From Dot Dot Dot founder, Katharine Hibbert

It’s usually a good thing that people in housing tend to think locally – what is needed and what’s possible can be different from home to home, street to street and city to city.  But sometimes looking from country to country can be a way to get ideas for how things could be different – and to see what’s distinctive about what you already have.

For this reason, we at Dot Dot Dot jumped at the chance to visit a range of innovative housing organisations in the Netherlands earlier this year.  We’d hosted the chief executives of nine Dutch housing associations who’d visited last year on a tour of British social enterprises, so three of us caught the Eurostar to visit them in return.

The Netherlands was a particularly good destination for a learning trip for us because its social housing sector has a lot in common with the British one, because the country is currently facing similar housing pressures to the UK, and because it is the birthplace of the property guardian model.  We had coffee with a professor of housing management at Delft University of Technology, visited three different housing associations, and joined a conference about co-production with chief executives from these organisations and several others.

Similarities and differences

Along the way, we learned that 29% of the population of the Netherlands live in social housing, by far the highest proportion in Europe (in the UK it’s 17%, in fourth place behind Austria and Denmark).  All these homes are owned and managed by independent, not-for-profit housing associations who fund their operations through the rent they receive from tenants and who borrow against their existing stock to build more homes – much like British housing associations.

There are also important differences from the UK model. Dutch housing associations aren’t allowed to build private housing to cross-subsidise the building of social housing, unlike British ones.  However, in the Netherlands all housing associations mutually guarantee the borrowing of all others, and this borrowing is ultimately underwritten by the government.  Although this government guarantee has never been called on, it means that all Dutch housing associations can borrow at extremely cheap interest rates, allowing them to build more homes, whilst also compelling them to be more involved in one another’s decision-making.

In addition to this, under Dutch planning rules local government will zone a particular area for housing at a social rent level, shaping the value of the land and enabling housing associations to compete with other purchasers to buy it up and build new social homes.  Anyone who bought the land could only build affordable rental homes on it, putting housing associations in a strong position to be winning bidders since they are the experts at this.

Dutch housing crisis

Despite this, housing associations are unable to build enough homes to meet the country’s needs.  As in the UK those in the private rented sector are experiencing significant rent increases as the prospect of buying a home of their own also moves out of reach as house prices have spiralled over the past decade.  Those in less well-paid jobs face long commutes or sharing with flatmates, and discontent at this situation is increasingly widespread.

Government interventions include measures to stabilise rents, and an extension of rules around the quality standards homes must meet for the landlords to charge certain rent levels – properties are inspected and gain points if they have things like gardens, more space and new kitchens and bathrooms.  Landlords are limited in how much they can charge for homes with fewer points.

Property guardianship as the default option for empty buildings

The property guardian sector is much bigger in the Netherlands than in the UK.  The model originated there in the 1990s, and only arrived in the UK in the late 2000s – when Dot Dot Dot launched, in 2011, the only two companies offering property guardianship in the UK were both offshoots of Dutch companies.

We were very grateful to Gapph, one of the larger Dutch property guardianship companies, for hosting us at one of their projects in Gorinchem, a city in the western Netherlands.  Many of the tasks, opportunities and challenges they described were very familiar, but what struck us from a British perspective was how their work was treated as being completely routine – all the housing association staff we met saw it as the default to work with a property guardian company whenever they had empty buildings, since the benefits to everyone compared with leaving the buildings empty were so clear.  Since the model is newer in the UK, it is still sometimes seen as an innovative choice rather than a sensible practicality – we look forward to the day when all habitable empty buildings are lived in by property guardians as a matter of course, and seeing this in action in the Netherlands was very motivating.

Wider learnings – innovation and modernist architecture

Alongside these themes, it was fantastic to see the impressive projects being undertaken by the organisations we visited.  At Poort6, a housing association in Gorinchem, we saw the work they were doing to build neighbourhood heat networks to reduce the environmental impact of their housing while improving the comfort of residents.  At Kleurijk Wonen in Tiel, in a rural area in the middle of the country, we learned about the approaches they are taking to make the most of the data they hold about their residents, aiming to transform themselves into a truly data-driven organisation.

Finally, in Hilversum, a town close to Amsterdam, we visited a social housing scheme for housing older people run by housing association Habion, in which every aspect had been designed to encourage independence and sociability among residents, and to ensure that they could continue to enjoy living there for the remainder of their lives, regardless of their health needs.   We had lunch (made by a resident in her 70s) in one of the sunny, plant-filled shared spaces, and we also met one of the younger people who are invited to live in the building alongside the retirees to ensure that it is a lively and mixed environment.  It was an inspiring example of what is possible given a focus on user-centred design, determination to innovate and – perhaps most crucially – enough resources to build a really good place to live for people who are not wealthy.

We also got to learn about the history of Dutch public architecture, with visits to Hilversum’s town hall, designed by leading modernist architect Willem Dudok.  Its style was internationally influential, and echoes of it can be seen in the round, red-brick, high-ceilinged London Underground stations built in the 1930s such as Arnos Grove and Turnpike Lane.  We also went to Museum Het Schip in Amsterdam which tells the story of the beginnings of Dutch social housing and which is set in a beautiful brick-built estate that is still affordable housing today, and which resembles early British social housing such as the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch.

We also learned about Bijlmer estate in Amsterdam, whose story of planned utopia which turned into social problems but more recently evolved into a desirable place to live mirrors the story of many of Britain’s ambitious social housing estates, such as Thamesmead in south east London, where Dot Dot Dot has worked for many years, and Park Hill in Sheffield, now refurbished and considered a brutalist icon.  If you can’t make it to Amsterdam, this podcast, from 99% Invisible, is worth a listen to get a sense of the story of the Bijlmer.

Believe it or not, we packed all this into three days – helped by generous support from our hosts, and excellent and inexpensive Dutch public transport.  If you’d like to visit yourself, Place Collective UK has a study trip to Amsterdam planned for 21st June see how small businesses and resident groups are navigating economic and housing need and the changes the city is undergoing.  Their visits are free and are always fascinating – if you can make it, it’ll be well worth joining.