Opening minds through an European exchange of knowledge

Egbert de Vries of Amsterdamse Federatie van Woningcorporaties, founding partner of the ISHF, discusses the past and present of social housing in the Netherlands and points towards the importance of a European exchange of knowledge.

Article by Alix Glodstein, ISHF team

What is AFWC? Why should people know about your organization?

AFWC represents all social housing associations in Amsterdam. We create space for housing associations to meet, discuss, and collaborate with one other. We also facilitate contact between key stakeholders, such as the municipality and other social institutions, in order to help develop common frameworks for policy initiatives.

Establishing these interconnected relationship is important. Together we can discuss potential building sites and pricing, increasing the number of dwellings, which dwellings to buy or sell, and the social position of tenants. There are many challenges to face, but working together allows for more potential solutions.

Why is social housing important?

A shortage of houses drives housing prices up and makes it more difficult for lower-income people to live inside the city. Not everyone with a low-income is in a problematic situation, but many are. There may be struggles with debt or mental or physical health. Social housing provides affordable accommodation for more vulnerable populations, and the relationship between the municipality, housing associations, and care institutions is important, then, to establish quality living environments.

As director of AFWC, you play an important role in the Amsterdam social housing sector. Can you describe the moment when you were asked to become director and your motivation to accept the job?

I accepted the position in 2014, which was just after a period of financial decline and the economic crisis. There was also a crisis within the sector as well, as the public was surprised to find that the housing associations were more market-oriented than originally expected for social institutions. There was a huge debate about the role of housing associations on a local and national level. That was an interesting time to get involved in the sector. Housing associations do play an important role, and I wanted to improve the public profile of the entire sector and of housing associations in particular. I knew we could do better. We could show people that housing associations work for them rather than for the market.

As you have mentioned, the past 10 years have been quite difficult. Bad publicity, new regulations by the Dutch National government, and a deep economic crisis have challenged the housing corporations in Amsterdam. How do you look back on the sector and where does it stand now?

You can see that there is more of a focus on affordable housing in terms of the income of a tenant and the rent they actually pay. If we add more social housing to the city, we have to think about which groups of people are in need of it the most. We’ve seen, within the past year, a switch from building housing for higher-income groups to building housing for middle to lower-income groups. It’s important to prioritize the needs of more vulnerable populations. You also see a stronger collaboration between housing associations and social institutions. This translates into better care for people who need a house, while also needing social, mental or physical, support. These two shifts will be important within the next five years. We need to keep working on these goals consistently, and the effects will be visible in due time.

AFWC is one of the founding partners of the ISHF. You joined the organization immediately after hearing about it, back in 2015. Can you tell us why you are so enthusiastic about the festival?

It is extremely important to interact and work with international partners. It struck me that our housing sector is very much nationally and locally focused. There are such organizations like Housing Europe and the International Union of Tenants that bridge the gap and get people together from different countries, but this work isn’t strongly absorbed into Amsterdam’s social housing sector. I have thought it would be a good idea to gather international perspectives on our social housing sector, opening minds to new thoughts and viewpoints. It is important we collaborate and learn from each other.

You are organizing a big conference on June 19, ‘Social Housing strategies in major cities of Europe’ Many of your European partners are invited. What can Amsterdam learn from the rest of Europe, and what can Europe learn from Amsterdam with regards to social housing?

With the large, recent influx of refugees into Europe, it will be interesting to see how other countries successfully integrate migrants with regards to housing. In turn, Europe might learn from us how to create a financially secure sector without a lot of government investment.

Professionals from Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and Copenhagen will be speaking at your ISHF event. Why have you chosen these specific cities, and what are the similarities and differences of social housing in each city when compared with Amsterdam?

Social/affordable housing is organized differently in each country. There are different agents and laws. Some are organized nationally, while others are organized locally. Vienna, for example, has a strong, government organized social housing sector. Berlin is more mixed, as is Copenhagen. The Paris housing sector is a bit smaller than Amsterdam’s, and most of their affordable housing lies outside the city. All of these cities, however, are under constant pressure for a demand of affordable housing. It will be interesting to discover how each city deals with it’s own unique challenges, while also considering how we each face common struggles like climate change. I am quite excited to learn from them all.

What would you like to achieve with your event ?

It would be great if people really interacted with each other. There will be lots of opportunities to meet, discuss, and network with people from different countries. It is a once in a lifetime occasion when you’re working in the social housing sector to meet that many international individuals interested in the same subjects you are. These are very important topics we are discussing: migration, segregation, and diversity. No one really has the right answer for such struggles, but it is interesting to move forward with new ideas and give people the tools to deal with these challenges in their own cities.

What are you expecting at the International Social Housing Festival in general?

There are many people attending! This is great. I’m expecting to learn from others, partake in fruitful discussions, and have fun.

 

Learn more about AFWC’s event on June 19, ‘Social Housing strategies in major cities of Europe!’

Register for AFWC’s event here!

 

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