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Learning from Greenland

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Learning from Greenland

President Trump may not buy the autonomous Danish territory, but America can take a lesson from its experience with bureaucrat-planned housing. August 19, 2019
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

Last week, President Trump made unusual news by openly considering the purchase of Greenland from Denmark. Though a land deal—even one involving an autonomous Danish territory, not a New York skyscraper—seems fitting for a former real estate mogul, Greenlandic and Danish leaders alike greeted the proposal with derision. Besides, the idea could prove illegal, absent the support of Greenlanders themselves. 

Private land ownership in Greenland is forbidden, a prohibition that has shaped the Arctic country’s housing market, which differs dramatically from that of the United States. Nearly half of Greenlanders, for instance, live in state-managed rentals, while 99 percent of Americans live in privately owned or managed units. But Greenland offers an interesting case study for those housing reformers on the left who have recently expressed renewed interest in public housing.

Following World War II, both the U.S. and Greenland embarked on ambitious programs of public-housing construction. In Greenland, this process was managed by Danes from far off Copenhagen, sent with a mission to relocate native Greenlanders from Inuit fishing villages to urbanized public-housing campuses. The program improved the living standards of the Inuit migrants, who often left wood-and-peat houses for modern structures where they enjoyed running water, modern sewage, and electricity for the first time. But on a deeper level, it also transformed Inuit life: the new housing clashed with native folkways by imposing Danish lifestyles and social structures.

The most notorious example of this top-down, bureaucratic approach was Blok P, the largest housing project in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city. Standing amid colorful single-family homes in unused bog land, the five-story, 650-foot long building divided the city. Built in the mid-1960s, hosting 320 apartments that collectively housed 1 percent of the island’s population, it epitomized Danish plans to remake the Inuit. 

The project’s modern amenities were a boon to the new residents, but problems soon abounded, particularly with unit designs. Small closets, built to European preferences, couldn’t support the coats and undergarments needed for Artic life. Narrow doorways and corridors, meantime, made walking in bulky coats burdensome. With no dedicated space to clean fish—a staple of the Inuit diet—residents started preparing their catches in bathtubs, which clogged building pipes. Nature only added to the trouble: annual spring melts revived the bog, creating a moat around Blok P. To top it off, segregation characterized the building, with Danish migrants clustered away from the Inuit majority. 

Greenlanders secured home rule from Denmark in 1979, allowing the island to manage its internal affairs. Autonomy had big implications for housing, with a new government quickly undertaking a privatization program. This endeavor, which attempted to move maintenance costs off the books, granted Greenlanders ownership over their own homes and encouraged renters to form private housing cooperatives.

By the mid-2000s, Blok P had fallen into disrepair. In 2009, Greenlandic officials closed the facility, celebrating their decision with a table-length cake designed to mimic the apartment’s conspicuous length. Residents were offered new public units in Qinngorput, an expansion on the far side of town, though few made the move. By 2014, the infamous housing project was demolished. 

One can make a case that Greenland is the best case for public housing because the population largely lacks the resources to cover the high costs of imported construction materials and labor. To address this need, the country continues to build hundreds of units each year, with cookie-cutter apartment blocks still springing up amid surface lots on the outskirts of many Greenlandic towns. A small private housing market has emerged since the 1980s, but many Greenlanders still write monthly checks to the state.

Even in Greenland, though, public-housing problems are typical: wait lists run for decades, structural design remains monotonous and anti-urban, and maintenance woes persist. Such issues force most migrants to seek employer-owned housing. Indeed, similar woes with the American experience—though less constrained by extreme weather or isolation—have given rise to a new consensus around housing vouchers, which permit working families to decide where and how they live.

As the reaction to Trump’s idea shows, it’s unrealistic to assume that America could buy a country. Greenland’s experience with housing reminds us that it’s equally unrealistic to believe that state bureaucrats can plan where and how people live.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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