The literature on housing affordability has grown rapidly since Hulchanski (1995, p. 489. The concept of housing affordability: six contemporary uses of the housing expenditure-to-income ratio. Housing Studies, 10(4), 471–491) declared that housing researchers should avoid using the term since it is not a robust concept and measurement often lacks validity. In the ensuing 24 years, however, scholars have continued to debate the definition and measurement of housing affordability as well as the prevalence and type of ‘housing affordability problems’ in various countries.
This paper is a think piece which takes a fresh look at housing affordability as a concept which has persisted despite considerable contestation and scepticism about its use. It provides a critical and multi-disciplinary assessment of housing affordability starting with early conceptualization of the nexus between economic principles and social norms about housing and living standards to a reworking of housing affordability in the twenty-first century as an urban issue affecting lower and middle-income households in cities, as a consequence of the financialization of housing and urban restructuring. It argues that the housing affordability concept has been repurposed such that the focus is less on understanding housing expenditures in contributing to poverty and disadvantage within the domain of social policy and more on the urban policy challenges of growing inequities in access to urban resources. The paper highlights the challenges for urban policy in adopting and adapting rather than rejecting a multi-dimensional concept of housing affordability and consequently the importance of new ways of measuring urban housing affordability.
- Traditionally, housing affordability was linked to understanding poverty (social policy).
- Financialization and gentrification linked to ongoing urbanization have led to new types of spatial inequalities.
- These spatial inequalities include access to housing (assets); also to transport and energy.
- Housing affordability measurement has become even more multidimensional than it was.
- Urban policies need to start addressing the ‘old’ and ‘new’ housing affordability problems.