Terms and definitions on affordable and sustainable housing *

Capability Approach

Area: Community participation

The Capability Approach (CA), initially introduced by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (1999) and subsequently developed by Martha Nussbaum (2011), provides a framework for evaluating individual or collective well-being and societal progress beyond traditional economic measures. As Coates and Anand (2015) pointed out, Sen’s approach aims to rectify certain deficiencies in conventional welfare economics. It contrasts what individuals and collectives are free to do (capabilities) and what they actually accomplish (functionings). This accomplishment depends on their means, such as resources and public goods, and their ability to convert means into outcomes, which is contingent upon certain conditions such as personal, sociopolitical, and environmental factors (conversion factors) (Robeyns & Byskov, 2023). When applied within the realm of housing, CA assumes that merely providing shelter is not enough and that spaces for living must be created. It emphasises the importance of examining the broader capabilities and freedoms that housing enables individuals or communities to achieve, thereby framing housing as a basic need and a means to human development. This approach can serve as a method of appraising both housing outcomes and means. The rationale behind adopting such an approach in housing, as articulated by some scholars, is to move beyond evaluating it solely through quantitative metrics, such as housing supply or homeownership rates. Instead, the emphasis is on considering qualitative aspects that better capture individuals' lived experiences (Clapham et al., 2019). In line with the CA approach, providing affordable and sustainable housing should encompass the development of people's capabilities, enabling them to create their living environments and promoting overall well-being. Recognising that a home is more than just its material components, housing plays a crucial role in enhancing people's abilities to lead fulfilling lives and actively participate in society. This perspective incorporates various dimensions that housing should address that go beyond mere shelter, such as security, community integration, neighbourhood relationships, and self-esteem. This comprehension of housing aligns with the literature on social sustainability, which sheds light on aspects that transcend the material and technical attributes of housing.   Beyond focusing solely on housing outcomes, the capabilities approach extends its scope to the means employed to achieve them (Frediani, 2019). One important aspect is the emphasis on the agency in shaping one’s housing conditions. It recognizes the diverse needs, preferences, and capabilities of individuals, advocating for their active participation and the implementation of supportive policies that empower them to choose where and how they live. This approach moves beyond the one-size-fits-all model, acknowledging the importance of providing diverse housing options that cater to the varied needs of individuals and groups. These needs encompass considerations such as location, size, typology, accessibility, cultural preferences, and the balance between private and communal spaces or shared facilities. Scholars have consistently underscored the relevance of this approach, particularly when coupled with the active participation and involvement of individuals and communities in decision-making about their housing. Prioritising their perspectives and needs fosters the valued aspects of housing, leading to personal, collective and structural empowerment (Clark et al., 2019). Moreover, CA highlights the need to address social inequalities in housing. It recognizes that disparities in access to housing resources, including affordability, quality, and location, can limit individuals' capabilities and opportunities. Marginalized groups, such as low-income households, ethnic minorities, or people with disabilities, often face systemic barriers that impede their access to adequate housing, hindering their overall well-being and social participation. Furthermore, within housing participation processes, recognising differences at various levels - from access to resources to the conditions and circumstances of the people participating- is crucial to creating more meaningful, equitable and democratic processes. Considering these aspects, the CA advocates for participatory processes and policies promoting fair and equitable housing opportunities for various social groups. Implementing the CA in the field of housing can take place across various disciplines, including policymaking, architectural practice, and community involvement.  It is an approach that establishes a multidimensional evaluation space, placing inhabitants at the centre. This represents a multi-faceted strategy engaging various stakeholders to improve the capabilities of individuals or communities. Governments, policymakers, urban planners, and community organizations play vital roles in creating environments that support individuals' capabilities through housing. This could entail designing inclusive housing policies, investing in affordable housing initiatives, ensuring that urban planning considers diverse needs, and fostering community engagement to create supportive and cohesive neighbourhoods.

Created on 18-01-2024

Author: Z.Tzika (ESR10)


* This vocabulary consists of definitions of key terms related to the combined research conducted by the 15 early-stage researchers. Each term has multiple definitions, each connected to one of the three main research areas: Design, Construction and Planning; Community Involvement; and Policy and Funding.

The joint construction of this vocabulary allows the researchers' projects to be interwoven. As such, the vocabulary is a tool for conducting transdisciplinary research on affordable and sustainable housing.

Entries are reviewed by RE-DWELL researchers and supervisors. The vocabulary is updated regularly.