Divided by Policy

Urban Inequality in Finland

Master of Social Sciences Mika Hyötyläinen defended his doctoral dissertation, titled Divided by Policy – Urban Inequality in Finland at the University of Helsinki on 23.3.2019. The opponent was Professor Robert Beauregard of Columbia University, New York. This is the transcript of the opening lecture, lectio praecursoria, given by Mika, who now as post-doctoral researcher continues exploring Alternatives

A specter is haunting the cities of our nation.

The specter of segregation.

And an alliance has been formed to exorcise the specter.

Journalists remind us of its presence and report on its whereabouts. We check the morning papers making sure that the ugly phantom has not infiltrated our neighborhood yet.

Video material of the sightings of segregation from the cities in neighboring countries are portrayed on prime-time television, warning us of the havoc it could cause.

Politicians addressing the public seldom fail to mention how hard they are fighting this unruly ghost. The pages of policy documents are peppered with good intentions of banishing segregation from our cities and new place-based strategies are introduced to prevent its spreading and deepening influence.

That word that so poorly sits on the Finnish tongue, segregaatio. Sounds like the name of some exotic disease, now tormenting the residents of our cities.

But what is the source of our grave concern with segregation?

Since the turn of the millennium, researchers have provided evidence of a consistent growth in the differentiation of the urban population on the basis of, for example, educational attainment, employment status and ethnic background. Geographers have provided us with detailed maps that reveal the precise locations of concentrations of low-income families, the unemployed and ethnic minorities, found especially in peripheral social-housing estates, differentiated from the more affluent, central areas.

And little ink has been spared by sociologists writing about whether living in those concentrations correlates with or even causes – for example – unemployment, low education levels and poor health behavior. In their more recent texts, scholars have argued that spatial concentration of marginalized people is now in and of itself causing more differentiation and as such is unwanted and should be called segregation.

Herein the specter is summoned. What Finnish scholars, policymakers, politicians and journalists often refer to with the name segregation is the concentration of marginalized populations into distinct areas in the city. They are concerned that differentiation has become a self-perpetuating process that begins with the unemployed and other worse-off people moving into a neighborhood and leads to a series of negative events.

The logic behind this attitude towards the marginalized is summed up in the work of one Danish scholar, Hans Skifter-Andersen, widely cited by self-professed Finnish segregation researchers. He writes:

“some of these people have a culture or behavior that deviates from general norms or have less regard for the comfort of their neighbors, making noise and carrying out other annoying activities. This tends to make the ordinary people flee to other parts of the cities, making room for an increasing concentration of low income and socially excluded groups and thus increasing the spatial division of social groups.”

Behind this reasoning is a sort of antagonism towards difference and vulnerable people. It is the idea that in the neighborhoods of the unemployed, the immigrant and the destitute, all manner of social ill, vice and dereliction will spread, resulting in more segregation.

The word segregation has been removed of its original meaning, denoting the institutional division of people, it has been carelessly reconfigured by Finnish urban researchers. It has entered the lingo of politicians and journalists and been turned into the specter that now haunts us. Segregation in its contemporary use in Finnish debates insinuates that the problem is that marginalized people live together.

In my dissertation titled Divided by Policy, I hope to in some small way help to deconstruct the specter of segregation.

To do this, I suggest, requires refining our analysis and moving from describing where people live and ruminating over their behavior and lifestyles, to the important but neglected question of why people live where they do. Two arguments help in framing this question. The first arguments is that the problem for marginalized people is not that they live together, but that they are marginalized. And second is the argument made by the radical geographer Tom Slater – who turns around the tedious neighborhood effects thesis “where people live affects their life chances” – insisting that people’s life chances affect where they live.

These arguments point out that if we are concerned about the spatial differentiation of the urban population based on for example employment status, income or ethnicity, we should first be exploring the inequality between people.

And second, we should be analyzing why the city is developed in such a way that it enables those social and economic inequalities to become reflected in space.

It is in that second question, I would argue, that it becomes a question for urban studies.

