Should resilience begin with the home?


Bill Banks

EY Global Infrastructure Leader

Committed to building resilience in our cities and making them better places to live. Father, husband, football fan, malt whisky connoisseur and karaoke tragic sometimes all at the same!

15 minute read 28 Mar 2019

How cities can finance and deliver resilient social housing to deliver better outcomes for residents.

Understanding and building resilience remains both a complex challenge and an exciting opportunity for cities in the 21st century. 

At 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) and EY, we’re committed to supporting cities in this effort. That’s why we released a report, Getting real about resilience: how cities can build resilience thinking into their infrastructure projects, in July 2017.

In it, we shared the results of a joint survey we carried out with public and private sector contacts from our global networks. Respondents expressed considerable interest in incorporating resilience thinking into projects, but also skepticism. Many thought that the right tools and support mechanisms aren’t in place to maintain a resilience-based approach throughout the life cycle of an infrastructure project.

In this follow-up article, we take a closer look at how this issue plays out in a specific infrastructure sector that many cities in the 100RC Network have flagged as a vital challenge: social housing. We’ll outline why social housing needs resilient thinking at planning stage - not after the build, how to embed that resilience in the lifecycle of the project and suggest ten ways to fund or finance resilient social housing.

Dense Nazare town Portugal
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Chapter 1

What is urban resilience?

Having enough safe, affordable social housing to meet demand is one way in which cities can become resilient to shocks and stresses.

Urban resilience is a city’s ability to respond, grow and thrive in the face of shocks, such as floods and terrorist attacks, and stresses, such as unaffordable housing and lack of economic opportunity. By designing interventions that address both the shocks and the stresses simultaneously, leaders can make a city better in both bad times and good.

Social housing is an essential component of urban resilience. Safe and affordable housing is a requirement for city residents. But it also interconnects with other systems within the urban environment, compounding the shocks and stresses that affect the city and its residents.

Housing is a headache for cities across the globe

Of the cities in the 100RC Network, 39 cite a lack of social housing as a key stress, with 8 cities citing “homelessness” and 36 citing “economic inequality” as major challenges. What’s more, in the recent Menino Survey of Mayors in the US, only 13% of 115  respondents said their cities’ housing stock fits the needs of their residents.1

We’ll introduce a framework for what resilience means in the context of social housing and explore innovative ways to finance and deliver social housing projects.

  • Spot the difference: social housing and affordable housing

    For the purposes of this report, we’ve defined social housing as subsidized rental housing for people of low incomes. The public sector either owns, sponsors or administers the housing. Typically, tenants also have access to other forms of social assistance, such as welfare and unemployment support.

    Social housing is distinct from affordable housing, which aims to tackle a broader affordability issue for society. Affordable housing is typically aimed at low- to moderate-income households. It can include initiatives such as private sector housing developments that price a certain number of units at below the market rate.

City buildings and streets from above
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Chapter 2

Social housing and the role for resilience thinking

Resilient social housing gives people more than a roof over their heads. It also improves their well-being

What is resilient social housing?

A resilient social housing project is one in which investments in both physical infrastructure and social programs to support residents in withstanding the increasingly frequent shocks and stresses of the 21st century. By doing this, it also helps to strengthen the city as a whole. 

A resilient social housing project therefore has design and operational features that protect and prepare the assets and people from the various shocks and stresses they’ll face. It also makes the most of opportunities to support resilience in the broader community. 

As a result, resilient social housing doesn’t only provide a safe, flexible and robust physical shelter for its residents. By providing opportunity through access to education, transport, jobs and social services, it also supports their livelihoods and well-being. 

How can you make sure social housing projects are resilient?

When planning resilient social housing projects, it’s important to take the following three considerations into account: 

  1. The safety and quality of the physical asset
  2. The quality of life for residents
  3. Other city systems that affect and are affected by the housing system

Using these considerations as a starting point, 100RC has carried out an exercise to evaluate how a series of shocks and stresses affect cities and their social housing stock. This exercise has resulted in 10 principles for designing resilient social housing.  

