater privacy by locating toilet facilities in the basement. With the exception of Bremen, where single-family worker housing was common, the family life of German workers usually revolved around the two or three rooms they inhabited in the ever-present six-flat tenement.

middle-class housing

The middle-class professionals, white collar workers, and artisans who inhabited the new houses and apartments being built throughout Europe experienced a greater share of comfort, privacy, and functionality in their daily lives. Comfort came through new developments in furniture design, as well as new production and distribution methods that made upholstered furnishings available to a wider range of consumers. Comfort also came through developments in indoor heating, plumbing, and, toward the end of the nineteenth century, electricity. With the decline in fertility among Europe's middle classes, individuals living in newer homes were more likely to have, if not a room of their own, a degree of living space and privacy unimaginable by most Europeans in any previous century. Living spaces within wealthier middle-class homes also became increasingly specialized. Here, separate bedrooms, parlor, game room, boudoir, library, dining room, pantry, and kitchen each served a particular function, with hallways clearly separating public and private activities. This new setting provided an intimate stage on which new modes of family life and ideas about the proper roles of men and women in society were played out or resisted.

By the end of the century, only a modest number of workers (usually skilled) benefited from these new amenities. Demand for new worker housing remained high, but the incentives for investors, in the absence of government intervention, remained low. The key was "regularity of income," which many workers, especially the unskilled, did not enjoy. As one historian has observed, "Suburbs gave access to the cheapest land to those with the greatest security of employment and with leisure to enjoy it." For the unskilled, low wages, inconsistent employment, and the need to reside within walking distance to work (usually no more than 1.5 miles) translated into high rents and high rates of poverty in the most congested housing districts. For example, with the flight of its middle classes, the Marais district of Paris, which had long been a bastion of elite living on the right bank of central Paris, changed considerably after 1850. The lack of open sites, restrictive building regulations, and the quickening pace of middle-class desertion brought a dramatic reduction in new construction in the Marais—this at a time when the working-class population density of central Paris was twice that of London. As in Britain, where laissez-faire conditions largely drove the housing market, Parisian investors chose to build upscale housing for bourgeois elites, the middle classes, and skilled workers, all far more likely to meet their rent obligations than the unskilled working poor.

landlord-tenant conflict

Perpetual overcrowding, high rents, and absentee ownership often resulted in conflict between workers and building managers. Large tenements especially, in which complex layers of ownership created distance between owners and tenants, had a high potential for poor management. Scottish tenements became increasingly associated with social tensions and political conflict. This was largely the result of a rigid system of annual leases that provided no flexibility for workers—in a labor market in which work contracts were often of short duration. Through a law of 1911, Scotland joined most European cities in guaranteeing more flexible leases. Indeed, in much of Britain, landlord-tenant conflict was endemic, and especially so after 1890. This is perhaps no surprise, given that per capita wages in England increased only about 7 percent in the years from 1895 to 1913, as compared to 107 percent for the preceding thirty-five years. To be sure, in tenements where a resident caretaker was employed—in Paris, the concierge played this role, as sometimes a husband or wife did, if the tenement was family-owned—the probability of conflict was reduced. In Vienna, however, a city in which half of all tenement owners in 1910 resided on their properties, rent strikes broke out the following year, and worker housing became a major issue for the Social Democratic Party. Throughout Europe, by the turn of the twentieth century, rent strikes were increasingly common, the result of ever-higher rents resulting from chronic housing shortages.

the "housing question"

Middle-class reactions to the dramatic rise in urban populations, particularly the squalid conditions many workers faced in the first half of the century, took several directions. As we have seen, a handful of reformers, utopians, and business owners attempted to ameliorate worker housing conditions through the building of experimental, planned communities. More commonly, however, the perceptions of middle-class observers toward the living conditions of European workers were highly colored by increasingly bitter relations between workers and

employers, and worker struggles to win greater political rights and improved working conditions. In this context, the working classes came to be seen as the dangerous classes. Moreover, bourgeois observers could not help but notice the large numbers of workers who continued to succumb to periodic outbreaks of cholera, such as occurred in 1832, and who were susceptible to other forms of contagious disease. In the early 1880s, the Parisian hygienist Octave Du Mesnil (1832–1898) identified the city's many lodging houses as key sources of smallpox and typhoid epidemics. In France and elsewhere, moral reformers, who were also eager to impose strict moral standards on their fellow bourgeois, joined public health officials in viewing the squalid conditions in which many workers lived as a direct consequence of their supposed lack of moral and religious virtue.

In some circles at least, including a growing number of municipal and state authorities, the tendency to blame the consequences of the housing shortage on workers changed after 1880, as major critics of laissezfaire economics became more vocal and as it became obvious that privately planned housing schemes were woefully inadequate solutions to the problem. Reformers and government officials increasingly associated the housing problem with the more general one of poverty. In 1880s Paris, an array of socialist groups debated proposals for the financing of "low-rent" housing, but none managed to overcome the municipal council's staunch defense of its own autonomy against state intervention. In Britain, during the 1890s, legislative action opened the way for government intervention in worker housing through town planning, council housing, and transportation. Through the municipalities, a modest degree of control was imposed on the British housing industry. But even in Britain, this was not yet a solution. Indeed, while the "housing question" sparked much debate throughout Europe in the years before World War I, no European country found an adequate solution to the persistent gap between low worker wages and the higher rents necessary to make good housing profitable. Only in the 1920s, in the wake of the war, did municipalities take it upon themselves to fund major housing projects.

The "housing question," as it emerged and evolved in Europe during the long nineteenth century, was the product of and reflected major changes in society—from sweeping demographic change, urbanization, industrialization, and class formation, to changes in health policy, the emergence of new social thinking, and the beginnings of government intervention into the economy. As such, the "housing question" impacted the lives of the vast majority of Europeans in profound ways. Further study of these fundamental changes in housing and housing policy will improve our understanding of the many contexts that led to greater government intervention in housing during the twentieth century, as well as the technocratic impulses that often shaped these efforts. Comparative analysis and a reexamination of old arguments may also shed new light on the processes resulting in today's increasingly "suburbanized" Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century, moreover, European governments faced the daunting problem of how to overcome the persistent shortage of housing for an ever-growing population and, in urban areas especially, how to integrate the continual influx of migrants from the countryside (and other nations) into the social fabric. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, European nations face a similar problem of integration, and once again, the "housing question" presents itself as one closely associated with poverty and integration.

See alsoAristocracy; Bourgeoisie; Cities and Towns; Class and Social Relations; Demography; Furniture; Public Health; Working Class.


Bullock, Nicholas, and James Read. The Movement for Housing Reform in Germany and France, 1840–1914. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985.

