These images show some examples of postwar social housing projects in Europe, which are very different from housing projects in the United States. In the United States after the war, government officials were concerned about the spread of ‘evil’ socialism into Europe and saw it as a stepping-stone to full-blown communism. Therefore, the American government promoted home ownership through Federal Housing Acts in the late 1940s through the 1950s. These laws provided for a very small amount of public housing, but not enough to make any difference at all. Essentially, they tried to make public housing fail in order to please the banking and real estate industries.
In Europe, governments wanted to ensure that people would have a roof on their head, even if they could not afford traditional owner-occupied or rental housing. Additionally, a vast portion of housing in Europe (especially in Britain and Germany) had been destroyed by bombings during World War II. European governments thus took a very different approach to social housing. In the United States, income requirements were very low and very strict, which meant that having almost any sort of job meant one would have to move out into the traditional (and vastly more expensive) housing market. In Europe, however, the income requirement was set higher so that someone who got a job would have some time to get back on their feet and get their financial affairs in order before they were forced to leave public housing.
The Alexandra Road public housing project in London was one that challenged the prevailing idea that new-construction social housing had to be high-rise. Instead, Alexandra Road features rows of terrace homes, with a total of over five hundred units. The density is equal to that of a high-rise project, but features open and green space that would otherwise be absent. Under Thatcher’s government, Alexandra Road began to decay due to cuts in maintenance expenditures. In the 1990s, though, the residents organized and were able to get Alexandra Road recognized with a Grade II-star listing, protecting the project for its historical value (Kyriacou).
Le Vele di Scampia provides a counterpoint to Alexandra Road. Instead of becoming a world-renowned housing project, Le Vele (the sails) quickly became a center for Mafia activity and drug use. When the project was constructed near Naples, there was very little transportation available into the city, thus making it very hard to live there and hold a job. Also unlike Alexandra Road, there was no green space provided, leaving the project a dull mass of concrete. Such an environment means that children have no role models, and they turn to crime from a very young age. Now, some refer to the area of Scampia that Le Vele is in as the Ciudad Juarez of Italy, reflecting the prevalence of drugs and violence (Harris).
Although Europe took a different approach to public housing in the middle of the 20th century than the United States did, that does not mean that the European projects were necessarily more successful. While some, like Alexandra Road, are now well known for their importance, others, like Le Vele di Scampia, have dissolved into chaos.
Harris, Judith. “The Child Soldiers of Scampia.” i-Italy Magazine. http://www.i-italy.org/14911/child-soldiers-scampia.
Kyriacou, Lefkos. “History.” Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate. http://www.alexandraandainsworth.org/history.html.