A concept which emerged from a study of Sparkbrook, an innercity area of Birmingham (UK), conducted by John Rex and Robert Moore during the 1960s (see Race, Community and Conflict, 1967). In this study, urban social groups are conceptualized in terms of a struggle over the allocation of scarce resources, the main focus being access to desirable suburban housing. In Birmingham ethnicity was a key issue in determining access, linked both with disadvantage in the market and the bureaucratic regulation of public-sector housing allocation. (Immigrants to the city from abroad lacked the sizeable and secure income necessary to raise a loan for house-purchase, and were excluded from local authority housing by a prior-residence qualification, which forced them into substandard multi-occupied dwellings supplied by private landlords in the inner city.) The outcome of this struggle is expressed in terms of the formation of different housing classes. Class is used here in the Weberian sense of being based on common life-chances.
The concept of housing class has been subject to much criticism. One objection is that position in the housing market is in fact determined by position in the labour-market; that is, by social-class position with reference to the sphere of production. Similarly, other critics have argued that there are status-linked advantages and disadvantages which determine this struggle for housing, and that these are the real source of the problems faced by particular ethnic groups. A further criticism has been directed at Rex and Moore's proposition that ‘the basic process underlying urban social interaction is competition for scarce and desired types of housing’. This assumes a unitary value system (the suburban ideal) which, subsequent empirical research suggests, may not in fact exist. Different residential outcomes may reflect (at least in part) different housing preferences and styles of life. However, most criticisms address the problems common to any attempt to produce a ranked classification of social groupings, notably those of how the categories themselves are defined and how to incorporate the possibility of different prospects for those currently occupying identical positions.
The theory of housing classes is thoroughly explored from the point of view of urban social theory in Peter Saunders, Social Theory and the Urban Question (1983) and assessed against the background of the literature on race in Michael Banton, Racial and Ethnic Competition (1983).