Revisiting Jim Kemeny’s housing theory: Contested housing imaginaries in Vienna and Brussels

Donnerstag (21. September 2023), 09:00–10:30
HZ 5
Richard Pfeifer (TU Wien)
This presentation aims to address the question of the significance of policy imaginaries in the context of residential development and housing, taking up and partially reconstructing an existing theory of housing and social research. Two case studies (Vienna and Brussels) will be explored and used as empirical examples.


In the current debates on the relationship between housing and welfare, Jim Kemeny’s classic contribution has been portrayed as outdated and overly optimistic, emphasising the need to look beyond the immediate economic processes of the cost rental sector and turn to other policy-related processes, demographic change and financialization.

Although much of the criticism is justified, Kemney’s social theoretical or, in other words, ontological ‘constructivist’ position, his actual theoretical engagement with policy myths, modes of discourse, or negotiated order has been scarcely explored.

In this presentation, I am revisiting these more neglected concepts in Kemeny’s discussion of why housing regimes develop differently in comparable societal contexts and address the role of “myths” in the policy making process.

Myth, reinterpreted with a discursive-institutionalist perspective on the role of ideas in policy-making, sheds light on how particular ideas and interpretative forms become a background for the negotiation of social and in particular housing policy within urban context. Policy myth, which has also been discussed as “imaginaries”, is understood as a strategic means for reducing complexity and shaping semiotic processes through ‘selectivities’ or, in Kemeny’s terms, different discursive modalities that give such imaginaries their distinctive ideational character.

While Kemeny strongly emphasises the relation to broader welfare arrangements, he also adds two dimensions that allow for a further operationalisation of housing policy within residential development or what belongs to the household and what is considered as social infrastructure influencing the conception of dwelling and urban form. This concept of residence as this articulating relationship between household and dwelling within context helps to ground the empirical analysis of policy myths in the specificities of empirical cases.

To examine the political and social implications of such myths, I discuss two case studies, one in Brussels and one in Vienna, both of which are polarising and in need of densification. My discussion focuses on the paradigm of social mix, which is not only a widely accepted policy in the spatial governance of social inequality, but also strongly embedded in the restructuring of housing regimes in many European cities.

From this perspective, I argue that in both cases mixity can be understood as such a policy myth, but that it needs to be related to the (flexible) accumulation regime and its social effects, and while both cases imply strong policies of social mixing, these are imbued by their institutional contexts and histories, which shape these myths within privatist or collectivist modes of discourse and in turn produce differently negotiated versions of the mixing imaginary and consequently divergent housing policies.

Ultimately, the question remains to what extent social mixing imaginaries and their discursive modalities can affect housing tenure.