How Can Architecture Bring Social Equity To Housing?

older photo of uk housing development designed for mixed income ownership
UK - London (Alexandra Road Estate) photo by xpgomes5 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Architect Neave Brown's post-war attempt to introduce social equity to housing in London, UK.

Amidst a growing affordable housing crisis, what does social equity actually mean? It’s a slippery concept, though many would pursue it. Or at least they would pursue different ideas of what social equity might be.

What social equity clearly is not? It is not social equality. Social equity makes no attempt to divide up resources, such as housing, so that everyone’s share is exactly equal.

Social equity is more akin to a notion that was once a focus of both endeavour and pride in America, these days not so often mentioned — ‘equality of opportunity,’ implying the social justice of a level playing field for all races and economic economic classes.

An example of architecture that is definitely NOT an expression of social equality? The now notorious multiple entrances constructed in recent mixed-income housing complexes in New York City. Higher income residents use the main entrance, lower income residents use another entrance, derisively nicknamed the ‘poor door.’

And yet, if a ‘rich door’ and a ‘poor door’ emphasize social INEQUALITY, rather than social equality, they may still offer opportunity for lower income residents to otherwise share in all resources and benefits of an upscale neighbourhood. Better schools, better libraries, to name just a couple of examples of neighbourhood resources which can help contribute to social justice for all classes and races.

So while a ‘poor door’ might be anything but an expression of social EQUALITY, it could be thought of as an architectural step towards social EQUITY by more evenly distributing opportunity to other classes and races. (We will leave aside arguments about the community health, or lack of it, which architecture might bring to a building by creating a micro-climate of exclusively zoned apartheid within the very building itself!)

How to achieve social equity has become an important subject of discussion in the fields of health, as well as philanthropy. Architecture, it seems, is also searching for answers about how building design can support social equity.

For more on the future of architecture in the design of socially equitable housing, read the introductory essay, published in Next City, to a seventeen essay volume: Housing as Intervention: Architecture towards Social Equity

And for a peek inside the notorious New York ‘poor door’ read more in the New York Post: ‘Poor door’ tenants of luxury tower reveal the financial apartheid within