10 principles for designing resilient social housing

  1. Understand the long-term physical hazards the buildings could face, and build them to remain operational and habitable under those threats.
  2. Minimize life cycle costs by considering long-term operations and maintenance requirements and integrating sustainability features.
  3. Incorporate green infrastructure into the design to improve air quality, reduce heat island effects and make floods less severe.
  4. Build in diverse, flexible or mixed-use spaces that encourage community cohesion. These should also accommodate the needs of residents and the broader community.
  5. Make it as easy as possible to access social services, such as financial literacy services, health services or childcare.
  6. Incorporate active design and create spaces that promote healthy behavior.
  7. Through physical infrastructure and technologies, as well as social programs, make it easy for residents to communicate with one another and with management. And provide easy access to information, especially during emergency situations.
  8. Consider how the project connects to the larger community and urban systems, including transport, schools and jobs.
  9. Provide programs to help households become economically stable.
  10. Make sure governance and management practices are transparent, equitable and clearly communicated.

This list isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but it serves as a guide for integrating resilience thinking into social housing projects.

  • Examples of literature and projects from leaders in resilient social housing

    East Harlem Center for Living & Learning – New York, NY

    In 2015, Jonathan Rose Companies – in partnership with Harlem RBI, the DREAM Charter School, and Civic Builders – developed and constructed the East Harlem Center for Living & Learning. The Center contains 89 multifamily affordable housing units, in addition to the K-8 charter school and non-profit office space for Harlem RBI. Built sustainably according to LEED standards, the complex offers communal green space, exercise rooms, computer facilities, and social service offices to meet community needs and enhance social cohesion. The center combines housing needs with access to education, jobs, and transit, supporting the livelihoods and wellbeing of its residents, as well as the surrounding community.

    Read more at Jonathan Rose Companies.

    Startblok Riekerhaven – Amsterdam, the Netherlands

    In 2016, the social housing corporation De Key – in partnership with the local municipality, the social housing agency Socius, and residents – developed and launched Startblok Riekerhaven, a housing project that mixes young refugees and local youth to better help integrate different communities. Built on a former sports ground, the complex contains apartment units, green space for recreational activities, common indoor space, and on-site management offices. Residents are encouraged to mix socially through regular events, classes, and meetups held in the Startblok clubhouse. The complex is managed by its tenants to encourage community feelings and provide on-site jobs. This revolutionary housing project not only provides safe, clean and affordable housing to local residents, but aims to actively integrate refugees into the social fabric of Amsterdam and enhance social cohesion across its residents.

    Read more at Startblok and CityLab.

    This is only the beginning. Numerous examples of social housing projects that are built resiliently and integrate mixed communities already exist – 100RC and EY hope to add to existing literature and work with our network to expand resilient social housing within and beyond the 100RC network.

Traditional methods of designing and delivering social housing

Cities that have well-established social housing programs largely use asset-based models for those programs. As the name suggests, these put the emphasis on building or revitalizing physical housing stock. 

As most social housing takes the form of rental properties, this approach centers on providing housing at below-market rents and allocating supply outside market mechanisms. As a result, the focus is on using public incentives and risk management mechanisms to make sure there’s enough supply. 

This asset-based approach can result in the construction of new housing stock or the regeneration of old stock. But as we’ve shown, for social housing to be resilient, cities need to design and deliver it in a way that considers more than just the physical asset. 

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Chapter 3

From theory to reality: new ways of delivering resilient social housing

Delivering and financing resilient social housing means shifting the focus to outcomes-based models.

Social housing is a complex issue for cities everywhere, cutting across economic, political, social and environmental concerns. So putting the 10 resilience principles into practice is no easy feat.

We believe that to achieve resilience in social housing, cities should switch gears to embed resilience outcomes into their financial and project structures. We favor these models because they focus explicitly on the resilience dividends cities want to achieve through social housing, rather than on the supply. But to deliver and finance these outcomes-based social housing projects, cities will need to take a more innovative approach.

What do innovative outcomes-based projects look like?

As no two cities are exactly the same, there’s no single solution to the challenge of putting resilience principles into practice in social housing.

