International Experience: The Housing Dilemma — From Vienna to Singapore

How do different countries tackle the issue of providing affordable quality housing, and is their experience applicable to Russia?

Photo: Isockphoto.com

Why don’t people in Vienna aspire to own apartments and prefer to carry on renting instead, in which country are only residents allowed to purchase houses, and which problems can be solved with the help of the so-called "flexible standards" that are widely applied around the world? Strelka Magazine has prepared a comparative overview of the best international practices based on a study by the Spanish company CTA: City Transformation Agency, which was prepared as part of a larger project dedicated to the development of the "Guidelines for Complex Development of Urban Territories in the Russian Federation," and carried out by Strelka KB and The Foundation of the Single Development Institute in the Housing Sphere (created by Agency for Housing Mortgage Lending, AHML). 

In most countries, affordable housing is a kind of housing that provides the minimal amount of dwelling space per person with all the basic facilities, as well as access to employment and social services. Monthly housing expenses must stay below 30% of family income. Five factors contribute to the affordability of housing: the construction cost per square meter, the level of household income, mortgage rates, maintenance costs, and the current demand and supply ratio on the market. It’s these parameters that the government is most eager to influence.

How to provide affordable housing in overpopulated cities: rental housing units, governmental control, and social housing 

It’s predicted that by 2030 nearly 5 billion people will be living in cities, while overpopulation is already a reality for many megalopolises around the world. Most cities that are successful in their housing policies choose not to expand their borders and focus instead on the development of the existing districts. Several mechanisms are employed here. In Vancouver, where vacant housing amounts to only 0.6% of the total housing stock, while 65% of all housing is privately owned, new experimental forms are being introduced. For example, temporary modular housing units or co-housing: condos with a large proportion of common space. The city also offers investors concessions on land purchases, on the condition that 100% of future apartments will be offered for rent only, and that their prices will be 20% below market price.

Rotterdam, Netherlands
Barcelona, ​​Spain
New York, USA
Rotterdam, Netherlands

In the city-state of Singapore, the real estate market is under rigid governmental control. Only government-owned corporations construct, sell and lend housing, and only residents have the right to purchase housing for ownership. In Vienna, 80% of residents do not even wish to purchase housing, choosing to rent instead. Ekaterina Maleeva, project manager at Strelka KB, says, "The system of rental housing is well-developed there, including an efficiently regulated legal foundation. That is why people feel more protected, knowing that their landlord cannot simply kick them out whenever he or she wishes. If they get a new job they can easily move to a different part of the city instead of enduring long public transport commutes. In Russia, on the other hand, the majority of people own their flats, while the system for renting out properties is under-regulated. This really decreases the potential for mobility". 

On the other hand, a different issue has arisen in Vienna — functionally obsolete housing poses a real problem there: even as far back as 1974, 42% of the apartments didn’t correspond to the required standards of quality. Certain light measures are being taken, but priority is given to the renovation of old housing and not to the construction of new housing. Vienna’s status as one of the most affordable European capitals is largely due to its system of housing subsidies, currently used by 60% of households. In Hamburg, a city known for its high property prices, 30% of the new housing is reserved for rent subsidized by the government. 

"And finally, it’s built!": what stages does a project go through? 

According to Maleeva, in order to shape an attractive urban environment, it is crucial to understand the process of urban planning well: "From the brief to the realization, the project goes through many stages, and the extent to which the project can be influenced at each stage directly affects its quality,", Maleeva explains. In Russia this process is unbalanced: "The necessary concept discussion is omitted, whereas this stage is probably the best opportunity to add changes as well settle disagreements. The approval of the project takes place at a much later stage, when tons of technical drawings have already been drawn, and a minimum of 6 months of project work on the project has gone by. At this point, any change implies an increase in overall costs, so everything is left as it is." 

Helsinki, Finland
Vienna, Austria
Helsinki, Finland

Among the cities leading the quality of life rankings, there are 6 that have succeeded in creating attractive urban environments and effectively re-distributing resources for new housing in the context of rapid population growth. These are Amsterdam, Vancouver, Copenhagen, Paris, Singapore, and Zurich. They all share the same system: each project must go through three stages — strategic planning, urban planning regulations, and architectural planning. During the first stage, for example, the points of growth can be defined (zones chosen for intensive urban development with regards to the budgeting possibilities and effective redistribution of pressure on infrastructure — ed. note), and both the city and the surrounding region can develop joint schemes for the distribution of housing and transportation. In Copenhagen, this stage is regulated by an exceptionally large number of policy documents: the "Strategy for Spatial Development", the "Strategy for Public Space Development", the "Strategy for Increasing Energy Efficiency" (including all buildings and structures), and the "Copenhagen Architecture Policy." In Amsterdam, it’s just one document: the "Strategy for Spatial Development". According to Maleeva, there’s no legal foundation for this stage at the city level in Russia. 

Vancouver, Canada
Hamburg, Germany
Seoul, South Korea
Vancouver, Canada

In the abovementioned cities, it is during the urban planning regulations stage that form-based codes are discussed, including such details as the building’s shape, street profile, balcony offset, facade colours and materials. "In Russia this stage does exist, but only quantitative parameters are considered: site borders and how many square meters can be used for construction. Qualitative characteristics of the future development are left aside," notes Maleeva of the difference. 

During the architectural planning stage, a lot of attention is given to following the right stages of documentation, preliminary site analysis, and expert-community engagement. 

"There’s a worldwide tendency today for planning stages to extend, and the roles of all involved parties are also undergoing a transformation. The technologies, in green construction, for example, are changing very fast. And that is why the number of specialists taking part in the project is growing, with new roles such as coordinators emerging," says Maleeva. In Russia, there are two obligatory stages: project documentation and construction documentation. According to Maleeva, these were introduced in the Soviet period to specifically regulate the processes of mass-scale construction. But that didn’t require architectural concept approval, because all buildings were prefabricated. Today this system needs to be updated. 

"Flexible standards": an instrument for rapid response

Another aspect that affects the quality of housing are the norms and specifications that the project must adhere to and how fast they can adapt to economic and technical shifts. Many cities apply so-called ''flexible standards'' — documents that define the requirements for the quality of the urban environment and the directions for its improvement. They contain general recommendations as well as concrete parameters and KPIs. They act only as guidelines, in conjunction with the policy documents, are updated every 6-7 years, and can deal with a variety of different aspects. In Australia, for example, they are called "Higher Density Residential Development Guidelines"; in Norway, "Development and Use of the City Center Guidelines"; in Canada, "Urban Design Guidelines for Development Along Arterial Main Streets." The advantage of flexible standards is that they can easily adapt to changes, and the principles of urban development can be specified, with no time wasted on approval of new policies or changing the old ones. In the UK, for example, the housing crisis prompted the emergence of the "Urban Design Compendium", which allowed for an increase in the density of development of 64% and of the median apartment area by 8 square metres. 

Singapore
Shenzhen, China
Singapore

No flexible standard exists in Russia, concludes Maleeva. "We have the system of SNiP construction norms and regulations, and there are over 300 hundred of them. These were introduced during the times of mass-scale construction and used to be completely obligatory. But after the technical regulations reform that aimed at matching Russian norms to the European legislation, only 70 or so of them remained obligatory, primarily those that dealt with health and safety; the rest of them became advisory. But the structure and format of these requirements remained the same. These standards do not offer a rich variety of solutions for urban planners and also often fail to match the pace of technological development. Efficiency would increase considerably if the obligatory SNiP were to remain, and the advisory ones were to be replaced with guidelines and 'flexible standard' analogues, which are used worldwide". 

Text: Svetlana Kondratyeva
Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina

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