Denmark’s housing minister wants to scrap ‘ghetto’ label for underprivileged areas

Kaare Dybvad, Minister for Transport, Building and Housing in the new Social Democrat government, says official use of the word ‘ghetto’ in reference to marginalized areas is “derogatory”.

Denmark’s housing minister wants to scrap 'ghetto' label for underprivileged areas
Danish Minister for Transport, Building and Housing, Kaare Dybvad. File photo: Linda Kastrup / Ritzau Scanpix

In an interview with newspaper Politiken, Dybvad said that it was “no use continuing to use derogatory terms about underprivileged residential areas.”

Use of the word conjures up images “either of the (Second World War) Jewish ghetto in Warsaw”, or “of the (US) television series ‘The Wire’,” Dybvad also said in the interview.

The word 'ghetto' has regularly been used in an official context in Denmark, not least since the beginning of 2018, when then-prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen vowed in his New Year’s address to the nation to “end ghettos completely”.

The Ministry of Transport, Building and Housing uses the word on its own website as a term referring to underprivileged areas.

To be considered a ‘ghetto’ by the ministry, housing areas must have over 1,000 inhabitants and fulfil three out of five criteria.

The five criteria are related to residents' employment circumstances, the number of residents with non-Western heritage, crime rates, education levels and income.

READ ALSO: Criteria for inclusion on Denmark's ‘ghetto’ list

Meanwhile, the government used the word a total of 26 times in bill changing subsidized housing laws which was passed by parliament on November 22nd last year, Politiken writes.

That bill was itself referred to as the ‘ghetto plan’.

The Social Democrats voted in favour of the plan, which included a provision to exact harsher punishments for crimes committed in specified areas as well as an obligation for small children to attend daycare.


Dybvad said on Tuesday that he wants to put an end to political use of the word in order to avoid stigmatizing the areas.

“As a minister, one of the first things I will do is to stop using the term ‘ghetto’,” he told Politiken, adding that he would instead refer to the neighbourhoods as “underprivileged residential areas” (Danish: udsatte boligområder).

Given that the word is used in sections of Danish law, however, it will remain in official usage for the foreseeable future.

A loan word which has retained its original spelling and pronunciation in Danish, Dybvad spoke about connotations of the term 'ghetto' in other cultures – something many politicians, including Rasmussen, appear to have been oblivious to in public statements up to now.

“You either think of the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw – an altogether terrible story, which has no basis for comparison with Denmark.

“Otherwise, you think of the television series ‘The Wire’, with areas in Baltimore or Chicago which are rundown and have violent gang crime, where nobody who grew up there has a chance, and where people shoot each other for nothing,” he said to Politiken.

Acknowledging that Danish marginalized areas faced “challenges which should not be neglected”, Dybvad argues in the interview that social welfare society Denmark has “avoided, actually, the isolation (of deprived areas) you see in more market-based societies.”

Laws introduced by the Danish government last year sought to “transform underprivileged areas” and end “parallel societies”, the minister said.

“It is of no benefit to keep using such derogatory terms. At some point you have to move on,” he added.

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Danish government reduces number of areas officially termed ‘ghetto’

The government’s list of areas it officially terms as ‘ghettos’ has been almost halved, from 28 to 15 areas, in an annual update of the list.

Danish government reduces number of areas officially termed 'ghetto'
Tåstrupgård in Høje-Taastrup is considered a 'ghetto' by the Danish government. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

The housing ministry published the latest version of the list, which is updated annually, on Tuesday.

Of the 13 areas removed from the up-to-date list, 3 are in Copenhagen. Others are located in Taastrup, Holbæk, Vejle, Kolding, Aarhus, Køge, Guldborgsund, Odense, Fredericia and Silkeborg. No new areas were added.

The 15 remaining ‘ghetto’ areas include 2 which have been on the list for 5 consecutive years, earning them the term ‘hard ghetto’. When an area is given this tag, authorities are obliged to create a redevelopment plan which must be signed off by the ministry.

Areas which previously qualified as ‘hard ghettos’ but later cease to fulfil the relevant criteria remain subject to the redevelopment plans, which in past cases have involved the rehousing of residents. A total of 17 areas in Denmark are currently encompassed by redevelopment requirements of this kind.

In a press statement, the Ministry for Housing and Transport said that the primary reasons for the reduction in ‘ghetto’ areas are decreases in unemployment and criminal convictions. Improvement in education levels amongst residents, and a drop-off in the proportion of minority ethnic residents also occurred in some areas, the ministry said.

“It’s positive that there are fewer areas on what the legislation calls the hard ghetto list. But the individual redevelopment plans continue to ensure we create mixed cities and don’t park the weakest citizens in one neighbourhood,” the housing minister, Kaare Dybvad Bek, said in the statement.

In order to be classed as a ‘ghetto’, a housing area must meet a set number of criteria. The criteria relate to factors including ethnic background, employment status and income.

Housing areas must have over 1,000 inhabitants, of which over 50 percent of residents have non-Western nationality or heritage, and fulfil two out of four criteria:

  • Over 40 percent of adults aged 18-64 not engaged in employment or education (average over two-year period)
  • Proportion of residents aged 18 or over convicted for criminal, weapons or narcotics crimes must not exceed three times national average (average over two-year period)
  • More than 60 percent of residents (aged 30-59) have basic school education or lower
  • Average pre-tax income for adults aged 18-64, not including unemployed, less than 55 percent of pre-tax income for administrative region.

People considered not of Danish heritage are categorised into two groups: ‘immigrants' and ‘descendants' of immigrants (‘efterkommere' in Danish).

A person is considered to have Danish heritage if she or he has at least one parent who is a Danish citizen and was born in Denmark. People defined as ‘immigrants' and ‘descendants' do not fulfil those criteria. The difference between the two is that an ‘immigrant' was born outside of Denmark, while a ‘descendant' was born in Denmark. 

The list is relevant because, under the 2018 ‘ghetto plan', areas on the list can be subjected to special treatment under the law, including stricter punishments for specified crimes, a requirement for small children to attend daycare and housing reforms which can force people to move.

It has been criticized in the past for stigmatising areas, thereby making it more difficult for them to improve socioeconomic conditions.

The government's use of the word ‘ghetto' for lawmaking purposes may feel jarring to those used to hearing the term in English. It is arguably less pejorative in Danish, although Dybvad Bek has previously said he'd prefer it not to be used.

The ‘ghetto list' was first introduced in 2010 under then-Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen's centre-right government, while a later coalition headed by Rasmussen introduced the ‘ghetto plan' legislation in 2018.

Both the 'ghetto' and 'hard ghetto' lists for 2020 can be viewed in the housing ministry's website.

READ ALSO: Denmark's 'ghetto plan' unlikely to solve problems faced by underprivileged areas: residents