Daunton, M. J., ed. Housing the Workers, 1850–1914: A Comparative Perspective. London and New York, 1990.

Eleb, Monique, and Anne Debarre. L'invention de l'habitation moderne: Paris, 1880–1914. Paris, 1995.

Hohenberg, Paul M., and Lynn Hollen Lees. The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1994. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1985, 1995.

Perrot, Michelle, ed. From the Fires of the Revolution to the Great War. Volume 4 of A History of Private Life, general editors Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Rodger, Richard. Housing in Urban Britain, 1780–1914. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Shapiro, Ann-Louis. Housing the Poor of Paris, 1850–1902. Madison, Wis., 1985.

R. Darrell Meadows


views updated Jun 11 2018




Building Materials. The needs for housing in most of ancient Greece were relatively simple because of the mild climate. Building materials varied somewhat from one region to another, but mostly consisted of stone, clay (used to make bricks and roof tiles), and timber. While marble was used for the facing of fancier buildings, especially in wealthier cities such as Athens, most of the stone used was readily available locally and was often a variety of limestone. Clay was abundant and could be baked (particularly for pottery and other nonarchitectural uses), but unbaked, sun-dried bricks were extremely common in domestic architecture. Timber was widely used in both public and domestic architecture and was available locally or from outside sources, in particular the more temperate regions in Northern Greece and Macedonia.

House Plans. In contrast to the range of architectural styles used for modern housing, the plan and style of most private Greek houses varied little from one city to another, or even from one time period to another. The typical plan consisted of a series of small rooms arranged around a central courtyard, which would be open to the elements. The house would be entered from the street via a door leading into the courtyard itself, often with a small entryway in between. (Since doors opened outward and lacked windows, it was customary in crowded cities for a person leaving home to knock on the door from within, to alert pedestrians to stand clear and avoid being hit.) Unlike most housing in the modern United States, ancient Greek houses in cities were built right next to each other with no intervening space, sharing party walls. Thus, a house would typically have immediate neighbors on three sides, a street on the fourth, and no external lawn or garden area. The courtyard, then, would serve most of the functions of the modern yard—a place to enjoy fresh air, entertain, and work—while providing a degree of privacy not found in most yards. Indeed, the Greek house was typically constructed for maximum privacy: living areas faced away from the street and onto the courtyard, and windows were few and small, in part because the use of glass for windows was unknown in antiquity. In a world in which much of the daily life took place outdoors, face-to-face with others, the oikos (house) offered a place of refuge.

Simplicity. Construction and decoration tended to be simple, even for the fairly well-to-do. Walls were built of rubble or sun-dried brick on stone foundations, held together with a mud-based mortar, and usually finished with plaster both inside and out. Often construction was fairly flimsy, so that breaking through the party walls between houses was a favorite technique for burglars (who were sometimes known as toikhorhukhoi, or “wall-breakers”). Interior walls were often painted, usually in red or white, to judge from the surviving fragments of painted walls. Floors in most rooms were simply packed earth, although these were probably covered with rugs or mats. In kitchens and dining rooms, however, floors might be made of cement, and in the case of the latter covered with decorative mosaics (which became a common feature in the better houses of the Roman period).

Design Features. Some houses had second stories, but the popularity of this design feature is difficult to determine because surviving archaeological evidence is scant. (Taller, apartment-style buildings became feasible only after stronger building materials were developed by the Romans.) The second floor would be reached by a ladder, by an exterior set of stairs (especially if the second floor was a separate apartment), or, in rare instances, by a fixed staircase. In some cities, second floors were built in such a way as to overhang the street, as a way of gaining additional living space without buying additional land. Roofs were either flat (thus offering additional storage and living space) or sloping, depending on the climate and local traditions (sloping roofs were especially useful in the north to allow the runoff of rain and snow). Sloping roofs were either covered by thatch, terracotta tiles, or some combination of the two.

Men’s Room. Many houses had a room specially set aside for receiving and entertaining guests. Called the andrôn (“men’s area,” since most guests were male), it functioned as a dining room as well. The floor was of a hard, durable material (cement or mosaic tile) in order to make cleaning easier. Couches for dining (in formal situations, the Greeks ate lying down) were arranged around the perimeter of the room, and rooms were referred to by the number of couches they could hold. An eleven-couch room was fairly large, perhaps twenty feet across, making it the largest room in the house. The floor near the walls might be raised up, with tables placed in the lower-lying floor in the middle of the room. In order not to isolate the guests on the entry side, the doorway would be off center, near the corner of the room.

Women’s Room. Greek men attempted to control female members of their household as much as possible, and this included sheltering them from the outside world. Upper-class women rarely went out without supervision, and there were special areas of the house set aside for them, to which male guests were not admitted. These areas were known as the gunaikeion (women’s quarters). In some ways, the entire house except for the andron was thought of as women’s space: men were supposed to spend as much time as possible in public, and a man who chose to spend too much of his leisure time at home with women was viewed with suspicion. The gunaikeion

might be upstairs, since these areas were more remote and easier to control access to, especially in the absence of fixed staircases. Yet, this situation was not true for all houses: it is in general impossible to identify the function of most rooms from the architectural remains. Similarly, there are no ways of identifying the separate quarters which must have existed for slaves: the actual space used would have varied with the needs of the individual household.

Hearths. Although the hearth was an important concept for the Greeks (particularly in the form of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, who guaranteed the prosperity of the oikos), few houses actually had permanent hearths or fireplaces; in fact, separate, identifiable kitchen areas were not common before the fourth century. Instead, cooking could be done on small, portable braziers, either in the courtyard or in an interior room, using wood or charcoal (the latter was preferred because it contained more energy in a small volume and burned more controllably). Heating also depended primarily on charcoal, again burned in small vessels. There was no central heating, and ovens were usually found only in larger commercial establishments, such as bakeries and baths. Even so, ventilation was a problem, especially with charcoal, which produces carbon monoxide. It seems that the most common solution was to remove a tile or section of roof after the fire was lit, although some houses had holes designed for the purpose, and there are references in literary sources to terracotta smoke conduits (probably a sort of primitive chimney), which would have been found in fancier houses.

Water Supply. Greek houses lacked running water, so water had to be hauled in from nearby sources such as natural springs, but in many locations they were unavailable or had dried up during the summer. In these cases wells had to be used or cisterns had to be built to collect rainwater (which would generally be allowed to settle and clear before use). By the sixth century engineers had developed the technology for channeling water, so that springs could be tapped and the water led by ground-level terracotta pipes to collect in fountains within the city walls. Gathering water from a nearby fountain would have been a daily task for household members or slaves, who would have to bring enough for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene. Although Greece has a dry climate, the conservation of rainwater and the diligence and ingenuity of public officials seem to have ensured an adequate water supply for most cities, including Athens, whose population was larger than that of any other Greek city.

