Neoliberal production of housing inequality

By Sidh Sintusingha

Globally entrapped in the “modern religion of development”,1 cities manifest a wide spectrum of housing issues reflecting their respective economic development stages and socio-cultural specificities.

Driven by economic expansion, cities worldwide are experiencing population growth that manifests in slums and squatter settlements in emerging economies and acute housing un-affordability worldwide. The increased housing demand stems from rural to city migration in emerging economies and the national/international city-to-city migrations of post-industrial economies.

Photograph by Sidh Sintusingha

Yet, while discussions on these issues are rife, actual plans and actions to pre-empt and address the identified and predicted problems are scarce – reflecting the hegemony of the neoliberal-driven global inequality trends and the historic lack of real redistribution as encapsulated in Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”.2

Furthermore, physical assets such as housing and infrastructure have been treated like liquid investments, resulting in housing as a globally interconnected (and relative) phenomenon in the era of highly fluid and often instantaneous cross-border exchanges of investments, products, images and ideas. These, in turn, frame and affect socio-economic class aspirations, manifesting in phenomenon such as the global elite’s penchant for ‘world-class’ investment properties (and not homes); the local middle-class’ access to affordable homes in good locations; the lower socio-economic groups’ struggle for secure tenure and economic opportunities.

In the intertwined practices, social housing ultimately depends on the success of the neoliberal model of economic growth, with social housing mainly subsidised, government willing, with revenue from the expansion of GDP – whether directly through taxation and/or indirectly through development controls.

Moreover, it is often delivered through one of many manifestations and varying degrees of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Yet, during economic downturns when funding resources dry out, social housing efforts are not sustained and the inhabitants are often compounded by diminished economic prospects.3 This highlights the challenge for the inhabitants of social housing to develop resilience to economic recessions that disproportionally affect lower socio-economic groups, an issue often of lower priority than secure tenure in social housing policies and implementation.4

During economic downturns when funding resources dry out, social housing efforts are not sustained and the inhabitants are often compounded by diminished economic prospects.

Arguably, the 1996 UN Habitat II (Istanbul) adoption of the “market-enabled” policy increased the role and influence of the private agents (developers and finance institutes) in global housing, a yielding of ground to market forces. The reduction of the public’s role and agency to negotiate social benefits has not proven effective given the tendency of contemporary democracies to conflate public and private interests. To redress this, the focus must be on the ‘public’ in PPPs and the ‘social’ in social housing.

In the case of Thailand’s Baan Mankong social housing project (BMK),5 the state facilitated bottom-up process (a partial redistribution via taxes and access to land) and government agents support a community-led housing process that equips the inhabitants with the confidence, means, network and networking capacity to negotiate and lead the process themselves.

Photograph by Sidh Sintusingha

In this example, the ‘public’ is not government/representatives advocating for the vague notion of public – it is the actively participating inhabitants’ city-wide network that directly benefits from the housing program. A key ingredient is social capital – its formation, expansion and expenditure – which enables more effective negotiations with powerful state and market forces. ‘The public’ here adopts a fine-scaled democratic practice – yet one that must be wary of exclusionary tendencies (such as protectionism and NIMBYism).

To mitigate the excesses of neoliberal cities, efficiently mass-produced by profit-seeking global capital6 flows, models where the city is concurrently built by and built up by the community’s social capital should be investigated. Democracies must prioritise the livelihoods of local voters over the interests of global corporations and investors.

Dominant narratives such as the world-class city, city liveability rankings favour and focus on the accumulation and concentration of financial wealth (and homogenous cultural capital). These dominant narratives must be mitigated with narratives that diffuse and grounds wealth socio-economically in the localities.

Cases such as BMK and Gawad Kalinga7 pose and suggest possible alternatives forward – short of a radical top-down shift in global wealth redistribution as advocated by Piketty.

Dr Sidh Sintusingha coordinates the Landscape Architecture major in the Bachelor of Environments and the Bachelor of Design at the University of Melbourne. Prior to joining academia, he practiced as an architect and landscape architect in Thailand and Australia.


  1. Rist, G. (1997). The History of Development: from western origins to global faith (translated by Patrick Camiller). Atlantic Highlands, NJ, Zed Books.
  2. Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.
  3. As encapsulated in Perlman’s longitudinal fieldworks in Rio de Janeiro in: Perlman, J. (2011). Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, Oxford University Press.
  4. Or the middle classes for that matter, giving rise to calls to prioritise the prevention of recessions over low inflation broken-economy.
  5. Investigated in PhD theses at MSD by Kitapatr Dhabalabutr (2017) and Boonanan Natakun (2013).
  6. As observed in Bandung’s kampungs during the MSD-SAPPK Travelling Studio 2015.
  7. A topic of Rowena Delgado PhD thesis (2014).