Socializing Social Housing

As part of our research into a new housing strategy for Warsaw, Poland, my team decided to study the Dutch social housing system. It has always been presented as an inclusive solution, which resulted in high-quality developments built as part of an integrated planning process. However, we were surprised to discover that our most recent case studies were completed over a decade ago. Was this due to the real estate crisis? Or did the whole system recently undergo some major changes?

photo Zuzanna Mielczarek

My personal experience from living in the Netherlands confirmed the latter. Earning an average wage at a junior position, but with no support from ‘the mum-and-dad mortgage bank’, I had great difficulty finding affordable accommodation in Rotterdam. The problem became even more acute when, after I moved out, the landlord raised the rent for my old home by almost 30%.

I always felt privileged and had enough stability to spend time researching global issues and the problems of some abstract ‘others’. In this case, I could study my own situation, compare it with stories of Dutch friends, who were lucky enough to get an apartment during the ‘good times’. That proved to me that the housing crisis was widespread and rapidly getting worse.

We cannot go back to the times from before the crisis, but we can learn from the past. The old solutions had been transformed into a system that created inequalities and social segregation. This is why I think it is important to find a new language for housing solutions that profit from past experience, but look to the future.

Off the social
The word ‘social’ has multiple layers of meaning. When referring to housing, it immediately suggests subsidies, financial support and low-cost projects for the poor. In Britain the term ‘social’, as in to ‘live off the social’, is generally used in the sense of being part of the social security system. This idea can be illustrated by the image of over-sized, anonymous blocks inhabited by the lowest classes only. What comes to mind later, if at all, is another meaning of ‘social’ — the organization of society and a form of collective living.

The Netherlands boasts its own unique social housing system, yet it reacts to the course of global change. The idea of societal cooperation laid the foundations for Dutch social housing. At the end of 19th century, various groups — mainly Protestant or Catholic communities — organized themselves in response to the problem of poor living conditions. Over a century later, housing associations still retain some of this original idea, especially when they target specific social groups and provide housing for the elderly, students etc.

However, inclusion is, for the most part, not a value they still uphold. To improve this situation and make inclusion part of the future, a more understandable term should be proposed. Common — is that too close to communal, as used to describe Tsarist and Soviet apartments? — or simply inclusive housing would express the renewed housing objectives more adequately and help avoid negative connotations.

What was once a Dutch export concept — the social housing system and ways it operated — is now part of a global crisis. In the past, the system stimulated public life. Unfortunately, its transformation in response to the pressing problems of today is occurring with a very shallow understanding of the term ‘social’.

photo Zuzanna Mielczarek

Ownership worship
In contrast to the shared enthusiasm for a better economic climate, there are few positives concerning rising house prices. They are now rising much faster than incomes in most European countries. This situation is giving rise to higher levels of homelessness and overburdened rates (i.e. housing expenditure above 40% of income) and creating great difficulties for first-time buyers, especially those without ‘mum-and-dad mortgage banks’. For many, buying or renting housing is simply unaffordable.

The commodification of residential real estate has resulted in a lack of basic social security, especially for indebted homeowners. Fluctuations in global finances generate enormous personal dramas on a huge scale. In the Netherlands, the share of ‘underwater’ mortgages (i.e. those in negative equity) reached 36% in 2013. In big cities, despite legal regulations (based on the points system), high demand combined with a shortage of apartments makes free market prices hike with no relation to quality.

To become the country with the highest share of outstanding residential mortgage debt in the whole European Union, the Dutch housing system very quickly drifted away from its social housing principles. This dramatic change in the housing situation caused the recent real estate crisis. Now there is an urgent need to revise policy, focus on sustainability, and target groups excluded from the current system.

Unavailable affordability
The Netherlands still has the highest share of social housing in Europe, with housing associations owning 30% of the stock. This system is heavily criticized, but the criticism mostly misses the main points. The debate is still shaped by a vivid memory of fraud and mismanagement by housing associations, which justified tighter control and restrictions on their work. That was definitely needed in a few cases, most notably with the billions lost by Vestia in 2012. However, it is important to remember that most associations acted responsibly, proposing community-oriented projects.

The permanency of tenant agreements is pointed to as the other major problem. Financial conditions are set at the moment of acquiring a social unit, and residents are allowed to stay in rent-regulated apartments despite their income increase. This is a very delicate issue, as any proposed change threatens residents’ sense of security. However, not all housing associations view the existing situation as a concern. The governmental policy of cheap mortgages makes people switch from renting to buying the moment they can afford to do so.

What, then, are the real defects of the system? What values are missing? Strong community housing requires diversity to stimulate integration. It should be based on solutions that improve residents’ quality of life and provide long-term safety.