Sewage. The disposal of used water and other wastes was a constant problem. Originally, bathing took place inside the house in small, portable tubs; and in cities chamber pots were used for urination and defecation. Yet, public baths developed quickly in the cities, and were common by the fourth century b.c.e., when they had important social as well as hygienic functions. In addition, built-in baths and toilets were in use in Olynthus and presumably elsewhere. In such houses terracotta drainpipes would have led the waste out of the house and into the streets, although in the absence of plumbing it would have been necessary to pour wastewater into the pipes by hand. Even so, provisions for adequate disposal of waste are found starting only in the fourth century. Before that time, there were presumably gutters in the streets, which would accumulate waste that would be washed away by rainwater. This lack of sanitation certainly must have contributed to the spread of infectious disease such as the great plague of Athens in 430-429 b.c.e., although Greek science and medicine were not advanced enough to recognize the problem (an adequate theory of disease and contagion was developed only in the nineteenth century C.E.). Older cities, such as Athens, never achieved adequate sewage; however, in newer settlements such as Pella in Macedon urban planning allowed for more regular, wider streets with covered sewers that drained the waste from adjacent houses.

Disposal. Nevertheless, there was relatively little garbage to be disposed of in Greece. Much modern trash consists of paper, packaging (including bottles and cans), and other items unknown or rare in Greece. Greek society was far less materially rich than our own: even wealthy people had relatively few possessions, and far fewer of these were disposable than is the case in the United States. In a culture of relative scarcity objects are reused rather than discarded, and the presence of domestic animals (along with the relative scarcity of food) ensured that little food would be thrown out. Even human excrement would often be collected in pits for use as fertilizer. Even so, cities were probably rather unhygienic by modern Western standards, and rodents and insects were common.

Decoration. Throughout the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.), decoration and furnishings in private houses were usually modest. This situation was in part because of the relative difficulty of getting luxury goods, but also because of an ideology of equality, in which ostentatious displays of wealth were frowned upon (especially true in Athens and Sparta). In addition to the sort of simple wall paintings mentioned above, there are references to other types of wall decoration: bronze plaques, tapestries, and embroideries. Ceiling decorations are also referred to in wealthy houses, and the Athenian Alcibiades, famous for his extravagant lifestyle, is said to have hired a famous painter to paint frescoes on his walls.

Furniture. As is the case today, furniture and other household objects could be both useful and decorative. A major difference, however, is in the size and portability of ancient furniture, which could be moved easily from room to room and house to house. Tables, chairs, couches, stools, and beds were the primary items of furniture; large cabinets, dressers, and armoires were unknown, with smaller, movable chests and boxes being used for storage (nor were there closets, since clothing was folded and stored flat). Since wood survives only in exceptional conditions, there are few surviving examples of Greek furniture.

Chair Types. Chairs typically had curving backs but no armrests. The most common type was the klismos, which might be translated as “easy chair,” with a curved, slightly reclined back and plain, curved legs. A fancier variation was the thronos (throne), a more solid and upright chair, often highly decorated, and found in palaces and temples rather than in private households. At the low end of the scale was the diphros (stool), backless and with four straight legs; a common variant—easy to transport and store—was the folding stool, in which the legs crossed, somewhat like a director’s chair without arms or back.


The lives of Greek women were lived mostly in private, with little opportunity for participation in public life. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration of 431 b.c.e., (as reported by Thucydides), comments on “female excellence,” saying that “the best reputation consists of not falling short of their natural character, and that their glory is greatest when they are spoken of least by men—whether they are praised or blamed.” In other words, the safest way for a woman to maintain a good reputation is to avoid becoming an object of public scrutiny and to remain in the private world of the oikos (household).

A major exception, however, was religious ritual. In Athens, women of the citizen class were priestesses in several public cults and took part in processions at the major festivals. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 b.c.e.), an old woman declares her devotion to the city by giving her pedigree, listing the honorific positions she has held:

At the age of seven, I carried the sacred objects; then atten I ground the barley for Athene; and wearing a saffron robe, I played the Bear-girl in the festival of Brauronian Artemis, After I grew up, and was beautiful, I carried the sacred basket, and wore a necklace of dried figs.

Spartan women had a different way of life, involving much more physical exercise and exposure to the public eye. Plutarch describes the intentions of the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus in this way:

Lycurgus took particular care about the women as well as the men. He made the young women exercise their bodies by running and wrestling and throwing the discus and the javelin, so that their offspring would have a sound start by taking root in sound bodies and grow stronger, and the women themselves would be able to use their strength to withstand childbearing and wrestle with labour pains. He freed them from softness and sitting in the shade and all female habits, and made it customary for girls no less than boys to go naked in processions and to dance naked at certain festivals and to sing naked while young men were present and looking on. . . . There was nothing shameful in the girls’ nakedness, because it was accompanied by modesty and self-control. It produced in them simple habits and an intense desire for good health, and gave the female sex a taste for noble sentiments, since they shared with the males virtue and desire for glory.

Bed and Couch. The klinê combined the functions of both bed and couch and was used not only for sleeping and rest, but also for dining, which was often done in a reclining position. It lacked a back and was designed for reclining rather than sitting, typically having one end slanted upward for the purpose. Legs could be slightly curved or straight, and sometimes took the form of animal legs (compare the lions’ feet found on sofas and bathtubs in the modern era). The frame of the couch was wooden, but its actual weight-bearing surface consisted of interlaced webbing (of leather or rope) on top of which a thin mattress would be placed. In wealthier homes coverlets, blankets, and pillows might be placed on the kline. Couches were light enough to allow transport from one room to another, and perhaps outdoors or onto the roof for sleeping during hot weather. Sheets were unknown, and mattresses probably not very soft, so the ancient bed would seem a bit uncomfortable by modern standards.

Table Types. Tables were probably not as popular as in most modern American households, simply because the Greeks had fewer things to put on them—books were rare and lamps were small and stood on separate stands. In wealthier houses there may have been displays of decorative objects, such as the vases, signed by famous artists, which must have been too good for everyday use. But most tables were used during meals, and were light enough to take away when not needed. Tables could have three or four legs and were made of wood, sometimes with metal legs or feet for added durability.

