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Housing, permanent shelter for human habitation. Because the shelter is necessary to everyone, the problem of providing adequate housing has long been a concern, not only of individuals but of governments as well. Thus, the history of housing is inseparable from the social, economic, and political development of humankind.


From the beginning of civilization, attention has been paid to the form, placement, and provision of human habitation. The earliest building codes, specifying structural integrity in housing construction, are found in the Code of the 18th-century bc Babylonian King Hammurabi. Town planning activities during the Greek and Roman empires centred almost exclusively on the appropriate placement of urban housing from the perspectives of defence and water supply. These same concerns continued throughout the Middle Ages. In 13th-century Europe, the city became a centre of trade, and its walls provided a safe haven from nomadic warriors and looters. People could find shelter for themselves and their flocks, herds, and harvests while the open country was being overrun by enemies of superior force. Demand for urban housing increased. For centuries this demand was filled by unplanned additions to, and subdivisions of, existing structures. Where climate permitted, squatting (occupying without title or payment of rent) became commonplace, but provided only temporary shelter.

By the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution, people were moving to cities in unprecedented numbers. Workers lived in sheds, railway yards, and factory cellars, typically without sanitation facilities or water supply.

In the post-industrial society of the 20th century, housing in developing nations and poor parts of developed countries continues to be of insufficient quality and does not meet the demand of some parts of the population. Vacant, abandoned inner-city housing exists alongside structures that are usable but overcrowded and buildings that are structurally reclaimable but are functionally obsolete.

At present, there is both a demand for housing and a supply of reusable structures that are going unclaimed. This situation is a good example of the complex role housing plays in society. Its primary function was to serve the need for shelter, security, and privacy, but housing must now offer other advantages: (1) location, including proximity to the workplace, shopping, businesses, schools, and other homes; (2) environment, for example, the quality of the neighbourhood, including public safety and aesthetics; and (3) investment potential, or the degree to which home ownership may affect capital accumulation.


Housing programmes in the United States and in Western European nations share many similarities. All these countries have initiated public housing, urban renewal, and new-town programmes. However, public intervention in Europe began sooner and has been more extensive than in the United States.

Great Britain, for example, embarked on public-housing development in the late 19th century. Labourers’ dwelling acts, authorizing local governments to construct public housing, were enacted as early as the mid-19th century, more than 75 years before comparable US housing legislation was passed. Urban-renewal demolition activities were empowered during the same period, almost a century before equivalent American activity. Massive public-housing programmes were started after each of the world wars. By the 1970s, approximately one-third of Britain’s housing was publicly subsidized, compared with only 1 to 2 percent in the United States. Great Britain has also constructed several new community developments that are in contrast to the fledgling and largely unsuccessful new-town ventures in the United States.

Housing policies in other Western European nations are similar to those in Britain. For instance, extensive provision and regulation of housing exist, taking the form of subsidies for slum demolition and rental housing assistance. Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other nations provide low- or no-interest housing loans. The development of new towns is also encouraged or subsidized; indeed, more than ten have been built on the outskirts of Paris.

The problems of housing in Canada, both public and private, have been treated with considerable imagination and effectiveness. Federal funds for housing have been directed almost entirely at people with lower incomes. The government provides assistance to the provinces and municipalities and to individuals, to be used for neighbourhood improvement, the purchase of homes, the rehabilitation of residential housing, and the development of new communities. At the same time, the private sector has channelled a high volume of financial support into the mortgage market.

Housing in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and in Eastern European nations was almost exclusively characterized by government regulations and provisions. These countries pioneered the production and installation of massive prefabricated housing units in urban areas. Housing units, usually of pre-cast concrete, were manufactured in factories and then transported to the housing site, where they were assembled into large, multifamily complexes. The former USSR was also a pioneer in developing new towns, which were frequently located around massive industrial or power-generating facilities. One example was the town of Bratsk, near the Bratsk hydroelectric plant in Siberia.

Housing in economically developing countries is typically inferior in quality and space to that found in economically developed nations. Government efforts to upgrade housing conditions are evolving slowly, however. In the 1950s, slum demolition was effected on a large scale in many cities, such as Manila in the Philippines and Baghdad in Iraq. In the 1960s, new-town development, such as Brasília in Brazil, became commonplace. These strategies often proved ineffective; demolition was not usually accompanied by replacement housing, and the new towns sometimes proved to be islands in a sea of slums. In the 1970s, some developing nations turned to self-help housing. Families were given plots of land and building materials to construct or improve their own shelter. This housing approach is commonly referred to as a “sites-and-services” programme; so far it has been implemented on a large scale in India and many South American countries. Numerous organizations assist housing development and the upgrading of housing standards. These include the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements, and the US Agency for International Development.


Housing is a critical component in the social and economic fabric of all nations. No country is yet satisfied that adequate housing has been delivered to the various economic groups that make up its populace. Thus, most nations, in one form or another, continue to claim a housing problem.

As the 1990s began, the West generally was facing a critical shortage of affordable housing for low- and middle-income wage earners, as well as for the poor, and the numbers of homeless people were rising, especially in the cities. Higher home prices plus a reduction in low-income housing led to greater demand for rented accommodation, which resulted in higher rents and fewer available rental units. In addition, different types of housing are required to meet the needs of people with disabilities, as well as of the elderly and of people living alone. A variety of solutions have been suggested, including rehabilitating public housing, organizing public-private partnerships, issuing housing vouchers, granting public funds to non-profit-making developers, amending zoning restrictions, promoting tenant management of public housing, improving mortgage-guarantee programmes, and encouraging companies to provide housing assistance programmes for their employees.

Each country also faces its own specific problems. Great Britain and much of Western Europe must grapple with suburbanization and the decentralization of cities, while in the former USSR and in Eastern Europe, demand for more private dwelling space has increased. In developing nations, raw housing demand is still largely unmet, with the result that many of the population find themselves forced to live in shanty towns, settlements in which the houses are very poorly equipped to deal with basic human needs. Shanty towns have very little in the way of infrastructure; they are usually without water, sanitation, electricity, or roads. The houses are usually built by the residents themselves, made from whatever materials have come to hand, and constructed often on land where no building rights exist, or on land illegally squatted.

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