A Danish urban housing model where people decide what is best
One of the best views of Aarhus is from one of the new apartments overlooking the redeveloped harbor. You can pay generously for the privilege – over € 5,000 per m², half a million euros to buy a 100 m² apartment; or, for a slightly smaller three-room apartment, you could pay a monthly rent of 8,000 crowns, or a little over 1,100 €.
This is the reality of public-private housing in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, thanks to far-reaching public housing laws a century ago.
The Danish mentality is deeply rooted in the belief that housing is more than a commodity and that quality public housing is the key to social peace, and not just shoddy boxes for the poor.
For much of the past decade, a time of tremendous transformation for the city, Aarhus entrusted the task of preserving and rethinking this social heritage to British-born architect Stephen Willacy. One of his priorities in his apolitical role was to make commercial and residential developers understand that it is a privilege to build in Aarhus and that, if they are lucky enough to obtain this privilege, they will be of service to the community. city. and its inhabitants – and not the other way around.
“I often see myself as a pig in the middle, a steward for the city council,” says Willacy, who has lived in Denmark since 1984. “Investors often come with ideas from the outside, especially on an optimal square meter – but we are very concerned about how it will fit into the city environment.
This new approach was the subject of a recent speech by Willacy at an industry conference in Dublin organized by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland and co-hosted with architects, engineers and planners.
Under Willacy’s watch, Aarhus put the citizen cart before the developer’s horse with remarkable results. A new cityscape has emerged, attracting some of the biggest names in Danish and international architecture, but always with the locals in mind.
Before anyone can build anything in Aarhus, potential developers have been asked to engage with Willacy and the planning office to first discuss the space in which the final buildings will be located. The question to be clarified before the first lawn is turned: what will your project give back to the city? To keep the spirits focused, the developers with the best ideas knew they would get the first dibs on available sites when they went on sale.
“It took a while for the developers and builders to meet head-on. They thought it was just a phase, but then they realized that ‘we have to do it now’ because I have political support, ‘said Willacy. “We put people first and they want high quality urban areas, so this has become our usual dialogue with developers.”
Such a resident-led, sustainable development approach is a logical consequence of Denmark’s wider political culture, which is based on political consensus.
Seven parties sit on Aarhus City Council but, whether in power or in opposition, all have a say in large-scale projects such as a light rail project or the redevelopment of the port. The latter plan was approved at the turn of this century and, with regular adjustments, is still being worked out – regardless of the four-year political calendar. For Willacy, this created planning perspectives based on coherence and continuity rather than short-term political priorities.
“We don’t stop and start, as you see in other cities; the work continues, ”he said. “The reason we are allowed to do projects like these is because of strong governance and good planning management.”
This culture of political consensus has several non-negotiable elements, the main one being a public housing system open to all, not just low-income people. It was created with the Social Housing Act of 1919 when, like other European countries after World War I, Danish authorities prioritized a non-profit housing sector in which residents influence their living conditions through the so-called “tenant democracy”.
Across Denmark, around 760 housing associations control over half a million social housing units. As elsewhere in the country, private sector housing in Aarhus competes with the non-profit sector controlled by a dozen public housing associations. This setup couldn’t be further from the reality – or mindset towards – social housing in the UK and Ireland, still shaped by the Thatcher era.
Danish housing associations are non-profit and two-thirds of the rent collected goes to a national building foundation, where the mortgage is paid off. As mortgages are cleared, the rental income pot can be used to finance new social housing or renovate existing stock. In Aarhus, this has enabled housing associations to upgrade their stock to modern energy standards without increasing the corresponding rents.
“It could be a great export because it works very well in 48,000 homes in Aarhus, for a population of 360,000,” says Willacy.
In recent years, new pressures have been placed on this system in Aarhus, with the population increasing by 5,000 per year and rising land prices that have prompted the city council to insist that a quarter of all new housing units built are reserved for public housing. These tenant-friendly regulations, combined with rules penalizing quick resales of residential properties, have helped cut the wings of investment funds in search of quick profits.
In Aarhus, public housing is not just about managing the historic housing stock, but complementing it. One of Willacy’s tasks during her tenure was to coordinate city hall and housing associations to build 1,600 social housing units over a three-year period. As part of this plan, he encouraged housing associations to carry out architectural mini-projects to get the best, a new way of thinking for finished housing units.
As elsewhere in Denmark, the social housing system in Aarhus is not strictly means-based but on a list: you put your name on a list, each year you move up the list and housing offers improve.
This system has experienced difficulties in recent years in major Danish cities due to the persistent shortage of housing. It can also be abused with complicated sublet chains as people hang onto their housing association apartment even though they live elsewhere.
But Willacy is convinced that the abuses are minor compared to the benefits of a system that he says creates a healthy social mix rather than social housing ghettos.
In addition to attracting a representative sample of the population, residents directly control the management of their housing by electing tenant councils and meeting annually to approve rents and renovations. In addition, an appeal board serves as a mechanism for resolving disputes between tenants and housing associations.
Looking back nearly nine years as Chief Architect in Aarhus, Willacy is especially proud of how he has taken a century-old, people-centered public housing model and applied it to the entire the city with what he calls the Aarhus “procurement model”. This prominent citizen involvement in any new planning results in a real co-creation between promoters and citizens.
“It’s slower at the start, but when we submit the plan, politically it’s an easy race,” he said. “There is no miracle solution when it comes to town planning. The quick fix doesn’t work if you want everyone on board. “