How to apply the capability approach to housing policy? concepts, theories and challenges.

Kim, Boram; Hoekstra, Joris; Elsinga, Marja (2018). 'How to apply the capability approach to housing policy? Concepts, theories and challenges.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Housing takes an important role in human development and achieving inclusive cities. Its critical role was well re-acknowledged during the New Urban Agenda discussion in Habitat III, with the UN-Habitat’s re-established initiative of the ‘Housing at the Centre’ approach. This approach urges the international society and national governments to place housing as a priority in the public debate around urbanisation. A paradigm shift in housing policy and practice is being called for. 

My paper investigates to what extent the capability approach can contribute to this paradigm shift. Traditionally, housing policy studies have deeply been rooted in the norms of the welfare state, welfare economics and its philosophical foundation of utilitarianism. Using the perspective of the capability approach, the paper will critically review mainstream evaluative approaches in housing policy, and commonly used informational bases. This leads to a discussion on missing perspectives in housing policy studies and the preliminary conclusion that a capability-oriented housing policy framework could have an added value. 

The paper then goes on with a conceptual discussion on how the capability approach can be applied to housing policy and its evaluative framework. Two main approaches are identified. The first approach is to see housing as a means for enhancing other capabilities and human development dimensions, such as health, education, and security. In other words, in this approach, a housing policy or programme is examined in terms of its enhancement or containment of other capabilities. The second approach is to see housing as an end. This approach analyses what capability set and instrumental freedoms – internal and external freedoms – are required for a functioning of a person to be well dwelling. Its concern is to measure deprivations that a person has in her housing process. The focus of policy evaluation shall then be to what extent a housing policy or programme removes constraining factors and/or enhances enabling factors in the housing process, and thus allows a person to have substantive freedoms to be well dwelling. While both approaches are valid and meaningful, this paper focuses on the second approach. 

My argument is that the central concerns of housing policy and its evaluation should include what capability set and instrumental freedoms – internal and external freedoms – are required for one’s functioning of being well dwelling. In most housing policy studies, housing tends to be seen as merely a physical entity and commodity. The individuals in housing need are seen as passive recipients rather than leading actors of achieving their dwelling functioning. The main concerns of housing policy-making and evaluation have long been the aggregated data of housing needs, demands, supply, price-to-income ratio, physical conditions of housing units and users’ satisfaction level. Target groups are largely defined by income levels. However, in a housing process – which is not necessarily a self-building process – a person faces multi-dimensional deprivation. A person could lack resources such as money and land but also, for instance, real housing rights, access to job opportunities, an opportunity of being part of decision-making process in residential area planning, and access to information necessary for proper decision making in her housing strategy. In my opinion, multi-dimension deprivation of a person in the housing process needs to be measured in housing policy evaluation. 

The discussion in this paper remains at a theoretical and methodological level. The paper primarily aims to provide a theoretical foundation for further research on defining specific multi-dimensional deprivations in one’s housing process, so that these can be used for evaluating the impact of housing policies. This clearly is a big challenge. However, I think there is great promise in adapting the methods that are used in other scholars’ research in different domains such as health, education, employment and multi-dimensional poverty.  

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