Lighting. Indoor lighting was accomplished with oil-burning lamps. These could be placed on stands, or suspended from chains or cords. Made of metal or clay, they survive in abundance, in a wide variety of sizes. The most common fuel was olive oil, which was stored in a reservoir; a wick was inserted into the lamp nozzle and lit. The technology was far from perfect: such lamps do not produce a lot of light and give off heat as well, unwanted in the summer. They posed a fire hazard, and the use of cheaper grades of olive oil could fill a room with smoke. Even lighting a lamp could prove a problem, since kindling fire was not easy (the usual practice was to keep a flame or embers burning, from which a fire could be rekindled). Outdoors, it was possible to use torches, which would burn with a brighter flame and were necessary to find one’s way through the streets on dark nights (there was no street lighting). Insufficient lighting was, however, less of a problem than it might appear, since the Greeks, like most preindustrial peoples, lived according to the rhythm of the day, rising at dawn and spending few of their waking hours in the dark.

Architectural Variations. In addition to the basic plan outlined above, some houses were more elaborate in terms of the courtyards and the rooms that led off them. A common variation in fancier houses was to have a peristulê—that is, a series of columns around the courtyard, supporting a small roofed-over area that would provide an outdoor space sheltered from rain and sun. Other houses had a large room off the courtyard that faced south in order to catch as much winter sunlight as possible, with a shallow porch to protect from midday sun. This type is called the prostas; a similar design, but with more than one room leading off the porch, is called the pastas.

Oikos. The word oikos refers to the physical house, but also refers to what is called the “household”: the house and its inhabitants. For the Greeks, this was not merely a family unit, but an economic one: occupations and trades tended to be passed from one generation to the next, and all family members were participants. In addition, the oikos included nonfamily members: slaves, freedmen or freedwomen, and perhaps guests and lodgers. These social arrangements have important implications for the quality of daily life. First, households tended to be quite a bit larger than the nuclear family: aged parents often lived with their grown children (three- and even four-generation households must have been common given Greek longevity). In addition, there is evidence for various types of extended families, including unmarried female relatives, who would have to be under the care of a kurios (head of household). Greek houses were not large: Olynthus, a wealthy fourth century community that took advantage of urban planning, had houses ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet; other, older cities had smaller houses. Therefore, they would have seemed extremely crowded by our standards.

Economics. The oikos as economic unit also affected daily life by making the physical house a center of commerce and trade. Artisans did not always have separate premises for their trade: instead, they worked out of the home, so some of the already-precious living area of the house would be given over to work space for shoemaking, metalsmithing, and other crafts. Farmers (including those with houses in town) used their courtyards for activities such as pressing olives or grapes and for storing grain; excavations have revealed wells, cisterns for rainwater, and manure pits in household courtyards.

Lodgers. Not every physical oikos, however, contained a single family. Many households took in lodgers, either renting individual rooms or, sometimes, the entire second floor (more convenient when there was a separate, exterior entrance). This practice was especially common in the larger cities such as Athens, where there was a large transient population, because of the presence of traders and foreign residents (known as metoikoi, or metics) and of country residents who had come into town for business or political purposes. Sometimes there were rooms fronting onto the street rather than the courtyard, which could be used as shops and thus rented to outsiders or used by members of the oikos.


Robert Flaceliere, Daily Life in Greece at the Time of Pericles, translated by Peter Green (New York: Macmillan, 1965).

Oswyn Murray and Simon Price, eds., The Greek City: From Homer to Alexander (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

G.M.A. Richter, The Furniture of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans (London: Phaidon Press, 1966).


views updated May 18 2018


Housing is a built form, or dwelling, where people engage in daily activities that sustain residents, such as eating, sleeping, economic activities, and socialization. Housing comes in many architectural forms, including single-family detached houses, apartments, or row housing. Housing refers here to the various forms of shelter used by families.

The study of housing can be approached from nearly all the scientific and humanistic fields. Disciplines such as physics and engineering can contribute to the study of physical aspects of housing, such as how certain air contaminants can enter a dwelling. Aesthetics and artistic expression assist in understanding the design of housing and how it affects human behavior. The relationship between families and their houses is described in this entry through social and psychological terms.

Families rely on their housing for shelter from the elements and adversity. Variations in form, which range from local folk structures to high-style architecture, (Ennals and Holdsworth 1998) suggest that housing is more than shelter. Witold Rybczynski (1992) notes that the arrangement, amenities, and adornment of houses are symbols of public and private cultural notions of family life. Symbols are shared meanings, and the built form of housing is endowed with meaning as an indicator of social organization and social, legal, and economic status. Family housing is both shelter and symbol.

Housing as Shelter

Housing provides shelter and protection from the elements for people and their resources, such as food, clothing, and possessions. Local weather and geography contribute to the form and permanence of family housing. Requirements for protection from the elements vary according to local conditions such as minimum and maximum temperatures, susceptibility to flooding or snowfall, and other adverse conditions such as animals and wind. However, housing forms may be influenced by cultural differences in interpretations of human vulnerability and physical comfort (Rybczynski 1986), the quantity and quality of household resources requiring protection, and the advancement and diffusion of housing technology (Doucet and Weaver 1991; Ennals and Holdsworth 1999).

The view that shelter from the elements is critical for human well-being has implications for housing policy and research. The provision of housing requires resources such as land and building supplies. Therefore, housing can be incorporated into an economic market and considered a commodity. In this view, resources to procure housing are more often the responsibility of individual households. The inability to purchase housing may result in homelessness, a condition that is often socially denounced with the blame for the inability to purchase housing focused primarily on individuals or families (Hopper 1993). In contrast, a rights-based view of housing provision argues that access to adequate housing is an international human right. Centrally planned economies can provide publicly subsidized housing to ensure shelter is accessible to all households. The two contradictory views of housing—commodity and right—are frequently central issues in developing research and policy agendas. For example, housing was explicitly described as a human right at the 1996 United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul, Turkey. In the same document that declared shelter as a human right, housing was recognized as a productive economic sector. This declaration recognizes the need to find remedies for reconciling access to shelter among populations with very few financial resources without diminishing the benefits of generating incomes through the housing economy in impoverished regions.

In addition to providing shelter from the elements, housing can be employed by household members as a shelter from people outside of the built unit. For example, household members can control access to information about themselves (Wilson 1988). In this sense of shelter, the house is employed as a symbol of social group organization.

Housing as Symbol

Social organization. In many cultures housing is indivisible from family. For example, the common Greek word for family is oikoyenia, which means relatives of the house (Sutton 1999). Related to house and family is household, which is a group of people associated with a particular physical unit, or dwelling, through productive and reproductive activities over a particular period of time (Waller-stein and Smith 1992). A household differs from family in that it may be composed of both family and nonfamily members. However, it is important to note how some family-related social groupings such as household are defined by tenure in a certain physical unit or housing form. Thus, housing is central to family life.