Current regulations create greater segregation among social groups. The sharp income limit makes it almost impossible for couples with shared incomes to meet the criteria for renting and discourages them from seeking a salary increase while on the waiting list. Social housing ends up focusing mainly on recipients of social security. Options for mixing income segments in one development are limited. Housing associations are allowed to have only up to 10% of non-social housing in their portfolios. There used to be a category for mid-segment housing (i.e. for people with an annual income of around 40,000 euros) but it has been removed from the regulations.

Rent levels are set for apartments, but they are not connected to the income level of residents. Thus, they cannot increase with their salary. The maximum rate for rent-controlled housing is set at around 710 euros, regardless of the size of the unit. A common practice in other European countries is to calculate it per square metre. One-price-fits-all doesn’t work for families or any form of house-sharing. As a result, one of the financially viable solutions is to fill new developments with substandard micro-units.

Housing associations were forced to sell off a substantial portion of their stock to pay the levies set by the government. In big cities, waiting times can currently be up to nine years. Instead of making associations provide more social housing, municipalities set quotas for new private developments. The numbers look impressive: 40% affordable housing in new projects in Amsterdam. But market reality kicks in after the first tenants decide to move out, because there is no control to maintain the units as rent-regulated units in subsequent contracts.

All this creates an oversimplified, inflexible housing system focused on the lowest income groups only — singles or families living on social welfare. Even if financially affordable, it is not an accessible housing solution. Just like high-end developments, it creates its own form of social exclusivity.

photo Zuzanna Mielczarek

The need for self-study
Many countries, among them Denmark and Germany, rely on the strong role of housing cooperatives, but the specificity of the Dutch conditions — a high percentage of social housing units and an association-oriented system, but no cooperative or council housing — calls for more customized solutions. Fortunately, there are some good examples that could serve as valuable references. Perfectly suited to the context, the Dutch situation of less than twenty years ago could become a reference point. Projects like the GWL Terrein in Amsterdam or Le Medi in Rotterdam still impress, not only on an architectural level, but also as processes — the way they were initiated and designed.

Amsterdam was praised as an egalitarian city. In the 1980s, almost all housing stock consisted of social housing. Even in the early 2000s, when the push for ownership started, 75% of all units were rent-regulated, 55% of them owned by housing associations, the rest private. With no stigma connected to this living solution, 25% of high-income groups (and even more middle-income groups) occupied a social housing unit. That resulted in a true social mix and inclusion. Home ownership was an option chosen as a long-term, personal decision. This allowed for a stable, non-speculative residential property market.

At that time, the public agenda was pushing towards developer-oriented solutions, and the government allowed for big increases in rents and guaranteed good crediting. Associations also profited from these changes. They accounted for 77% of all housing developments in Amsterdam, sometimes in association with private partners. Most of them were developed as mixed projects that combined both owner-occupied and rental dwellings, which enabled internal cross-subsidization. The quality and architectural design were of the highest importance, with housing associations commissioning the projects from young architects, investigating new typologies and investing in communal spaces. At present, it seems impossible to totally reverse the market-oriented housing agenda. However, the mixed housing system of twenty years ago could be an interesting reference to help rebuild the meaning of social housing.

Accessible solutions
It is not difficult to point out which solutions could be implemented today. Firstly, the target group for social housing should include the middle class. The whole system calls for more diversity and flexibility. Rates for rent-regulated units could be adjusted to income levels and calculated per square metre. Regulations to secure existing stock are urgently needed. For now, it is too easy to transform a social unit into a market one. There is also a general debate about how housing subsidies are distributed and their consequences. In most European countries, including the Netherlands, there was a shift from supply subsidies (financing associations or public housing construction) to demand subsidies (contributions for inhabitants, for example in the form of housing benefit). Despite some advantages, demand subsidies don’t address long-term problems, such as a housing shortage. Overall, the problems with the solutions mentioned are similar to those with affordable housing: they are there; they are just not accessible, and they are not being implemented. For that, political motivation is what is really needed.

What role could architects play in improving the housing situation? Aspects of collective living are mentioned in many ‘design philosophies’. However, as stated, this cannot be achieved unless the housing programme becomes inclusive and sustainable. There are always small-scale possibilities. In Germany, baugruppen (self-built, cooperative residential projects) have very often been initiated by architects. But it is a living option only for middle and higher income groups who are able to provide the down-payment and take a mortgage. However, the many individual baugruppen projects help to curb speculation across the whole residential market. In such projects, home-ownership is not seen as an investment, but as a personal long-term choice. There are also examples of engaged designers who provide more than they were asked for — for example, Assemble with their ten houses on Cairns Street in Liverpool. In addition to refurbishing the buildings, they ran a workshop to help finance the project.

But what about ‘the real influence’ that could shift the course of action? That is a broader discussion about whether architects can and should be the ones to create policies. Nevertheless, the whole community must be aware that we are heading for another crisis. It will yet again result in drop-off in commissions and a lack of work. Maybe that can motivate the architects to take a stand.