Towards a systems-based approach: Housing as the building block of society

Our homes are not a commodity but a basic human right. Let’s think about it for a moment – our homes are at the core of our livelihoods. Without a home we cannot fully participate as active citizens, as without an address we cannot be taxed, we cannot vote and we may also be excluded from population statistics. Hence, the global rethinking of our cities and national housing frameworks based the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Housing 2030 initiative are not banal. The context of these shifts is based on the fact that by 2050 more than half of humanity will live in cities. 

Currently, Malta is still in the process of developing its own national housing system. Attempts are being made to reimagine and revaluate the housing sector (e.g. the Private Residential Leases Act 2020). However, to date, housing provision is rooted in silo thinking based on disparate schemes. What is required is a system-based approach that puts housing in each policy. We need to develop housing pathways that interconnect with employment, economy, health, climate change, planning and urban infrastructure and demography. The aim is to shape investment pathways to deliver alternative and affordable housing to all.

Dr Rachael Scicluna

Understanding society is the first step in achieving a culturally-sensitive housing system 

Malta as other post-industrial countries, is experiencing a reconfiguration of the family and the domestic setting, with an increasing low fertility and increasing life expectancy rates (Formosa 2018) such that the Maltese population aged 65+ reached 18.7% of the total population in 2019 (National Statistics Office). The household was also at the centre of shifts in family legislation which included the amendments made to the Civil Code through the introduction of divorce in 2011, the Gender Identity Act in 2015, the Cohabitation Act in 2016, the Marriage Equality Bill in 2017, and the Private Residential Lease Act in 2019.

Simultaneously, the past decade witnessed significant economic shifts brought about by an increase in Gross Domestic Product, though the at-risk-of-poverty rate reached 16.5% in 2016 (Formosa 2017). As to be expected, such economic and social changes are leaving positive and negative impacts on the housing market. This leaves us with the sheer reality that our home setting cannot be thought through the dominant and traditional family as the new norm comprises of female-led single households, inter-generational households, shared professional households, solo living, living apart and blended families, and LGBTQ families.

State intervention is equally important

Having a scheme-based housing provision can be ‘momentarily’ helpful for the wellbeing of persons. However, it does not address the existing gap in the housing scenario, where Malta does not offer any intermediate housing options for those that for one reason or another fall out of the housing market. Currently, the Housing Authority through the new policy Sustainable Communities, Housing for Tomorrow Policy is addressing this gap by retrofitting dilapidated properties which are in turn run by non-governmental organisations. These projects are based on a participatory methodology and are promoting the concept of living well – that is, the provision of good housing is seen as a pathway that connects citizens through inclusive infrastructure in combination with a personalised care, educational and employment plan.

Cross-sectoral collaborations are key in developing a resilient housing system

The Sustainable Communities framework can serve as a tool-kit in how housing can operate differently. It can be adapted to address the needs of those applicants seeking social accommodation or the newly financially-stretched middle classes. In short, our local housing system needs to be resilient enough to incorporate diverse housing typologies and realities. Thus, our housing system needs to interconnect set of complex networks combining experience, access, legislation, standards, planning, building capacities and state intervention. This will have substantial housing benefits. A housing policy can be imagined as the skeleton of the housing system while our homes can be thought of as the building blocks of a healthy nation and as enablers of social cohesion and integration. After all, good housing is also about community engagement as much as it is about regulation, inclusive design, financial security, identity and belonging. This way of doing housing is also bringing together the changing household and collaborations where they did not exist before – between the government, the Chamber of Architects and Engineers, the third sector and citizens.

Housing solutions through design is another key recommendation

Considering that the family configuration has changed, it is important that domestic design reflects the needs of our contemporary domestic realities. Currently, this is being achieved through an International Design Competition which is part of the Sustainable Communities Policy. Here, not-for-profit organisations respond to a call issued by the Housing Authority. Through a Briefing Session, the winning organisations present their research-based projects to the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers. This ensures that the user-groups remain the protagonists of the final design. This way of doing housing besides addressing new domestic realities, enables the creation of a new method in how to distribute government funds and select new services. The aim is to create a best practice by finding housing solutions through design.

Although this is an important step forward and in the right direction, there is still a lack of alternative and affordable accommodation. For example, it is disquieting that Malta includes no community-led housing, housing co-operatives or sheltered housing accommodation. The latter has the capacity of making it easier for older residents to live as independently as possible, whilst giving them unlimited access to visits on behalf of family relatives and friends. Sheltered housing provides an alternative to the situation where older persons are forced to live in a hospital or institutional ambience where they are literally waiting for death’s call or to one where they feel that they are a burden to whoever is looking after them. In brief, sheltered housing represents an ideal alternative to live in a secure domestic environment independently, which is not possible in institutions. Socially-mixed affordable housing initiatives could also be an alternative solution to care homes which ought to be made available to senior citizens too.

Hence, in order to move towards a systems-based approach to housing it is important to consider the following:

  • Society is diverse. A life course perspective may be beneficial for citizens of all ages through the active involvement of older persons in community planning.
  • Research-based policy. Quantitative and ethnographic research should be key in developing an inclusive policy and should take into consideration the relationship between various categories such as ageing, care, disability, gender, sexuality, wellbeing, infrastructure, planning, climate change, migration, transport and civic participation. What is important is that the methods used in macro-economic studies ensure that people remain central.
  • Changing households. Understanding household fluidity as a unit of analysis has great potential for policymakers as they can design policies that meet grounded realities that modern patterns of living bring about.
  • Thinking socially from the start. The social dimension is often a lower priority in urban development. Design choice, no matter how small-scale it is, can greatly influence individuals’ interactions with one another and facilitate a positive sense of wellbeing. International research is demonstrating that there are significant economic benefits when developers consider the social dimension in the planning phase, alongside the economic, environmental and governance dimensions. This approach is a cost-saving measure as it releases the burden from other services by ensuring optimal quality and best value of resources.

 

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