The spatial dimensions of allocating public housing: a conceptual framework

Grant Data
Project Title
The spatial dimensions of allocating public housing: a conceptual framework
Principal Investigator
Miss Lau, Mandy Hang Man   (Principal investigator)
Start Date
Completion Date
Conference Title
Presentation Title
Public housing, Allocation policies, Spatial needs
Others - relating to Social Sciences
Block Grant Earmarked for Research (104)
HKU Project Code
Grant Type
Seed Funding Programme for Basic Research
Funding Year
This project investigates the factors which shape the spatial outcomes of allocating public housing. The terminology of "public housing" is used to refer to rental housing provided by the public sector, as is commonly used in places like Hong Kong, although it is recognised that the notion of "social housing" is used in other places. The spatial dimensions of allocating public housing is a complex issue (Wiesel, 2011, p. 287), but one which is worth investigating. As housing researchers have acknowledged, public housing is not only a physical shelter, but also has implications for access to jobs, education and other services (Pawson & Kintrea, 2002, p. 646). As such, the spatial distribution of public housing residents has a substantial impact on their life chances (Lee & Murie, 1997). However, public housing allocation policies tend to focus on physical needs, while spatial issues are given limited attention. Such an approach is problematic for two major reasons. On one hand, poor matching between the locational needs of applicants and available properties contributes to the problem of spatial mismatch. This means that people need to commute longer distances to jobs and schools, which tends to have a disproportionate impact on low-income households, either in the form of higher travel costs or poorer access to centres of employment opportunities (Holtzer, 1991). On the other hand, it has been argued that housing allocation processes contribute to social exclusion or social polarisation, through spatial concentration of the most disadvantaged in the least desirable residential areas (Atkinson & Kintrea, 2001; Clapham & Kintrea, 1986; Pawson & Kintrea, 2002; Stephens et al., 2005). Limited choice in allocation systems Spatial mismatch can be partially explained by limited choice in needs-based allocation systems, which generally allow limited or no area preference. There is little opportunity for applicants to express various dimensions of their locational needs precisely (Mullins & Pawson 2005, p. 216), such as access to jobs, schools or medical services, and to express the relative importance of these locational needs from their perspectives, or the importance of locational needs relative to other needs such as dwelling size and rent. Instead, allocation of properties is largely based on a ranking list developed from a set of centrally-defined prioritisation criteria. Moreover, while applicants may be given the chance to refuse offers, it has been argued that the most disadvantaged are often unable to afford to wait longer, and may be under coercion to accept the first available offer (Fitzpatrick & Pawson, 2007). This is aggravated by the lack of information in needs-based systems, in the sense that applicants have little knowledge of what properties are going to be available in the near future, and thus may have difficulty in deciding whether to wait longer or to accept an unsuitable offer. Conceptualising the interaction between spatial needs, choice and information In view of the shortcomings of needs-driven systems, the literature on allocation policies has witnessed a shift towards the rhetoric of ‘choice’ (Kullberg, 1997; Malpass & Victory, 2010; Marsh, 2004; Pawson & Hulse, 2011; Van Daalen & Van der Land, 2008). Generally speaking, choice-based models involve setting aside a portion of available properties to be advertised, instead of being centrally allocated. The key emphasis is on enabling public housing applicants to exercise rational choice as active consumers (Brown & King, 2005, p. 62), which is assumed to enable a better match between the needs of applicants and available housing, including locational needs. However, it has been argued that increasing choice in the public housing sector bears a high risk of squeezing out opportunities for the most disadvantaged households, especially in tight housing markets with shortage of supply (Fitzpatrick & Pawson, 2007). Furthermore, there is often inequality of information between applicants (Brown & King, 2005), and those who are constrained by economic insecurity and lack of resources tend to be less capable of planning ahead (Rowlinson, 2000). Under a consumer-driven model, disadvantaged households may still be coerced into accepting unsuitable housing, given that they cannot afford to wait longer. The review above indicates that the emphasis on ‘choice’ in the allocation policies literature suffers from two main problems. First, most conceptualisations of choice place a predominant emphasis on consumer choice, instead of a more refined consideration of how choice could be enhanced within a needs-driven model. Indeed, choice could be introduced in the form of enhanced opportunities for applicants to express their area preferences, in relation to different dimensions of accessibility, or to express their perceived importance of locational needs relative to other needs. Second, the review indicates that regardless of a needs-driven or choice-driven model, the question of waiting time is crucial to the problem of spatial mismatch, given that the most disadvantaged households are likely to trade-off waiting time with locational needs under both systems. However, given that public housing allocation is property-led, it suggests that such trade-offs may be mediated by applicants’ access to information on the quantity and locational distribution of future housing supply, which could inform their decisions on whether to accept an offer or to wait longer for more suitable offers. What is therefore missing from the existing literature, is a coherent conceptualisation of how spatial needs, choice, waiting time, and the information on locational distribution of housing supply interact to shape the spatial outcomes of public housing allocation. Objectives of the study Based on the key issues identified above, this study aims to achieve three objectives, namely: 1) To develop a conceptual framework which captures the interaction between spatial needs, choice, waiting time and information on locational distribution of public housing supply, and how this impacts on the spatial outcomes of public housing allocation 2) To test the strength of this framework through applying it to analysing the public housing allocation system in Hong Kong 3) To make recommendations on aspects of the allocation system in Hong Kong where reform may be necessary, to better address the spatial needs of applicants