The single-family home: an international perspective

Adriana Mihaela Soaita, Research Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, reflects on her recent trip to Dresden for the conference, “Single-Family Homes under Pressure”.

When I was invited to speak at the 2nd Homes Up International Conference “Single-Family Homes under Pressure?” organised by Leibniz-Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development, Dresden, I was thrilled.

Firstly, as an academic with a growing reputation in the field of post-communist housing, as well as a Romanian practising architect and planner, I was delighted to see first-hand the DDR state-built large housing estates and their later transformation. Learned knowledge can benefit from direct observation; as the saying goes, a picture is worth a 1,000 words (of course, it can equally lie). This will however not be covered in this blog.

Secondly, the single-family house has been an ongoing focus of my research. In Romania, where building houses was banned for almost two decades, there is a popular fascination with this housing type, seen as enabling a singular relationship between home and cosmos in a truly Heideggerian sense of dwelling. The untranslatable expression ‘casa pe pamant’ [a house on the ground], hinting at this philosophical understanding, titled my presentation, which was one of the first and can be found here.

Finally, the conference, which marked the completion of an important multi-disciplinary project led by Professor Clemens Deilmann, brought together a truly international audience, with guests from and presenting on Japan, US, and much of Europe (Denmark, Germany, Italy, Romania, Spain, UK). Reflecting across these presentations, it struck me that one of the key common issues reported was that of vacancy, on which I now focus.

Understanding the diverse socioeconomic, spatial and cultural aspects of vacancy is imperative for finding policy tools to distribute the stock more efficiently and manage associated problems. In relation to this, I wish to highlight some of the challenges discussed.

  • Of measurement: Unfortunately there is little data collected on the reasons for vacancies, with German Censuses having for the first time recorded the number of vacant dwellings only in 2011 but no vacancy reasons, as I learnt from Manuel Wolff’s presentation. Surprisingly, Romanian statistics surpass the German ones, thus we know that a significant part of vacancies is confined to second homes.
  • Of meaning and context: While theoretically second homeownership is an expression of and contributes to increasing inequality, this is particularly true for some places and countries, as Christine Whitehead emphasised in her opening keynote. An extreme example of housing-stirred inequality is the case of US vacancies in the sub-prime market, located between repossessions from low-income homeowners and purchases by landlord capital (Bernadette Hanlon). Conversely, in rapidly aging societies such as Japan (Akito Murayama) but also in parts of Italy (Federico Zanfi) and Denmark (Jesper Ole Jensen), vacancies are situated at the nexus of economically constrained owners and lack of market demand. In this case of vacant, derelict dwellings, granular solutions at the level of the neighbourhood are sought, which require governmental subsidies and local community action. We learned that the Danish government has such solutions in place. The Romanian situation is also worthy of future research, with post-1990 new built output having been totally offset by increased vacancies while overcrowding still affects more than half the population. Family welfare strategies and poor housing conditions are key causes of this – similar to Spain, Italy and Greece (Montserrat Pareja-Eastaway) – with migration adding to it.
  • Of magnitude: Reported vacancy rates varied from 0.5 to 7 percent in Germany (hardly worth worrying about if not for being too low in places) to an astonishing 50 percent (some US sub-prime neighbourhoods and Japanese suburbs). This sparkled a vivid discussion regarding what figure represents a ‘healthy’ vacancy rate so that markets could work and the stock be renewed? Our academic tacit knowledge put forward the undocumented figure of 4-5 percent; the presentation on low/high vacancy regimes (Cletus Coughlin) was also unable to offer the silver bullet, however it was agreed that research in the area would be welcomed.

In addition to these, there were many other interesting presentations approaching the single-family house in terms of morphology (Carola Ebert), lifestyle (Anne Caplan, Immanuel Stieß, Andrea Dittrich-Wesbuer), price determinants (Wolfgang Maennig), and demographic change and resource efficiency (Andreas Blum).  Maja Lorbek closed this two-day conference with some thought provoking scenarios related to the future development of single-family housing. I leave her title – ‘Imagine the future’ – to remind readers that the future is not given but made through our acts of imagination.

My thanks for the invitation to this stimulating conference go to the ‘Home Up’ project team.

Project coordinator:
IOER, Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development: Prof. Clemens Deilmann, Dr. Maja Lorbek, Andreas Blum, Robin Gutting, Jacqueline Lohse

Project partners:
Ifo Institute Dresden Branch: Prof. Dr. Marcel Thum, Carolin Fritzsche, Lars Vandrei
ILS, Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development: Dr. Stefan Siedentop, Andrea Berndgen-Kaiser, Markus Wiechert
ISOE, Institute for Social-Ecological Research: Dr. Immanuel Stiess, Melina Stein, Larissa Deppisch
ZEW, Centre for European Economic Research: Prof. Dr. Michael Schröder, Dr. Oliver Lerbs

Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita is a Research Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.

Author: Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita
Published: 4/12/17


Date: December 4, 2017 4:18 pm


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