Specializing in the field of urban studies, in my dissertation I use the concept of urban inequality to stress the importance of exploring the development of the built environment in a way that provides the conditions for the division of people and enables the exclusion of particular parts of the population from particular parts of the city.

I explore urban inequality by studying policies.

More precisely, I explore changes in two policies that have the intention of preventing urban inequality in Finland; land policy and housing policy.

Land policy refers to municipal and state management of land. Land policy has a great role to play in the development of the built environment. Municipalities have traditionally used their land policy to ensure the even development of the built environment and to promote the public good such as access to public space and housing affordability.

The state used to give land for cities’ social housing needs. Municipalities have provided land and real estate for public services and they have not alienated public land by selling it, but instead leased it, ensuring their planning monopoly which is so essential to the even development of the built environment.

Housing policy, on the other hand refers to public involvement in the supply and demand of housing. One of the main objectives of housing policy is to ensure individuals’ opportunities for suitable and affordable housing throughout the city.

Since these are the policies that municipalities and the state have used to tackle the formation of urban inequality, I investigate whether significant changes have taken place in these policies in the time that new spatial differentiation has been reported from the turn of the millennium.

I begin by exploring the means and objectives of land policy in Finnish cities after two transformations; a legal reform regarding land use and planning, and the corporatization of public land management.

Using as my data interviews with the policy authorities from Helsinki, Turku and Tampere and reviewing their city strategies, I investigate whether the means and objectives of land policy in these cities have changed after the mentioned transformations.

The findings of this investigation suggest, that after the legal reform cities are more prone to using land use contracts and engaging in public private partnerships with developers. This gives increasing say for private interest in the development in the built environment. This interest is usually driven by the profit incentive.

And after the corporatization of real estate management, cities are inclined to use their land to attract private investments, create a physical infrastructure more appealing to global, mobile capital and give in to the accumulation endeavors of private actors. After the corporatization of real estate management, selling of municipal and state land and the charging of market rent for real estate has increased.

I argue, that the local and national state reforms answered to a neoliberal logic of scaling down central state decisions to the municipalities combined with increasing deregulation and privatization, and resulted in a change towards an entrepreneurial approach to local governance, including municipal land policy.

I argue, that after these transformations the land policy of municipalities has been guided less by the intention of preventing urban inequalities and ensuring the welfare of residents than in the past and more by a business logic of making money and attracting private actors.

It is difficult to ignore the constant reminders about the results of this trend in land policy.

As examples, I want to mention three instances that have surfaced just after I finished writing this dissertation.

First, the state continues the wholesale alienation of national, public real estate. The latest in this trend is the establishment of the state real estate company Senate Property’s subsidiary called Asema-alueet OY. It was established in the beginning of this year to collaborate with private companies to develop state-owned railway stations – that are important urban hubs and nodes of residence and commerce – with the ultimate purpose of selling the stations.

Second, the city of Helsinki has sold some of the land it owns in the city center for developers who have built areas with no social housing, excluding those unable to afford market rents. The latest example of this is the recently finished Konepaja residential area, close to the heavily gentrifying and heavily developing Kallio district.

And third, the city of Espoo has decided to resort to outright social cleansing in the central Kirstinharju housing estate. The city will demolish the predominantly social rental housing estate, evicting the long-time tenants some of whom have lived in the area since the 1970s and building what it calls mixed income housing to develop the Suvela center. The argument in favor of this is of course, that Espoo should fight segregation by getting rid of concentrated poverty. There is no promise that the original residents could return to the area.

In a joint paper written with Academy Professor Anne Haila, and included in this dissertation, I provide one case study of this new type of entrepreneurial public real estate policy. In 2005 the City of Helsinki decided to deviate from its traditional practice of leasing land to housing developers and instead sold land for a record price for a housing development in South Helsinki’s Eiranranta. Eiranranta was developed with no social housing, catering exclusively for the wealthy.

