As Dutch residents struggle to find housing, some are trying new initiatives

The Netherlands is experiencing one of the worst housing crises in all of Europe. The new coalition government led by the far-right Freedom party has promised “large scale” housing construction over the next few years but many say it will not be enough to resolve the issue. One group of young Dutch citizens has come up with their own solution.

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Benjamin Caton, who is 27 years old, reckons that he has moved to a new home 14 times in three years in Amsterdam. His friend Michiel Voskamp said he has moved six times in the past year alone.

Both Dutch nationals, Caton and Voskamp have full-time jobs, but their experience reflects the highly dysfunctional housing market in the Netherlands, where rents have soared in recent years and tenants’ rights have been increasingly restricted.

A one-bedroom apartment in the city costs a minimum of $1,300 monthly, while the take-home pay for middle-income earners is a little more than $2,400 a month. But it’s not just about the price of rent. In larger Dutch cities like the capital, Amsterdam, the housing supply is so limited that many young people like Caton and Voskamp can spend months switching between staying with friends and family before finding a suitable place to live.

After struggling to find housing, Benjamin Caton and Michiel Voskamp formed a group called De Torteltuin, or “Dove Garden,” a sustainable housing collective.Orla Barry/The World

A multitude of factors

Housing experts blame the crisis on a multitude of factors: a lack of new housing, an increase in the population, a surge in demand from the expat community and the policies of the former government. It’s not just students and young professionals who are struggling either.

Tamara Kuschel, who works with a homeless charity in Amsterdam, says she noticed a change in the type of people coming to their door eight or nine years ago.

”They would arrive looking well-dressed, a laptop under their arm, but then they would hang out in the office all day.” Prior to 2015, her organization, De Regenboog Groep, usually worked with people struggling with addiction or serious mental health issues. Now, she said, it’s also people with full-time jobs and children who say they have nowhere else to go.

“Many have just gone through a divorce or a breakup,” Kuschel said. “After the breakup, one of the partners gets the house and the other one can’t find anywhere to rent, and they end up on the streets or sleeping in their cars.”

“If you had told me three years ago that I would be sitting here asking for help, I would never have believed you.”

Tamara Kuschel, quoting clients at a homeless charity in Amsterdam

Kuschel’s group works with housing corporations and private landlords to source rooms at a reasonable price for those who suddenly find themselves with nowhere to live. Shame is a big problem, she added. “A lot of my clients say to me, ‘If you had told me three years ago that I would be sitting here asking for help, I would never have believed you. I had a nice house, two holidays a year, kids, a car, a good job, and now I’m here.’” But, Kuschel said, she tells them this could happen to anyone.

Housing prices have doubled on average in the Netherlands since 2013. In the early 2010s, the Dutch government, under former Prime Minister Mark Rutte, abolished its housing ministry.

Tamara Kuschel works with a homeless charity in Amsterdam. She says she’s noticed a change in the type of people coming to their door.Orla Barry/The World

A pro-market approach

The government took a strong pro-market approach for several years, explained Richard Ronald, professor of Housing, Society and Space at the University of Amsterdam. It actively courted foreign companies and encouraged them to invest in the sector. The rent cap for many private sector accommodations was abolished, and suddenly, being a landlord became a much more attractive prospect. Deregulation made it easier for landlords to evict tenants after two years and hike up rents.

“In 2016/2017, about 1 in 5 people buying a house in Amsterdam was a landlord,” Ronald said.

Richard Ronald is a professor of Housing, Society and Space at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.Orla Barry/The World

A new housing minister was appointed in 2022 as the housing crisis continued to worsen, who Ronald said, introduced measures that attempted to slow down the soaring prices. But today, an average house in the Netherlands still costs close to $500,000 — 10 times the average Dutch salary.

The waiting list for social housing is also growing. Currently, it can take seven or eight years to secure social housing, but in Amsterdam, the wait is closer to 20 years.

Bart Stuart is a visual artist and tenants’ rights campaigner.Orla Barry/The World

Visual artist and tenants’ rights campaigner Bart Stuart said the sale of social housing stock to private investors over the last decade has also created divisions within communities. On Jasmijn Street, in the north of Amsterdam, a block of semi-detached houses that were once corporation-owned stand on one side of the narrow street. The homes were sold off to private owners and investors a few years ago and have since been renovated with freshly painted yellow window frames and new red roof tiles.

Across the little road, however, a row of houses still owned by the local government is clearly more dilapidated. Many have serious problems inside, with mold and other structural issues, Stuart said, but the city council repeatedly ignores the tenants’ complaints. It’s hard, he added, because they can just look across the road and see what their homes could be like.

The new coalition government led by Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party (PVV) has promised a major boost in housing construction and an increase in social housing provisions. But Bart Stuart is skeptical of the proposals. He said that Wilders has blamed much of the Dutch housing problem on migrants and refugees. The populist leader claimed that a surge in migrants arriving in the Netherlands in the last few years has led to a shortage in housing for Dutch citizens.

On Jasmijn Street, in the north of Amsterdam, a block of semi-detached houses that were sold off to private owners and investors have been renovated with fresh paint and new red roof tiles. Across the road, a row of houses still under the ownership of the local government are more dilapidated.Orla Barry/The World

Sarah de Lange, a political science professor and expert on populism at the University of Amsterdam, said reports of a huge increase in migrant numbers are not true. “If you compare the Netherlands to some other countries in Western Europe, such as Germany, it’s actually a relatively low number [per capita]. More importantly, contrary to what the government has claimed, the number of migrants and refugees arriving is relatively stable over time.”

Sarah de Lange is a political science professor and expert on populism at the University of Amsterdam.Orla Barry/The World

The new coalition has vowed to introduce the “strictest asylum policy ever” using a temporary crisis asylum law to further crack down on migrants and refugees entering the country. But de Lange said that’s unlikely to have much impact on housing supply.

Brainstorming new ideas

In 2020, Benjamin Caton — the 27-year-old who’s had to move numerous times — had a conversation with a group of friends about the impossible situation they found themselves in. They started brainstorming ideas about what their ideal home would look like, and someone posed the question: “What if we built it ourselves?”

They formed a group called De Torteltuin, or “Dove Garden,” and began working on a proposal to build their own sustainable housing collective. Fellow Torteltuin member Michiel Voskamp said they envisaged a block of 40 apartments, from studios to three bedrooms, but with a shared living area for every four or five households.

“The whole Torteltuin concept is really based on this idea that we have a lot of shared space,” he said. The building would be timber-clad with solar panels on the roof and a music studio in the basement. 

They applied to city hall, and in 2021, their project was accepted. The group has since expanded to 30 members, and between crowdfunding, loans from the bank, city hall and two bond issues, they have raised close to $10 million. Total construction costs are expected to be around $13 million. Voskamp said they are hopeful the building, which will be located a 20-minute tram ride from the Amsterdam city center, will be completed in late 2025 or early 2026.

An architect’s drawing of the cooperative housing project in Amsterdam, called De Torteltuin.Courtesy of Natrufied Architecture

The collective will own the apartments and each of the tenants, like Caton and Voskamp, will rent their flats. A third of the building is to be set aside for social housing and available to vulnerable groups like asylum seekers, Caton said.

“The collective is really a protest against the way the housing market operates in this country,” he explained. “I still won’t own my own home, but this is a place I can imagine living in for the long term. Hopefully one day, my future children will grow up there too.”

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