Having said that, the more innovative outcomes-based models share certain characteristics. These models:

1. Shift the focus from assets to people 

Social housing isn’t just a physical asset that the city owns; it’s a service and “experience” for individuals and their families. Improving social housing is about serving the needs of residents as well as improving physical infrastructure.

2. Understand different cohorts 

One of the first steps in designing a program that aims to deliver against specified outcomes is to know the people. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to work.

3. Provide services beyond housing

Providing stable housing is critical, but it’s only one part of the solution. Supporting people in achieving certain outcomes requires an integrated solution that combines housing with access to appropriate support.

4. Contribute to community integration 

The services social housing programs provide affect various diverse groups, so the services should accommodate their needs. At the same time, the services should encourage those groups to integrate to create a more cohesive social structure.

5. Define and measure outcomes

As social housing serves an extremely broad tenant base, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to progress at the same pace and achieve the same outcomes. The owners of social housing projects need to understand what outcomes their project can realistically achieve for the individuals living in it. 

6. Build an evidence base

To measure and assess progress against specified outcomes, project owners need to build evidence by continuously collecting and reporting on data. 

Mother using mobile phone while sitting daughter playing with toys in living room
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Chapter 4

Options for funding and financing resilient social housing

Cities have the opportunity to move away from current models and explore private sector participation.

Financing for outcomes-based social housing models can take many forms

To implement outcomes-based social housing projects successfully, city governments need finance. There’s no fixed model for this, and many models can support a given social housing project. But it’s likely to be some form of public-private partnership.

Ways to think differently about funding and financing

With outcomes-based models, the emphasis is on social housing programs delivered in an integrated way. But governments are starting to move from delivering services directly to managing systems. As a result of this shift, the end-to-end delivery of housing and provision of appropriate support services is increasingly falling to non-government entities. Change and innovation in both funding and financing for social housing will need to follow.

On the funding side, innovation means moving away from the current model, where government typically provides the cash to pay back social housing project financing. How can transactions be structured differently to introduce an alternative source of funding, while still focusing on social outcomes?

There are two major alternatives to highlight here. One is mixed development and the other is outcomes-based contracting.2

On the financing side, innovation may mean exploring some form of private sector participation. Program owners can explore options for using private sector finance to deliver part or all of their social housing programs, and engage more private sector capabilities to deliver these programs.

This is important because the ultimate aim of a public- private collaboration is to deliver better services and value for money. Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) projects do this by transferring risk appropriately and integrating whole-of-life management (underpinned by private financing).

An outcomes-focused delivery model will, by design, focus on social outcomes and resilience. To complement this, the chosen financing model should also focus explicitly on social outcomes, particularly as the role of the private sector grows.  

  • Funding versus financing

    Social housing projects involve both funding and financing, from a combination of public and private sector sources.

    Funding refers to the ultimate source of payment for the asset or program over the longer term, such as the government, taxpayer or end user. Government funding can take the form of a recurrent funding stream, up-front capital or often both. A funding source must be present to support finance.

    Financing is the debt or equity raised to construct or deliver the program, with the expectation that it’ll be repaid.

    Just because capital or financial products are available doesn’t mean there’s no longer a need for funding. Typically, government funding is critical for making sure social housing programs are financially viable. On some projects, the private sector can finance part or all of the project delivery. But ultimately the government funds it by paying the private sector back (which allows the financiers to be paid back).  

Girl building miniature house bricks
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Chapter 5

Getting the balance right

Cities need to use new public-private financing models, and integrate existing models better into outcomes-focused social housing programs.

The degree of public-private engagement will vary from project to project and reflect many factors. These include the risk profile; time horizon; sector maturity; and social, economic and political considerations.

Some social housing programs will sit more at the public end of the finance continuum, while others will be more at the private end. The closer toward the private end a program sits, the higher the level of risk transfer, capital investment and potential upside to the private sector.

The breadth of this continuum means that to deliver an outcomes-based contract effectively, social housing program owners can consider more than one public- private financing arrangement.