Housing is frequently a symbol of home (Gurney and Means 1993), but family housing differs from the notion of home. Housing or dwelling implies a physical unit, whereas home is the cognitive representation of a familiar place of retreat.

Housing contributes to the social organization and dynamics of kin groups because it "defines and delimits space for the members of a household" (Lawrence 1987, p. 155). Dwellings contribute to patterns of social organization because households are defined by the set of people who co-reside or use the physical unit over a particular period.

Human interactions with the built form of the dwelling are founded upon spatial meanings such as cues for behavior (e.g., staircase indicates methods of ascent and descent). The built unit plays a dual role of communicating the appropriate behaviors to employ and accommodating the behaviors (Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999). Amos Rapoport (1982) describes how built forms act as a memory device for cueing appropriate behavior. Behavioral regularities emerge from the rules affiliated with spaces within houses (e.g., "don't slam the screen door") and household objects (Wood and Beck 1994). Meanings for spaces include the rules for the individuals who are allowed access to specific areas.

Peter Wilson (1988) suggests that the boundaries of domestic spaces allow household members some control over access to themselves. Behaviors and information can be concealed from, or displayed to, individuals outside the built unit, thus creating a symbolic division between public and private spaces. Consequently, in addition to providing shelter from the elements, housing can be employed by household members as a shield from public attention.

Boundaries within domestic spaces are symbolic indicators of the organizational patterns among household members. Features of dwellings are used to convey a system of meanings about the spaces that establish the control over private spaces within the home. Houses can incorporate doorways, or other architectural details, that facilitate certain household members' control over the use of areas. Control over areas within the house is important for understanding the notion of privacy among family members. Historical overviews of housing forms demonstrate how the shape of housing and designation of control over spaces is associated with the promotion of the idea of privacy and individualism in family life in Europe and North America (Johnson 1993; Ward 2000). Separate spaces assigned to specific activities (such as bathrooms for bathing) have replaced large multi-functional spaces. Privacy is accomplished through the adoption of specialized enclosed spaces.

Although the built form contributes to the ordering of family and community interactions, it should not be considered the cause of interpersonal interactions because individuals would be assumed to lack the capacity to decide for themselves how to interact. Families and households contribute to shaping housing through adaptation of space utilization (Werner 1987) and changing of existing structures or construction of new structures in an effort to adjust to familial, social, and political changes (Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999).

Households engage in a process of adjusting their housing to fit their needs over the life-cycle while being constrained by the availability of household resources and the economic, social, and cultural environments. Change processes normally begin with a household's assessment of current conditions against housing norms. Housing norms, a type of symbol, are defined as social pressures in the form of rules for behavior and life conditions that are accompanied with related sanctions (Dillman; Tremblay; and Dillman 1979; Morris and Winter 1975). These include societywide norms, but a household may have special group norms depending on the household's background. The family itself may also develop its own unique set of housing norms. A difference between a housing condition prescribed by a norm and the actual condition presents a deficit (Beyer 1949; Nickell et al. 1951; Morris et al. 1990; Morris and Winter 1975, 1978; Rossi 1955). For example, if a household has five bedrooms but the norms prescribe six, the household has a deficit of one bedroom. Dissatisfaction with current housing deficits may lead to intentions for change. For example, Irit Sinai (2001) found that the degree of satisfaction with housing in Kumasi, Ghana, predicted change, although shelter characteristics, tenure, and the use of housing for income were associated with the decision to either move or modify housing. If the layout of a dwelling is not well suited to the resident family, the family may either make changes in the dwelling, move, or compensate for the dwelling by making changes in other aspects of family life. However, adaptation of the dwelling is not entirely controlled by the members of the household because housing is a resource that is embedded in a context of external constraints such as government building regulations and economic markets.

Social status. Housing is produced and used, in part, to convey social status. Association with a certain dwelling affords individuals the status of membership in a household. Nonmembership in a household is a state of homelessness, which is usually considered a very low social status. Social status is also conveyed through housing design and adornments. Vernacular architecture, or ordinary local housing, often emulates sophisticated housing such as high-style architecture designed by architects (Ennals and Holdsworth 1998), suggesting that housing forms and amenities are efforts to communicate material wealth and status to those outside the household.

Houses are encoded with symbolic meanings (Birdwell-Pheasant and Lawrence-Zúñiga 1999) that include assignment of status to internal spaces. Social status of activities associated with spaces help to define areas within housing as well as familial roles. For example, the recreation room in North American homes during the mid-1900s was assigned to the basement because children's play was a rough and physical activity preferably hidden from the outside world, while the living room, located on the main floor of the house with large windows, was reserved for important adult socializing (Rybczynski 1992). Other research has shown how laundry is a low status activity afforded very little space or low status areas in European housing (Laermans and Meulders 1999).

Status assignment of household spaces has been studied in relation to gendered patterns of family roles. Gilman (1903) was one of the first authors to identify that the private activities of the home were of lower status than the public activities outside the home. She described a gendered pattern of familial roles in which private household activities, such as cooking and childcare, were viewed as the responsibility of women. Household activities were held in lower esteem than men's participation in the public world. More recent cross-cultural research suggests that the degree of accessibility to both men and women to socially valued information and space, such as the workplace, is associated with the degree of gendered spatial segregation (Spain 1992).

Legal status. The social status of belonging to a dwelling, or membership in a household, is also a form of legal status. The family residence can be recognized by a legal system to represent a fixed place that contributes to the recognition and identification of a household and/or person. Thus, association with a domicile provides individuals with citizenship.

Homeless families are viewed as not belonging to a legal residence or dwelling and therefore have a low status with respect to the rights associated with citizenship. They may live in a dwelling such as temporary shelter in a detention camp, but homeless families are not viewed as existing, by operation of the law, in a permanent dwelling. Historically, homelessness has come to be viewed as a social problem (Keyssar 1993) often associated with economic status.

Economic status. Economic status is attributed to housing when durable dwellings and the land they are situated on are considered commodities. Families buy, sell, or rent housing to gain the legal and social right to access and control dwellings. The ability to acquire housing is associated with the balance between household resources and the cost and availability of housing. For example, when housing costs are high relative to income, household formation rates are lower, and the age of individuals purchasing housing (household head) is higher (Skaburski 1994).

The economic value of commodity housing is also interpreted as an indicator of social status. The great houses and courts of England and France were constructed as public displays of wealth and power (Stone 1991). Michael Doucet and John Weaver (1991) describe how the promotion of house ownership in North America has historically been used as an indicator of family success and stability. Ownership is an indicator of freedom from subordination and the attainment of financial and familial security.

