2019-07-03 | By Molly Quell
There’s not enough housing in the Netherlands and, what is available, is too expensive. It’s a common complaint among not just internationals living in the Netherlands, but also the Dutch themselves. However, the Dutch government has been involved in providing affordable housing in the country for well over 100 years. The system, known as sociale huurwoningen, or social housing, is often maligned and frequently misunderstood.
Public Sector vs. Private Sector Rent
The Netherlands has strong protections in place for tenants. But if you’re not familiar with the rules, you don’t know what your rights are.
“I had no idea what the rules were,” says Margaret Collins*, a UK national who lives in Amsterdam in an apartment which is in the process of being re-classified as social housing. She initially rented the apartment on the private market and later, asked !WOON, a non-profit organisation which provides information to tenants about their rights, to look into whether the rent on her apartment was fair.
The Netherlands has two systems for renting: the private market, which is for more expensive properties and has fewer regulations, or a social housing dwelling, which is less expensive and aimed at people with lower incomes.
After investigating, !WOON felt Collins was being overcharged for rent and helped her take her case to the Huurcommissie (Rent Commission), a government organisation that mediates landlord-tenant disputes. Collins won a rent reduction of €300 per month, which is retroactive. “My landlord now owes me around €6,000,” she says. Anyone who wants to appeal their rent must do so within six months of signing their lease.
Just because she won, however, doesn’t mean everything worked out well for Collins. “Now my landlord is trying to evict me,” she says. She’s looking for a new place to live.
The Dutch government sets the maximum rent that can be charged in social housing, which is €720.42 in 2019. This maximum applies not just to dwellings owned by housing corporations but also by individual landlords. The government uses a point system based on size and amenities to determine if a home qualifies as social housing.
The origins of social housing in the Netherlands finds its roots in factory housing built to house workers. As the Dutch economy shifted from agricultural to industrial, people moved from the countryside to the cities, where they found a shortage of quality houses. In 1901, the government passed the Woningwet or housing act, which set standards for accomodation, expanded housing stock and allowed for the creation of woningcorporatie (housing corporation) which had the explicit mandate to provide affordable housing for the poor.
“One third of the housing stock in the Netherlands is owned by housing corporations,” says Maarten Vos, the strategy and innovation manager at Vidomes, a housing corporation in The Hague area. Vos is referring to the total number of houses and apartments. In the rental market, 75% of the stock is owned by a housing corporation.
Vos sees this as a positive thing. “Compared to other countries, there is much less stigma in the Netherlands about living in social housing,” he says. Further, he points out, since many people living in social housing are employed, social housing isn’t just a place for the very poor or those unable to maintain employment.
Who Can Live In Social Housing?
“It’s a common misconception that only the Dutch can live in social housing,” says Dafna Eccles, who works for !WOON. “You only must be 18 years old and a legal resident in the Netherlands.”
Until 2011, the Dutch government left it up to the housing corporations to determine who would qualify for social housing. However, after losing a case at the European Court of Justice, the government set regulations for who would qualify for this housing.
To qualify for social housing, you must make in 2019 less than €38,000 per year. Housing corporations are required to rent 90% of their housing stock to people making less than this minimum. There is some leeway for local governments to set their own criteria with the remaining 10%.
“The waiting list is long,” says Kasper Eekhout who lives in social housing in Delft. Amsterdam, unsurprisingly, has the longest list. “It’s around 15 years,” says Eccles. At !WOON, she advises everyone to put themselves on the waiting list, regardless of your current need. “You never know what might happen in the future,” she says. Costs vary, but generally, you pay an initial registration fee and then a yearly fee to stay on the list.
People who qualify for priority housing can skip to the top of the list. “This can include people already in social housing who are being forced to move, if the building they are living in is being torn down for example or if an elderly person falls and needs to move to a house without stairs,” says Eccles.
Many countries have a system to provide housing to economically disadvantaged people. The Netherlands comes with its own quirks, “I would not qualify for an apartment on the private market,” says Natasha Cloutier, who is self-employed. Many private sector landlords want to see an employment contract as proof of income, which Cloutier does not have.
“Land is scarce,” says Vos. The Netherlands has one of the highest population densities in all of Europe. “Housing prices are already high,” he says, “Without social housing this problem would be worse.”
(*She declined to use her real name for this article due to fear of further retribution from her landlord.)
About the author
Molly Quell is an American journalist, based in Delft. She is The Hague correspondent for Courthouse News Service and a contributing editor at Dutch News. When she’s not working, you can find her enjoying a beer and hanging out with her dog. You can follow her on Twitter at @ mollyquell.