We’ve summarized some key models below, including potential use cases. While it’s not a definitive list, it shows some emerging and well-established funding and financing models cities could use.

Most of the models haven’t necessarily been used for outcomes-based programs. But there’s potential for governments to use them in this way, once they’ve explored the option fully.

Innovation isn’t just about using new financing models. It’s also about better integrating existing public-private financing models with outcomes-focused social housing delivery.

Potential public-private models for social housing programs

Social impact bond

An innovative way for governments to finance social programs using outcomes-based contracts. Linking payment to defined outcomes provides a big financial incentive for the project to deliver those outcomes.

Funding: Non-government investors provide the capital to pay the service provider to deliver the specified intervention. The government pays the investor the capital plus returns only when the service provider achieves the set outcomes.

Sources of alternative funding this accesses: Funding provided only on the basis of achieving set outcomes.

Financing: Investors provide the capital to finance service provision, with the expectation of getting a financial return if the outcomes are achieved.

London Homelessness Social Impact Bonds, UK; Denver Social Impact Bond Initiative for Permanent Supportive Housing, US

Housing bond aggregator

A vehicle for social housing providers to aggregate their debt financing requirements. Aggregation allows housing providers to access better pricing and longer-term debt than they could secure individually.

Funding: Obtained from the wholesale market. A specialist, independent financing intermediary coordinates across housing providers to aggregate debt needs. It then sources these total funds from wholesale markets by issuing bonds and loans the funds raised to housing providers in return for interest payments. Government guarantees the debt.

Sources of alternative funding this accesses: Private sector capital via debt markets.

Financing: Investors provide capital by investing in wholesale debt markets.

The Housing Finance Corporation, UK; Housing Construction Convertible Bonds, Austria; National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation Affordable Housing Bond Aggregator, Australia 

Social housing corporations

A non- government corporate structure that’s financed independently. The corporation finances and provides social housing, using a portfolio-based approach to investment.

Funding: Independently funded (though governments have provided substantial public loans in previous decades). The sale of existing stock is major source of equity for new social housing. The profits from renting some properties at market rates can be used to cross-subsidize the portfolio, including developing social housing. State and cities can act as guarantor of last resort. Some cities also offer land at below-market prices for social housing. 

Sources of alternative funding this accesses: Corporations’ own equity and profits.

Financing: New social housing financed through bank debt (70% to 80% on average) and corporations’ own equity.

Social housing approach in the Netherlands

Housing trusts

A model to promote the redevelopment of public housing stock by using private investment. Under the trust, governments pool public housing assets to create economies of scale for management, as well as diversity in the trust portfolio. Government, or a private entity, may own the land on which the trust then builds social housing.

Funding: Cash flow from the trust’s affordable housing assets. A housing trust can make use of the equity value of the current public housing stock.

Sources of alternative funding this accesses: The opportunity for mixed development, giving private sector access to social housing asset values.

Financing: Private investors provide both debt and equity investment in exchange for expected returns (interest and dividends and capital appreciation).

Fonds de Logement Intermediaire, France; US Housing Partnership Equity Trust, US

Testing the mettle: using outcomes based models for resilient social housing

As this report shows, there are several models cities can use to design, fund and finance resilient social housing initiatives. But when it comes to applying them to address their resilience challenges around social housing, many cities are still in the exploratory phase.

Are you trying to build resilient social housing in your city? If so, which models are you investigating or implementing? And how closely are you working with the private sector to design effective programs?

To tell us about your programs, or share any comments about this report, please contact us at


To be resilient to shocks and stresses, cities need enough safe, affordable housing to meet their residents’ needs. But around the world, they’re struggling to meet demand. We believe cities need to move from taking an asset-based to an outcomes-based approach to delivering social housing projects. This means focusing on the resilience dividends they want to achieve, rather than on the supply. And funding and financing these outcomes-based projects will require new and innovative ways of thinking.

About this article


Bill Banks

EY Global Infrastructure Leader

Committed to building resilience in our cities and making them better places to live. Father, husband, football fan, malt whisky connoisseur and karaoke tragic sometimes all at the same!