The economic value of housing reflects social meaning (Lawrence 1987) such as power or poverty. Further, the ability to acquire commodity housing is associated with attaining the legal right to reside in a permanent domicile and citizenship. Thus, the economic status of housing is integrally related to aspects of the household members' social and legal status. Housing is a pervasive symbol of the status of households and families while operating as physical protection from the environment.

See also:Family and Relational Rules; Family Folklore; Family Roles; Home; Homeless Families; Housework; Poverty; Resource Management; Self-Disclosure; Single-Parent Families; Socioeconomic Status; Widowhood; Work and Family


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sheila k. marshall


views updated Jun 27 2018


Native American and Colonial Housing

HOUSING Native Americans built a wide variety of houses on the North American continent thousands of years before European colonization. Some were simple triangular tipis, engineered to resist the wind and keep out the cold but easily moveable; others were earthen, wood and covering, stone, or adobe houses. Often the shapes of these dwellings reflected the features of the land around them as their builders sought a safe accommodation with nature. Native Americans lived in single-family structures, extended-family structures, and multiunit structures. In the mid-sixteenth century Spaniards explored the Southwest, where they found Native Americans living in remarkable cliff dwellings and pueblos. The Europeans added their own

concepts of housing to indigenous materials and methods of construction to create a distinctive style still common in the Southwest. European colonists arriving on the eastern seaboard in the seventeenth century built houses of masonry or wood that imitated Old World houses. The few remaining from the colonial period are readily identifiable as Dutch, French, or English. In forested New England, colonial houses were built of wood. In Virginia and Maryland the colonists built masonry houses, using the clay soil to make bricks and oyster shells to make mortar. The earliest colonial houses were simple one-or two-room, one-story buildings.

During the colonial period there emerged several types of American houses that incorporated distinctive environmental adaptations. New England houses were designed for difficult winters with sharply sloped roofs, low ceilings, small rooms, and small windows. The houses of the Southwest faced inward onto courtyards, had thick adobe walls, high ceilings, and small windows in outer facades. The houses of the Middle Atlantic states and the South were built with high ceilings, large windows, central halls, and long porches. Houses were placed on hills to capture breezes or sheltered to avoid harsh winds. Not until central heating and air conditioning did such adaptations to climate become less crucial.

Settlement of the West and the Urbanization of America

Nineteenth-century settlers beyond the Appalachians at first built modest houses that utilized the resources available to them. Those in woodland areas built log cabins. Faced with treeless prairies, the immigrants who settled the Great Plains in the second half of the nineteenth century built dugouts or sod houses and sometimes houses of stone. However, when the railroads brought cut lumber and other building supplies, wood-framed houses in styles popular on the east coast became typical in the interior portions of the country.

In 1860 four times as many people lived in rural as in urban areas, but by 1920 rural and urban populations were approaching parity. Industry transformed America between the Civil War and the early twentieth century from a rural agricultural nation to one in which cities were growing rapidly as people came to them from both foreign countries and rural areas. The Census of 1890 counted some 12.7 million families in the United States. That number was 11 percent more than the number of dwelling units, with an even worse housing ratio in the eastern industrialized cities. For example, in 1900 three-quarters of New York City's population lived in squalid, overcrowded tenements. In 1890 Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a shocking description of slum life among New York City immigrants.

On the other hand, the houses of the more prosperous were being equipped with electric lights, central heating, and indoor bathrooms by the 1880s. New forms of public transportation, primarily electric streetcars, made possible the development of housing away from city centers. A nationwide speculation boomin land acquisition and subdivision of building lots developed in the 1880s, and by the end of 1892, the housing market in the United States was oversupplied.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the new American industrialists began displaying their wealth by building showplace houses in cities and more rural settings. Newport, Rhode Island, was a favorite location for the fabulous summer homes of the wealthy. The elegance and luxury of this housing stood in sharp contrast to city tenements and the shacks of the poor in the South.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Suburbanization

Before World War I, a comprehensive movement of social and political reform known as progressivism took a stand against the ostentatious lifestyles of the wealthy and condemned the wretchedness of slum housing. Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the ideal suburban house for the independent American family, a free-standing house on its own plot of ground. Wright proposed that American housing development be spread over the entire country with each family occupying one house on one acre of land. A vast network of roads could link it all together in a culture without cities. It is this pattern of sprawl, so sharply in contrast to the centralized settlements brought to the United States from Europe, that has come to prevail in the United States.

Wright's Prairie Houses incorporated a new form of interior design that featured large fireplaces in the center of the house and an open flowing floor plan. The symbolism of the houses was sanctuary for the American family, natural surroundings, escape from the crowded conditions of the city, and rejection of the artificiality of overwrought design. Wright's designs were part of a movement away from the formal Queen Anne houses so dominant in the second half of the nineteenth century and toward the simpler Craftsman or bungalow styles.

Prosperity, Depression, and World War II

Between 1923 and 1927 a period of economic prosperity brought with it one of the greatest housing booms in the history of the country. The new availability of automobiles stimulated construction of houses in the suburbs, where land was relatively cheap. More than seven million new dwelling units were started in the 1920s; annual housing peaked at 937,000 units in 1925, a figure that would be unsurpassed for the next twenty years. By 1932, housing production had fallen to 134,000 units and the industry, along with the rest of the economic and financial structure of the country, was spiraling downward. Property values fell by more than 25 percent from 1929 to 1932, eliminating homeowner equity and increasing mortgage debt from 36 percent of value in 1928 to 61 percent in 1932. As foreclosures increased, approximately one million people were forced into homelessness. The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt drew housing into the purview of the federal government during the 1930s by creating, along with several other programs,

the Federal Housing Administration to provide federal insurance for home loans.

The crisis of World War II produced the first mass production of prefabricated houses. Builders devised factory-built, standardized building components such as wall and ceiling panels, and utilized light metal framing with girders and trusses that allowed for greater spans. Poured concrete foundations became standard. Many technological advances were made with the help of leading universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This cooperative effort established the basis for the hugely expanded postwar construction industry. The small, craft-oriented, homebuilding industry became more like the rest of American industry in general.

Postwar Prosperity, the Flight from the Cities, and Racial Discrimination

Americans came out of World War II with higher incomes to buy better houses. Housing starts in 1946, at 1,023,000, were higher than they had been in 1925, the previous record year, and they reached nearly 1.5 million in 1949. During this boom period the average cost of building a house rose from $4,625 in 1945 to $7,525 in 1949. Veterans Administration guaranteed loans were a major factor in helping to house the millions of servicemen returning from the war. The proportion of nonfarm home ownership rose from 41.1 percent in 1940 to 50.8 percent in 1945, the fastest increase of such magnitude to take place in the twentieth century. By 1956 the owner occupied portion of nonfarm occupancy would be 59 percent, a huge increase from that of 1940.

