Strategic Policies from Abroad Could Ease US Housing Crisis

by Vins
Published: Updated:

As housing costs climb and wages stagnate, more than half of Americans are struggling to afford a home. Local governments are also wrestling with a chronic housing shortage. With affordable housing becoming more and more difficult to find, many US cities appear to be entering a full-blown affordability crisis. Good, affordable housing is a problem around the world, not just in the US. However, other nations’ governments are finding solutions rooted in different philosophies of how societies should build, finance, distribute, and maintain housing.

Austrian policymakers take the approach that society should provide every citizen with decent and affordable housing. Federal spending and an expansive housing stock have allowed sixty percent of Vienna’s citizens to live in subsidized homes. These buildings include common areas to encourage neighbourly interaction and shared childcare facilities. City governments regulate rent with households spending an average of 21 percent of their monthly income on rent. By contrast the average American family spends 37 percent each month and nearly sixty percent in places like New York City.

Vienna’s model includes strategic measures that cultivate social cohesion. Land-use planning ensures that communities have a mix of residents from different social and demographic groups. In Singapore, the government built more than a million apartment units in order to create a homeowner society. In 1960, seventy percent of Singapore’s population consisted of squatters and slum dwellers. Now, more than eighty percent of its residents live in high-rise government-built apartments with many of them owing their homes.

Thanks to a “housing first” philosophy, Finland has become the only country in Europe to see a decline in homelessness, from 18,000 in the 1980s to 5,482 at the end of 2018. This philosophy provides unconditional access to housing with the belief that housing will fix many of the social and health problems among the homeless population.

In the US, housing policy evolved in a different direction—with a focus of facilitating homeownership of single-family homes. Most cities reserve urban land for single-family homes and restrict multifamily housing, limiting development possibilities. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, 75 percent of all residential land is zoned for single family units.

Complex local land use policies in the US often favor high-income households. Residential zoning codes often set a minimum size for dwellings, restrict how many families can live in one home, cap the number of stories built, or require parking spaces for every unit. These policies make housing unnecessarily scarce and expensive.

What American cities can learn from other models of governance is that there needs to be a shift away from viewing housing as the responsibility of the private market, says Rodrigo Faria Gonçalves Iacovini, researcher at Brazil’s Polis Institute and part of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. “We need to start framing the idea of housing not as a commodity,” he says, “but as a right.”

Source:  Ana Ionova, “How to Ease the US Housing Crisis? Import Strategic Policy from Abroad,” Shareable, November 2019,

Student Researcher: Christopher Villegas (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)