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The Consequences of Public Housing in Denmark

The Danish government has instituted a package of laws designed to encourage assimilation among people who live in largely low-income, Muslim enclaves, which the government has regrettably labeled “ghettoes.” A New York Times report on the “One Denmark without Parallel Societies” initiative made waves last week. The initiative includes a variety of measures: public-housing reform; preschool programs that will be compulsory for parents who want to continue to receive welfare benefits; ramped-up Danish-language education in early childhood; incentives for local governments to encourage integration; and tougher policing for people who live in these enclaves.

The Times article consisted largely of interviews, including with Muslims who disagreed with the new laws and others who approved of them. But it gave short shrift to an important story: the role Denmark’s housing policy has played in the formation of these enclaves. In an informative post for the Niskanen Center, Samuel Hammond explores that issue in-depth, laying the lion’s share of the blame at the foot of Denmark’s robust public-housing laws.

Hammond notes that public housing makes up about 20 percent of the housing in Denmark. While these developments are supposed to be mixed-use, Hammond explains that in reality they “receive substantial government backing and are required by law to reserve up to 25 percent of rentals for vulnerable communities, such as refugees and the poor, unemployed, and disabled.” According to Hammond, such generous low-income housing policies have both facilitated the formation of these enclaves and fomented anti-immigrant sentiment among voters.

Citing research conducted by political scientists Charlotte Cavaillé and Jeremy Ferwerda, Hammond points out that in-kind welfare benefits are closely linked to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. Such benefits “are particularly prone to distributional conflict with natives due to their salience and scarcity,” and “activate zero-sum modes of thinking.” This proved true in Austria, where, following a 2003 EU directive to expand immigrant access to welfare services, the 7.7 percent of Austria’s population who were “non-EU foreign residents . . . newly eligible” for welfare benefits wound up constituting “one-third of the population in public housing” by 2006 — and right-wing political parties gained support. The same dynamic is at play in Denmark, where the right-wing Danish People’s party won 21 percent of the vote in 2015, Hammond argues. And political considerations aside, of course, the formation of these enclaves does indeed slow down the assimilation of newcomers, a recipe for trouble in societies with thick cultural identities.

I think it’s a mistake to label assimilationist measures as de facto nativist (though some of the Danish measures, particularly those involving differential treatment in the criminal-justice system, strike me as wrongheaded). And just as public-housing laws deserve their fair share of the blame for exacerbating the political situation, I think other factors — such as the insistence of elite Europeans in the late 20th century that large-scale migration would come with zero consequences, or the refusal of neoliberal parties to take the migration question seriously as the consequences became clear in the 00s and 10s — are responsible as well.

But Hammond is right to point out that large-scale, low-income public housing seems to accelerate the formation of ethnic enclaves and worsen polarization provided a high level of low-skilled immigration. Americans should take note — especially those on the social-democratic Left who have decided in the face of a populist revolt on the immigration question that hey, combining socialized housing with unlimited immigration isn’t such a bad idea.

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