The 1950 Census showed an improvement in the physical condition of the country's housing. Based on a standard of more than one person per room, overcrowding was reduced from 20 percent in 1940 to 15 percent in 1949. As the country continued its emergence from the depression and war years, those who could afford it largely fled the cities, leaving behind a poor minority population, a diminished commercial core, and growing slums. An American Public Health Association Report in 1948 recognized racial segregation and substandard housing in central cities as major problems. The Housing Act of 1949 favored "a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family," but it was years before racial segregation in housing was addressed comprehensively. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order barring discrimination in the sale, lease, or occupancy of residential property owned or operated by the federal government. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred racial discrimination in any housing requiring federal funding assistance and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 established equal housing opportunity as official U.S. policy.

Expanding Suburbs, More Apartment Buildings

The new American middle class wanted the suburban houses that prosperity could make available to them in the postwar period. The ideal was a single-family house for the nuclear family on a large lot away from the deteriorating inner city. Builders acquired large tracts of land relatively inexpensively at the perimeters of towns and cities, secured government-insured advance financing, installed streets and other infrastructure, and mass produced standardized ranch-style housing. Production of mobile homes, which had been around since the 1930s when they were called trailers, began to expand rapidly in the 1960s as assembly-line techniques were improved.

The development of the elevator and steel frame construction had promoted intense multistory apartment building construction in the late nineteenth century in large cities where land was too expensive to justify single-family houses. Yet in 1960 only about 5 percent of housing units were in apartment buildings of ten or more units, except for New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Apartment construction increased in the 1960s as a result of smaller households and higher per-household income. There was a surge of luxury apartment buildings with balconies, swimming pools, large lobbies, and tenant services such as guest screening, message and package reception, and security features. In addition to rental units, condominium and cooperative apartments, which had some of the features of home ownership, became popular.

Seeking the American Dream

Despite the energy crisis of the mid-1970s and decreasing family size, houses became larger as they were recognized as the best hedge against inflation and the most important source of wealth creation for families. Three bedrooms and two bathrooms became standard. Total housing starts, including shipments of mobile homes, reached an astonishing 21,482,000 in the 1970s. This production level was at the rate of approximately one new dwelling unit for every ten people in the country. The median price of new conventional single-family dwellings rose from $23,400 to $62,900 during the decade. Economist Alan Greenspan estimated in 1977 that the market value of the nation's entire stock of single-family, owner-occupied houses was increasing at an annual rate of $62.2 billion, almost all of which was being converted to cash through mortgages. This money was recirculating in the economy, bringing the United States out of the mid-1970s recession and spurring more housing production. Capital gains from housing outstripped by three to one the gains taken by private investors in the stock market at this time.

In the late 1970s builders began to create new types of housing clusters including duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes. Large landscaped developments often included a mix of detached houses, apartment buildings, and townhouses around a central feature such as a golf course or other recreational facility. Eventually the more expensive of these developments would become socially segregated "gated" communities with access limited to residents and their guests.

By the 1980s the national homeownership rate was nearly 65 percent, with the highest rate among people from ages fifty-five to sixty-five. The incidence of new two-story houses increased, and all new houses had more bedrooms, bathrooms, and fireplaces. At the other end of the scale were the homeless whose numbers reached an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 during the 1980s.

By 1999 the average new house had two or more stories, three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, central heating and air conditioning, a working fireplace, and a two-car garage. Its average size was 2,250 square feet, 50 percent larger than the average new house in 1970.

The number of housing units in the United States at the end of the twentieth century was nearly 116 million, with 91 percent of these occupied on a full-time basis. Approximately one-third of the remaining 9 percent were seasonal, recreational, or occasionally used dwellings, an indication of the housing prosperity of Americans. More than 66 percent of the units occupied on a full-time basis were occupied by their owners; in 1900 only 36.5 percent of dwelling units were owner occupied. The average household size at the end of the century was 2.6, a number that had been 4.8 in 1900 and 3.7 in 1940.

Housing is an essential component of the nation's economy and a prime indicator of national economic direction. Home ownership is usually the major form of investment for individuals and households, and a key to financial stability and upward social mobility. Home ownership has long been the American Dream, the goal toward which many strive.


Doan, Mason C. American Housing Production: 1880–2000, A Concise History. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

Ford, Larry R. Cities and Buildings, Skyscrapers, Skid Rows, and Suburbs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kostof, Spiro. America by Design. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Welfeld, Irving. Where We Live: A Social History of America's Housing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the American Dream: A Social History of Housing In America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983.


See alsoApartment Houses ; Architecture ; Architecture, American Indian ; Electrification, Household ; Greenbelt Communities ; Plumbing ; Suburbanization ; Tenements ; Urbanization ; andvol. 9:In the Slums, 1890 .


views updated May 21 2018


Out of all the building types that combined to form the built environment during the second half of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth century, houses provide the most considerable insights into the lives of the nation's citizens and illuminate the diverse complexion and provincial nature of the Republic. Numerous variables, among them ethnicity and geographic location, helped shape the native house and created the broad range of types and traditions that are encountered and studied in the early twenty-first century.

a diversity of influences

In the decades immediately following the Revolution, the new Republic remained largely what it had been before, a collection of disparate regions with diverse cultural traditions. Within these regions distinctive building customs had been fostered and cultivated, shaped by economic and social variables, the strength of tradition, technology, climate, and geographic location. Dwelling forms, floor plans and room functions, heating and cooking arrangements, and construction materials and techniques were as varied as the nation's ethnic and socioeconomic composition. In certain instances dwellings reveal clear architectural precedents, that is, transplanted characteristics of foreign forms; in other cases the derivation of particular types is less pronounced if not altogether muddled. While high-style examples proclaimed, among other things, the prominence of their owners, vernacular manifestations often reflected more mundane and practical considerations. Some areas of the nation with distinctive ethnic traditions were, during the identified period, experiencing an influx of new influences that permeated established customs and created hybrid forms. House design and construction remained predominantly the domain of the master builder and mason; they drew foremost upon established building practices and tradition, tempered by local conditions.

