HOUSING as Infrastructure: Notes on a Potential Maintenance and Repair Research Project for Friends, Colleagues, and Those Who Are Suffering
In this brief post, I want to open up consideration of what kind of intellectual work we can accomplish by viewing housing as infrastructure. I am aware that playing with definitions of the word infrastructure can be controversial. In the United States, we perhaps saw this most clearly when, in 2021, the Biden administration attempted to combine traditional infrastructure issues—roads, bridges, water systems, mass transit, etc.—with improved and expanded social programs, which it cast as “care infrastructure.” Republicans didn’t go for the shifted definition, and it is easy enough to see why—the rebranding of care really was an attempt to fund social programs that would otherwise have been complete nonstarters with conservatives.
But here I want to suggest that expanding the definition of infrastructure to include housing helps us perceive recurrent problems in housing policy. In their essay, “How Infrastructures Matter,” Stephen C. Slota and Geoffrey C. Bowker build on the work of Susan Leigh Star to define infrastructure as “prior work.” This definition has some immediate appeals. Infrastructure involves systems, including everything from rail lines, roadways, and airports to telecommunications cables and satellites, that support further activities, from running down the street to making Internet video calls. Infrastructure is the work that comes before other work, and as a growing number of scholars have shown us over the past several years, the continued functioning of infrastructure requires consistent maintenance and repair.
The same is true for housing. If it is not kept up, it declines until it becomes unlivable. The context for this discussion is that many areas of the United States—importantly, both urban and rural spaces—and many other nations around the world have been experiencing housing crises over the past several years. Housing prices, both rent and mortgages, have spiraled upwards, putting ever-increasing pressures on households. As the authors of an essay titled, “The housing theory of everything,” pointed out, rising housing prices have enormous repercussions for the population, including driving “inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates.”
The real answer to this problem is that we need to build more new housing—A LOT OF IT! The fallout of the housing bubble burst and resulting financial crisis around 2008 led to over a decade of low housing starts. Moreover, developer-driven construction has led to a focus on large, high-end houses and luxury apartments and a shortfall of affordable housing and small starter homes. NIMBYism and other social factors act as hard barriers to the construction of affordable housing, and, for a variety of historical reasons, public housing has a particularly bad reputation in the United States. There is no solution to housing crises today that does not involve building more housing in financial reach of ordinary people.
Yet, what about housing that has already been built but is falling into disrepair? I first became aware of the role of housing disrepair in exacerbating housing crises when I was doing interviews for the book, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work that Matters Most, which I co-wrote with Andrew Russell. Housing advocates often framed talk around problems in their area through the concept of “critical home repair,” an idea perhaps coined by and certainly promoted by Habitat for Humanity. Critical home repairs are work that must be done for reasons of health and safety or else housing will become uninhabitable, something that affects both homeowners and renters, who often lack power to get landlords to take care of critically needed repair work.
A visual survey of housing in one town by a research center in Virginia found that a high number of housing buildings—perhaps more than 30%—were in a state of deterioration. Buildings fall into disrepair for all kinds of complex reasons. A common (though far from the only) one involves families that are “house poor,” or whose mortgage makes such a large portion of their income that they cannot afford other expenses, including maintaining the very property that is stretching them so thin. Yet, rising home prices over the past several years guarantee that more owners will be pushed in the house poor direction.
And, of course, homeowners face all kinds of difficult maintenance and repair decisions, but many lack secure, well-paying jobs that allow them to do what is in the best interest of a property. United Way’s ALICE program uses a measure it has devised to examine economic hardship at the county level, and routinely finds that about 40% of American households can barely afford to make ends meet. Financial hardship and poverty have all kinds of dreadful outcomes for people, including leading to worsening health, decreased lifespan, and overall diminished quality of life.
The reality then is that we have too few homes to house people, and yet buildings that already exist are declining. We need new work, but the value of prior work is fading away. Socially and economically, housing deterioration creates all kinds of problems, including lost value and capital for homeowners, their neighbors, and their locality.
What are the answers to this quandary? This question has been bugging me for years now, and I would like your help in answering it. The first issue is that, unless I am missing something big, we currently lack any high-level understanding of how different states are dealing with this issue and what policies and programs they have in place to do so.
Some policies clearly aren’t working. For example, while writing The Innovation Delusion, I interviewed the leaders of a volunteer organization known as the Floyd Initiative for Safe Housing, or FISH. FISH does critical home repair work using donated money and materials and volunteer labor. They would like to do more, but resources are constantly too meager to meet demand. But state-level grants that can assist home repair have two problems, the leaders tell me: First of all, they take the form of loans, which many of the homeowners simply cannot afford or have credit scores that make them ineligible. Second, the government aid requires repaired buildings to be brought up to current building codes, but often this is an unrealistic demand. For instance, you might want to fix a collapsing floor in a mobile home, which threatens to make the space unlivable. Fixing the floor might cost a few thousand dollars, but also bringing the electrical system in the home up to code would cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the current system, that just ain’t going to happen.
Everyone working in housing policy will tell you that these issues are extremely complex. For example, in many cases, demolishing a building and starting over really is the best option. You do not want to throw good money after bad, as the saying goes. So some kind of discretion is needed when thinking through these problems—though we should be wary of how often discretion degenerates into discrimination.
But housing experts in my region also tell me that the cheapest they can build a new home in this area is something like $120,000. Even if you need to spend a large sum, such as $80,000, to fix up an existing home, it is clearly a better deal financially. And in a world of housing shortages, how many existing structures can we really afford to lose?
Libertarians and others of their ilk will rightly point out that capitalism succeeds, to the degree it does succeed, by allowing individuals to make their own decisions and allocate resources as they see fit. Many in our society would resist seeing homes as infrastructure, just they reject seeing care as infrastructure. But the reality is many households lack the resources to keep up their properties. We know this. As we attempt to solve the housing crises currently afflicting so many people, leading them to suffer even more, we must consider how we can repair and maintain prior work in addition to spurring on new work.
In this pursuit, I have more questions than answers, but I am confident that my friends, colleagues, and the many people thinking through these circumstances, including the many people who are currently suffering under them, have much to teach me. I hope they will.