Woonbond is a large tenants rights organization based in Amsterdam. The company considers itself the voice of renters from throughout the country. More than half of the residents in social housing are somehow connected to Woonbond through its membership and advocacy. That’s more than 1.5 million members or 53% of all tenants in Holland. Woonbond’s motto is that they stand for affordable rent, good homes in livable, safe neighborhoods and strong tenants organizations. They accomplish this goal by advocating on behalf of their more than 1.5 million members on various topics of interests including housing affordability, availability and corporate responsibility by social housing corporations.
I met with Erik Maassen from Woonbond in Amsterdam. As he explained, the history of tenant protection and advocacy is rich in the Netherlands. There are tenant organizations throughout the Netherlands in cities, localities, at the housing association level and even the building level. They operate in the context of their environment and advocate and fight for the issues at hand. The needs of a tenant group at a building level are different than the needs a tenant group that operates at a city level. Woonbond brings the interests of all these various groups together to help form a national agenda on both advocacy, policy development and professionalization of tenant groups.
Changes to Dutch Housing and Affects on Woonbond:
We first discussed the new housing rules about to take affect in the Netherlands. Woonboon’s active lobbying helped shape a lot of what is going to happen in the housing sector starting in July. One major difference will be the involvement of the tenant groups in the discussions of housing strategy at the municipal level. The new rule mandates tenant groups, municipalities and housing corporations will need to sit together at the table each year to decide yearly and future goals in housing. That includes everything from strategy to development of new housing, renovations, affordability and long term goals. That type of new power is a win for Woonboon but the question is whether the organization and its members are ready for it?
Tenant groups are now in position where they must think strategically about the future of housing in their communities. That means long term visioning. Questions arise on the readiness of tenant groups across the country to take on this type of challenge. In many cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht, tenant organizations are well developed and trained. However; in many cities across the country the tenant groups never developed into an entity ready to take on challenges like strategic planning and long term investments. Fighting for quicker maintenance and better responsiveness from property management are important themes but are much different from this new role that they will now have.
An important question is how will the Ministry of Housing and Woonbond support the tenant organizations. New responsibilities are great and a seat at the table is important. Being able to engage in a meaningful dialogue that will not only represent the long term interest of members but also move forward the development and preservation of high quality affordable housing is another thing. I spoke with both the Ministry of Housing and Woonbond about this subject and they both seemed excited that this new right is in place. The Ministry for its part is increasing funding to tenant groups to help them with money for training and professionalization. Woonbond is creating a project called tenants organization plus. The idea is to renew and improve the way tenant organizations work. They want to train tenants to be stronger advocates and professionals and improve the tools to organize within the tenant groups. The new rule also means the housing associations must contribute money to the tenant groups without negotiations on how the money will be used. This gives more autonomy to the groups to choose the best methods for training and professionalization. The board members of each tenant organization will also receive at least 3 days of training a year.
One question I asked myself as soon as I heard about the new rule was how can the government assure stronger more professional groups from the housing association and city will not bull over tenants who might not be as trained and equipped. One option with the additional funding is to hire experts. At first glance the idea sounds a little funny. The tenants win the right to be at the table and then immediately let someone do the work for them. History tells us that this scenario is not much different than what other large lobbies do to best advocate and fight for a cause. Think Teamsters or other powerful unions across the world. It is not unusual to hire experts, lawyers and consultants to both advocate and fight on behalf of a cause. The future of tenant organizations role in social housing might play out like that of unions.
The 800 pound gorilla in Dutch Social Housing policy is the changes to the rules and programs that are taking place. I asked Mr. Maassen what other goals Woonbond will take on in the upcoming years outside of working with tenants on the new rights given to the organizations. Mr. Maassen replied that two major themes are going to be on the agenda.
- Affordability: Although Woonbond gained much in the way of influence for their members, affordably continues to be an issue in their eyes. Rent increases in the past came into place from inflation. Now rents increases can include inflation and an extra 1%-4% dependent on situation and income. Mr. Masseen informed me that recent increases in rent are higher than seen in the last 20 years. The average rent including inflation is near 5% a year in both 2013 and 2014. This change put affordability at the top of the list for Woonbond.
- Availability: Availability of affordable housing is lacking in the opinion of Woonbond. As an outsider from the USA, I must admit to doing a double take upon hearing this. How can a country with almost 35% of the total housing stock in the social sector suffer availability of affordable housing? Mr. Maaseen seemed to recognize my surprise as he explained that most people who move into social housing in Holland stay for a very long time. That coupled with changes in 2008 that allowed social housing companies to charge higher rents to people with rental subsidies. That meant the total number of extremely low income rental unit offers declined. Woonbond lobbied for a change and it came to the top of the table as a political issue last year. Now 95% of housing offered to extremely low income households must be at a lower rent category. In a strange twist that is confusing to me as the American Tax Credit program, low income households put into higher rent apartments received less of a housing subsidy. Dutch housing subsidies is a subject for another day. The hope now is the offer of lower rent apartment units will cause other households in larger social housing units to “right size’’. That means a senior couple who live in a larger unit might choose to move to a smaller unit easier to maintain. That in theory opens up a larger unit for a family to occupy. They are hopeful this scenario will play out and create more availability for various sizes of families throughout the country.
Although not listed in any particular order, Mr. Maaseen said short term rental contracts as a concern that might arise in the future. Housing associations started handing out 5 year contracts to students a few years ago that could precipitate them moving once school is over. Other similar types of developments are of concern to Woonbond because it is an erosion of tenant rights. While long term rental contracts protecting rental prices and tenant tenancy seem unbelievable to us from the USA, Britain and Australia, Holland and many other European countries enjoy a rich history of tenant rights and protections.
Woonbond will continue to work with the partners to ensure implementation of the new rules while protecting their members. Long term affordability and availability will continue to be major centerpieces of Woonbond’s work. In some situations, Woonbond will find themselves on the same side of the housing agencies and Aedes advocating on similar issues. There will be other times where direct conflict will be inevitable. In those situations where disagreements cannot be bridged, Woonbond will work with their members to decide how and when to proceed on a path they believe will protect the long term rights of renters in the Netherlands.