House plans. Dwellings constructed from 1754 to 1829 can be broadly classified within two subgroups,

freestanding or attached. Freestanding houses encompass a broad range of types, both rural and urban; attached dwellings, those built with shared walls, were more common in denser population centers. Among those plans to be found during this study period were modest one-room types, single cell and half house; two-room examples, like the hall-and-parlor house—the hall offering a mixed-use cooking and dining area and the parlor or "best room" denoting a formal capacity—and various three- and four-room types, often a story-and-a-half or two stories in size. Bedchambers might be found in finished areas on the primary or upper story, or accommodation found in unfinished garret space or a bed niche. Larger dwellings included the center chimney house, with the hall, parlor, and a rear kitchen occupying the primary floor with bed-chambers above, and center-passage houses with end-wall fireplaces. Center-passage layouts became increasingly common as the eighteenth century progressed. More sophisticated dwellings, such as the eighteenth-century Georgian-style houses of Virginia and the Federal-style houses of the early-nineteenth-century Atlantic seacoast, boasted fully developed multistory plans, often of the center-hall type. Earlier houses were sometimes subsumed or augmented as part of subsequent expansion phases.

Heating and cooking. Among the foremost concerns in the conception of a dwelling in colder climates was heating, which was achieved through the fireplace and the stove. Wood-burning fireplaces were by far the predominant heating feature of houses in this period, and they included both jambed fireplaces such as those built by the English and jambless open hearths that were losing favor as the eighteenth century progressed. Stoves were likewise finding increased application in American dwellings in the eighteenth century, including five-plate cast iron examples and ceramic types. Among the more ingenious arrangements for heating was that utilized by people of Germanic descent: from the large kitchen hearth, a small opening allowed hot coals to be pushed to a five-plate iron or ceramic stove situated behind in the adjacent parlor or "stove room." By the

end of the third decade of the nineteenth century, earlier advances such as the six-plate Franklin stove had begun to undermine the practicality of wood-burning fireplaces and coal, too, was gaining increased popularity as a fuel. As with heating, cooking was often conducted in large wood-burning fireplaces, yet by the end of the period cast-iron cooking stoves were beginning to replace the open fire. Beehive ovens facilitated bread baking. Food storage was accommodated in cellars and root cellars, pantries, and garrets. Indoor plumbing had yet to make any impact on domestic architecture, and people remained largely bound to privies, chamber pots, and hand pumps.

regions, types, and traditions

In the rural, English-settled regions of Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut River valley, a tradition of heavy frame construction evolved during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that had its roots in southeastern Britain. These houses were sturdy and largely conceived in practical terms, though not without attention to aesthetic interests. By 1750 an important change governing the house plan was taking place in these dwellings, which were typically associated with Massachusetts and Connecticut but were also found in the larger environs of New England: the abandonment of the center chimney, hall-and-parlor arrangement for a center-hall layout with end-wall fireplaces. In rural Maine and parts of New Hampshire, where winters were fierce, houses of this type were built as components of attached farm complexes—the "big house, little house, back house, barn" interconnected arrangement—to shield human activity from the harsh climate. Other distinctive New England regional forms included the Cape Cod cottage common to coastal areas, which utilized a three-room plan like the above center-chimney type.

The Hudson Valley and Pennsylvania. New York State's Hudson Valley region witnessed a convergence of building traditions and cultures within the time frame in question. Settled in part by Dutch, French Huguenot, and Palatine immigrants, this area gave rise to a tradition of native stone construction that helped define the vernacular spirit of the region for well over a century. These houses, particularly the earlier ones, were often built as single-room units with jambless fireplaces and unfinished garrets, expanded in linear fashion over the generations to accommodate growing family units. By 1750 the influence of English building practices was becoming increasingly prevalent in the Hudson Valley region; by the last quarter of the century, the largely insular Dutch had begun to incorporate distinctly English features such as the center-hall floor plan, the jambed fireplace, and the symmetrical arrangement of fenestration into their dwellings. By the conclusion of the 1820s, many of the distinctive hallmarks of the Dutch craft tradition had been eroded. Further to the south, in present-day Staten Island and Brooklyn, Dutch and Flemish settlers developed a tradition of frame dwellings peculiar to that region.

Similarly, Pennsylvania witnessed the convergence of multiple ethnic groups, among them Germans from the Rhine Valley, English Quakers who settled Philadelphia, and the Swiss. In parts of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, which like the Hudson Valley fostered a tradition of stone construction, three-room plans were common with both Germanic peoples and the English. Here, too, the influence of the Georgian tradition with its formal overtones was initiated near the midpoint of the eighteenth century and from that point forward began to transform the established subtypes.

The South. The American slave population's diminished place in society was reflected in its housing. In the South particularly, slave housing provided a stark contrast to the grand houses of large-plantation owners. Slave houses were utilitarian in concept, predominantly of log or crude frame construction, often with dirt floors, and expressing little or no pretense to architectural fashion. Multiple units were often housed within a single freestanding building. In the North it was not unusual for slaves to reside in their owner's dwellings, in quarters segregated from family areas such as a garret, not unlike farmhands.

Conversely, in the English-settled areas of Virginia and Maryland, the social and economic elite had constructed for them houses of great sophistication and pretense, echoing the prevailing Georgian manner of the mother country. Nowhere was the transplantation of high-style architectural trends from England more pronounced than in the mid-eighteenth-century Georgian houses of this region. The hall-and-parlor and center passage frame houses of the Tidewater region accommodated those more modestly disposed. In the South kitchens were often relegated to a separate freestanding building. Elsewhere, other distinctly vernacular adaptations, such as the French-inspired Creole dwellings of the Mississippi River valley and the log houses of the mid-Atlantic Swedes, suggest the diversity to be found in the Republic's domestic architecture. The tradition of log construction introduced by the Swedes and Pennsylvania Germans, incidentally, was subsequently picked up by Scots-Irish settlers and transplanted in North Carolina and upland Virginia. Here the distinctive "dog trot" and "saddlebag" forms developed.

Urban centers. In densely populated areas like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, the row house—an attached dwelling built as an integral part of a larger group—was emerging as the predominant housing form. Built to maximize efficiency in construction and to meet increasing demands for housing, row houses had—by the end of the period in places such as New York—assumed a generally standardized layout to conform to the dimensions of subdivided urban parcels. Often constructed on speculation by enterprising builders, row housing accommodated both the wealthy and the middling classes, finding expression in examples of varying quality and scale. The row house form emerged in the late seventeenth century in Philadelphia, first in the traditional half-timbered manner and later in masonry, and was derived from contemporary English examples. By the end of the period it represented the predominant urban housing type, in its most common manifestation laid out with a basement kitchen, a side-hall plan with double parlors on the primary story, and bedchambers on the story or stories above. The earliest identified examples in Philadelphia were quite modest in concept and scale and employed one-room plans.

See alsoArchitectural Styles; Architecture; Construction and Home Building .


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Foster, Gerald. American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Glassie, Henry H. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Hubka, Thomas C. Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984.

Kelly, J. Frederick. The Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1924.

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Vlach, John Michael. Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

William Krattinger

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