5 Austrians Define Dutch Social Housing

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This is a multi-part series that will discuss social housing in the Netherlands from the perspective of 5 Austrian students who spent time in the country doing research and studies.   All credit for these articles go to

Linda Dreier | Patrick Kammerzelt | Philipp Ringswirth | Marlene Samhaber | Julia Staufer

How 5 Viennese students ended up in Amsterdam

April 10, 2017 – a nice wonderful spring day in Vienna – we are walking by Karl-Marx-Hof, one of the biggest and most famous social housing projects of the city. On the wall of the building a sign reads:

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 “This apartment complex was built by the municipality of Vienna in the years 1927-1930” (own translation)

For the Viennese, such signs and the masses of social housing buildings are quite normal. Many people are proud of the long history Vienna has when it comes to build affordable housing for its citizens. And so are we – Patrick, Marlene, Linda, Julia, and Philipp.

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As students in Vienna we all know about how hard it is to find a place to live. Recently, the prices for housing are rising in Austria’s capital city too – despite the social housing programs. We start discussing whether the Viennese way to conquer housing problems is the best. The debate reaches an international level and it is said that social housing is under threat European-wide, especially since the 1980s: Since then public expenditure pressures grow more and more and liberalization and privatization have gained more importance. After some time of intense arguing about what would be best and no conclusion anywhere to be seen on the horizon, we decide it’s time to see how things are done somewhere else – a trip to Amsterdam, a city that also counts on social housing, is planned. (SCANLON et al. 2015)

In Amsterdam we meet renowned Dutch housing experts and visit places that are interesting for our research interest. For instance, we take walking tours through social housing neighborhoods, interview students who live in a student-social housing project, or visit the famous Het Schip museum.

If you are now interested in what we found out about social housing in Amsterdam, check out our 10-fact section.

Fact 1: Defining Social Housing

Social housing in the Netherlands is NOT public housing: It is built by, owned by and managed by private organizations.

When going from one European city to another in order to get a deeper understanding of a process (in our case the provision of social housing) it is important to define what is at the center of focus.

What is social housing in Europe?

All EU-member states acknowledge that adequate housing is a fundamental human right and need. Nevertheless, many urbanites lack access to adequate housing. Some countries seek the answer to that problem in social housing. Social housing is, broadly speaking, housing that is “made available to be rented at a low cost by poor people” (merriam-webster.com).

Does this mean that social housing is the same across the European Union?

Josh Crites, a social housing professional with both practical and research experience, gives us the answer:

“There is no common definition for social housing in Europe. There are simply too many countries using different funding mechanisms or programs” (CRITES 2015).

Although no universal definition exists, social housing across Europe still shares some common elements:

  1. Mission: a general interest;
  2.  Objective: to increase supply of affordable housing by constructing, managing or purchasing social housing;
  3. Target: target groups are defined in terms of socio-economic status or the presence of vulnerabilities.  (BRAGA & PALVARINI 2013: 9)

Given that social housing is so different from one EU-country to the other, it is not surprising that the numbers vary considerably as well.

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The graph above shows the share of the social rental stock as a percentage of the total housing stock in the respective countries. This illustrates, firstly, the vast differences between the EU-member states and their social housing stocks, and secondly, how Austria and the Netherlands exceed the EU-average by far. Coming from Vienna, where the municipality owns a large part of the existing social housing stock, we wonder how it is done in the Netherlands, where the percentage of social-rented housing is even bigger. Ultimately, we ask ourselves:

What is social housing in the Netherlands?

In the context of the Netherlands, social housing is not public housing. It is provided by state and non-state actors working together. Per definition, social housing is:

“Social housing in the Netherlands is buil[t] by, owned by and managed by private organisations” (AALBERS & HOLM 2008: 16).

Currently, the Dutch social housing stock consists of 2.4 million dwellings which are owned by about 500 housing associations. The tenants pay rents below commercial rates. (VAN GENT 2010)

Author: jcrites

Josh Crites is an American social housing professional with both practical and research experience. He has worked at 3 social housing companies in the USA in roles ranging from policy and operations to process improvement and strategy. Josh is a former Alexander von Humboldt German Chancellor Fellow. During that fellowship, Josh researched and worked with social housing companies in Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, England, Estonia and Spain. He is an avid writer and advocate for the provision of social housing around the world.

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