Social housing is an essential component of any country’s social welfare system as well as an essential part of Architecture that addresses the critical issue of housing affordability and accessibility for individuals and families with low incomes. Designing social housing involves balancing affordability with quality, functionality, and aesthetics while adhering to safety and environmental standards. It requires architects to consider the site, context, and cultural factors while creating efficient and adaptable living spaces. It provides low-cost, affordable housing to those who cannot afford to rent or buy a home in the private sector. However, social housing has a wider role in the community, promoting social inclusion, improving health and well-being, and supporting economic development. This article overviews some of the objectives of social housing and the meaning behind them.

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Stockwell_ ©Ben Allan
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Housing block_ ©Ben Allan

The act of dwelling

The new inflexions of housing values add new dilemmas to the discussions about housing configurations, which clearly need a redesign to adapt to the new ways of dwelling.

Juhani Pallasmaa (2017) defines the act of inhabiting as:

[..], simultaneously, an event, a mental and experimental quality, and a functional, material and technical scenario. The notion of home extended far beyond its essence and its physical limits. In addition to the practical aspects of residing, the act of inhabiting is also a symbolic act that imperceptibly organises the whole world of the inhabitant. Our bodies and physical needs and our minds, memories, dreams, and desires must be accommodated and inhabited. Inhabiting is part of our being, of our identity. (PALLASMAA, pg.8, 2017)

The author gives a philosophical approach, which allows us to understand inhabiting as a dialectical action, undergoing constant transformations as the subjects (the inhabitants and time itself) construct it. The understanding of inhabiting as a symbolic phenomenon of human nature allows new interpretations of the home space, in which the house becomes a home according to singularities posed by the different living standards of its residents (PALLASMAA, pg.16, 2017).

The personalisation of social housing is one of the ways to articulate new conjunctions, in which the architecture of housing follows the individualities of the new ways of life and the notions of the phenomenon of inhabiting.

A brief overview of the History

The housing archetype created by the modern movement intended to house the nuclear family is still recreated ad infinitum, mixed with the principles of bourgeois tripartition, that separates the dwelling into an inflexible program of pre-defined functions, with limited local variation and not even some contextual adaptations. This typology, most commonly found in developing countries, has remained the same for decades.

A dwelling within these moulds creates social constraints that can derail the transition movements that families go through. The situation worsens when the conjuncture of housing targeted to the low-income population is analysed. In addition to being subject to strict budgetary constraints, which results in a project of reduced area and a very compartmentalised space, the political panorama of social housing faces great impasses, as housing programs face continuous cuts,  which reduces the supply of housing to the most demanding social strata.

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Social housing can be colourful and dynamic just like the communities_ © Takuji Shimmura

Architectural inadequacy constitutes a significant problem in improving the physical qualities of housing. Nevertheless, first, it is paramount to delineate the limitations and responsibilities of each party involved in the design of the housing space, from planning to construction and living. Only then will an understanding of the new ways of living be reachable.

At an architectural level, user participation (or at least the attempt to understand the plurality of their demands) is essential to elaborate a flexible project to the changes family arrangements will undergo throughout their life cycle.

The task of providing affordable housing

The primary objective of social housing is to provide affordable housing for low-income families and individuals. In many countries, the demand for social housing far outstrips the supply, resulting in long waiting lists for those in need. Social housing providers aim to address this by building new homes or acquiring existing ones and renting them out at a reduced rate. 

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Social Housing in Brussels – Nicolas Vanden Eeckhoudt & Olivier Noterman_ © Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Promoting social inclusion

Social housing can also play a key role in promoting social inclusion. By providing homes in areas with good transport links, access to services, and community facilities, social housing providers can help to create vibrant and diverse communities. They can also work with local authorities, charities, and community groups to support community initiatives and promote social cohesion. Social housing can also help to reduce social isolation, especially for older people and those with disabilities, by providing homes that are adapted to their needs and are near support services.

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A balcony in a social housing complex can give its user a more flexible space_ © Philippe Ruault

Supporting Economic Development

Another objective of social housing is to improve the health and well-being of tenants. Social housing providers can work with local health authorities to ensure that homes are built to high energy efficiency standards and are free from dampness, mould, and other hazards that can affect health. They can also support tenants with mental health problems or addiction issues and can work with local providers to provide access to healthcare services.

Encouraging Sustainability

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Social Housing Pinotepa Nacional_ ©Hector Delmar Arquitectura + M + Diseno

Sustainability is an essential objective for social housing providers. They can work to reduce the carbon footprint of their buildings by constructing them with energy-efficient materials, installing renewable energy systems, and encouraging tenants to adopt sustainable habits such as recycling and reducing energy use. By promoting sustainability in social housing, providers can contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change and create a more sustainable future for everyone.

The value of tenant participation

Finally, social housing providers aim to encourage tenant participation in the management and development of their housing. This can be resident-led management committees, tenant participation groups, and regular feedback mechanisms. By involving tenants in decision-making, social housing providers can ensure that their services tailor to local needs, that tenants have a say in how their homes are managed and maintained, and that there is greater accountability and transparency in the provision of social housing.

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Quinta Monroy designed by the Pritzker Prize laureate Alejandro Aravena’s ELEMENTAL ©ELEMENTAL

Social housing has a range of objectives beyond providing affordable homes. Social housing providers can create sustainable, resilient, and inclusive communities by promoting social inclusion, improving health and well-being, supporting economic development, encouraging sustainability, providing support services, and encouraging tenant participation. Social housing providers must partner with local authorities, charities, and community groups to ensure that they meet local needs and that their objectives align with broader social and environmental goals.


Center for Housing Policy. (2011). Health and Housing: An Overview of the Literature. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

Department for Communities and Local Government. (2017). Social Housing Green Paper. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

Energy Saving Trust. (2018). Social Housing Decarbonisation. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

European Commission. (2017). Social Housing in the European Union. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction. (2017). Global Status Report 2017: Towards a Zero-Emission, Efficient, and Resilient Buildings and Construction Sector. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023]. [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

National Housing Federation. (2018). Homes for Shared Prosperity: The Economic Case for Social Housing. [online]. Available at:—the-economic-case-for-social-housing.pdf [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

National Housing Federation. (2019). Supporting People: The Role of Social Housing in Helping People into Work. [online]. Available at:

OECD. (2015). The Economic Impacts of Large Public Investments: The Case of Social Housing. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

Pallasmaa, Juhani. (2014). Habitar: El mundo de la arquitectura como experiencia sensible. Arquine/Tusquets Editores.

Scottish Government. (2017). Social Justice and Regeneration: Strategy 2017-2022. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].

United Nations. (2016). The Right to Adequate Housing. [online]. Available at: [Accessed date: 08/04/2023].


Sofia Rezende is an Architect and Urban Planner from Brazil. She graduated in the class of 2015 from the Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil, and later pursued a Master’s (MSc) degree in the same subject with a focus on studying social housing and family demography, topics she’s very passionate about.