Saturday, September 14, 2013

Seeing Roof Inequality

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, LIVERPOOL, UK – Riding the train from London to Liverpool a few weeks back allowed me to see many row house roofs. Conditions varied as they sped by, but I really didn’t think anything of it. So imagine my surprise when my cousin told me that those row houses with the new roofs are more likely to be government-owned social housing than those with old roofs. Social housing in the UK is the rough equivalent of public housing in the United States.

Unlike the United States where demolition of public housing has been the norm since the early 1990s, the UK had an alternative strategy to address the growing maintenance costs of an aging social housing stock: let the residents purchase their homes. According to Dutch scholars, Reinout Kleinhans and Maarten van Ham, the Right to Buy (RTB) program – perhaps the largest sell off program in Europe – has allowed the purchase of 2.7 million units at large discounts primarily to existing tenants since the 1970s.

Ironically, the maintenance issues that plagued social housing beginning more than three decades ago have now been passed on to the low and working income residents that were able to purchase their houses through the RTB program. The primary issue is that these former social housing tenants have never been able to secure enough equity in their purchased homes. Some might ask why. The answer is that RTB did nothing to guarantee increased equity. Thus, residents cannot afford new roofs precisely because their assets have remained static. But with a lessening burden of units, the government can afford to put new roofs on the remaining social housing units. The result has been growing roof inequality.

Deirdre Oakley is the Editor of Social Shutter and an Associate Professor in Sociology at Georgia State University. She can be contacted at

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