The city in its new entrepreneurial role, disregarded its traditional land and real estate policy goals, such as the prevention of urban inequality. It created a place that is exclusive and beyond the reach of most living in the city. As one informant, a representative of a policy authority, told me about the city’s new policy:

“I don’t believe that the people who are incapable of buying their own homes or who require subsidized housing suffer if their home is not in Eiranranta, but somewhere else, wherever. I don’t think this site was suitable for that purpose nor would it have been wise to develop it for that purpose. Not every place needs to be mixed; there can also be that kind of diversity.”

My point here is, that if for example low income people are increasingly concentrating in peripheral housing estates, then it makes sense to study whether their opportunities of living in the city center are diminished and why.

Studying the justifications for building an exclusive residential area that provides no opportunity whatsoever for even average income residents of Helsinki, it was interesting to note how the interviewed authorities turned around the argument.

Instead of finding problematic the building of an exclusive area that keeps out part of the population, informants were concerned about the popular neighborhood ghost, segregation. One of my interviewees thought about the predicament of spatial differentiation in the following way:

“If you think of the other extreme – areas like Kontula, Mellunmäki, Jakomäki – we should make it more so that it does not become labelled as a social housing area.”

Finally this comment takes me to now briefly discuss the third part of the dissertation, which deals with the curious role of social housing in Finland’s housing policy.

Housing scholars have called Finland a “home-owner society”. The end point of any individual’s successful housing career is commonly understood as owner occupation. For those who have yet to move into owner occupation in their housing careers, private rental housing is the general expectation.

The common understanding of the housing question is, that the lack of a decent house is viewed as an individual problem. This is how Finland’s housing policy addresses the issues.

For those with such an individual problem, social housing is allocated based on strict eligibility criteria. As one representative of a policy authority from the Helsinki Metropolitan Region told us in their interview,

Affordable housing is not meant [for all] it’s meant for those who need it.”

Social rental housing, sometimes called affordable housing, is intended for people who cannot afford market rent. Meanwhile our housing policy does nothing to curb the price increases in what I suppose we should be calling “non-affordable” housing.

Housing policy allows the housing market to function as a sorting mechanism, while social rental housing works as little more than an ambulance service for those deemed market incapable.

In Finland’s housing policy, many of those who receive social rental housing are called “special groups”. In fact, according to statistics from the housing finance and development center of Finland, since 2004 more social rental housing intended for “special groups” has been built than so called normal rental housing. In this dissertation I investigate the role of housing policy in urban inequality, looking particularly at the symbolic differentiation of people by housing policy language.

To use the denomination “special” of one person, supposes that its opposite may be used of another. Although less frequently voiced, the word used is “normal”. This naming and categorization of special and normal individuals by housing policy documents and authorities, in turn, implies that housing inequalities are simply a result of the differences between people.

When housing authorities name people who fail to buy or rent their homes on the market “special”, they imply that the need for subsidized housing is caused by an individual weakness or frailty. Housing need is pathologized and individualized.

The housing policy of a home-owner society leads us to believe, that those who cannot secure a dwelling for market price or rent, are individuals who fail in the housing market. I would like to argue however, that quite the contrary is true – it is the housing market that fails so many individuals. It is the exclusive nature of the housing market that truncates the opportunities for so many individuals to decide where they live.

I urge us to imagine a fundamentally different system of housing provision and a transformative housing policy. That would be a policy that does not simply attempt to treat the symptoms of an exclusive housing market, but one that would attempt to correct unequal outcomes by restructuring the very underlying generative framework.

The question is, how to move towards such a framework of housing provision in which houses are produced not with the purpose of accumulating capital for rentiers, but in order to provide good houses that suit people’s needs for a decent home. For the dweller, the value of a house is ultimately its use value as a home.

I do not yet hold the answer to how such a transformative housing policy is best organized, but I believe that critical urban scholarship that questions our received wisdoms and analyses social orthodoxies, might be the way to explore alternatives and answers to our current arrangements and predicaments, such as urban inequality.


Mika Hyötyläinen 23.3.2019

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