Affordable Housing as a Human Right? Insights from the We Make the City festival, Amsterdam

By Marie Oltmer & Giorgia Silvestri of the DRIFT UrbanA team

As part of the UrbanA project, we participated in the conference A HOME FOR EVERYBODY that was held during the We Make the City festival on June 19th 2019. Here we share our main insights from the day.

The conference revolved around the premise that housing should be seen as a human right, not a commodity, as argued by Leilani Farha, UN housing envoy. In her contribution by video Farha spelt out the problems of global housing patterns — increasing homelessness, especially for young people and the disadvantaged; escalating costs of housing combined with the absence of simultaneous wage adjustment; and the new dominance of big financial actors. Human rights play a vital role in challenging the commodification of housing, she said. How can housing become a commons rather than a commodity, and what are the challenges inherent in this shift? Artists, activists, researchers, policy-makers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, citizens and other engaged individuals are all part of the solution. As Farha put it: “The first step is to refuse accepting what is unacceptable.”

For the architect and founder of the Urban-Think Tank (U-TT) Alfredo Brillembourg, housing is democracy. In his presentation he argued that as much as housing can disempower people, it can be source of empowerment. He gave the example of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, where people were empowered thanks to a combination of digital approaches and creative architecture and design.

The economist Laurie MacFarlane referred to the paradox of property — involving aspects of freedom as much as dynamics of exclusion. The value of land increases with the development of good infrastructure or the availability of parks and other green or blue spaces. Hence, the value of land is created by others, he said. Often, however, only landlords benefit. MacFarlane argued for the deregulation of the rental system and the de-financialisation of housing, through cooperative housing or taxing of land, for example.

Given that a liveable city can mean very different things to different people, it became clear that we need a diversity of people involved in a kaleidoscope of solutions, experimenting and acting together.

Community-led housing models

Community led-housing and social-housing cooperatives are models for contributing to affordable housing and of enhancing housing as a human right. Examples presented in the afternoon showed how land can be perceived as a public good rather than simply an investment for real estate companies. While these alternatives to the traditional housing market model have the potential to make housing more affordable, they tend to be initiated by mainly highly educated, middle class people, and still fail to reach wider audiences.

Urban planner Jaqueline Tellinga introduced IkbouwmijnhuisinAlmere, a program in which private clients are given the chance to buy a plot directly from the local authority without the engagement of a real estate company. The plot owners can then design and build their own house. She was questioned as to the real participatory nature of the program, with some arguing that it could not fundamentally challenge the housing system because the price of the plots sold by the municipality are based on the housing market.

Two other innovative housing programs by the municipality of Amsterdam were introduced: the ground-lease system and pilot social housing cooperatives. With a ground lease, the person buying a building or apartment does not buy the ground on which the building stands. Instead, they sign a lease for the right to use the ground for a certain period of time. The owner pays the city a fee to do so, known as the ground rent. The ground-lease represents an important opportunity but it is also difficult to regulate for in a way that is affordable for people on low incomes.

Maarten van Poelgeest, a catalyser of community-led housing models in Amsterdam, argued that the municipality could enable solutions to the housing crisis by establishing more pilots of alternative housing models. Reducing bureaucracy would facilitate such citizens’ initiatives, he said.

There was discussion about Dutch social housing corporations being run as “privatised public authorities”. It was argued that they control the social housing market and give little space for civil society experimentation. Local authorities need to change from a top-down and highly regulated system towards a more citizen-empowering and less controlling system that supports innovative community-led solutions. At the same time, there is a need for regulations to reduce the power of real estate company control of the housing market system. MacFarlane suggested that the community land trust model could be an inspiring example to adapt to the Dutch context, but it requires the financial support of government authorities and banks, as well as the development of legal regulations.

Green gentrification

In our session we introduced the notion of green gentrification, as “the process through which environmental improvements, such as the development of green spaces, leads to increasing property value (connected to a rising quality of life) and subsequently to the exclusion and displacement of vulnerable residents, to make space for new and wealthier ones”, as described by our UrbanA colleagues at the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability.

We then facilitated a world café session, where we asked participants to share their own professional and personal experiences of green gentrification. De Ceuvel in Amsterdam, as well as the Floriade in Almere were mentioned as possible examples of green gentrification. De Ceuvel describes itself as a “city playground for innovation, experimentation and creativity” where sustainability is made more tangible and accessible. Floriade is an international exhibition and garden festival in Almere. Both contributed to urban transformation through the development of infrastructure and housing, tourism, the creation of green initiatives (eg the Nobelhorst in Almere), but also increasing housing prices and subsequent social discontent.

There is a tension between opening up and closing of a city, and initiatives that work towards a green, sustainable and just city are not immune from processes of exclusion and discrimination. This does not mean, however, that any initiative that poses a potential risk of contributing to green gentrification should be avoided. Rather, we need to be aware of the risks and unintended consequences, and to design appropriate policies. For example ensuring that greening initiatives are accompanied by interventions to make, or maintain, affordable housing.

Time was another aspect that was discussed during the world café. In the past we built cities slowly, over time, said Brillembourg. In the globalised and digitalised world of today, how can we find a balance between fast solutions and democractic processes? Fast solutions fail to have long-term perspectives. Possible solutions such as co-housing or renewable energy technology, however, only work with a long-term mindset. Therefore the housing technology and approaches used, as well as the people who apply them, need to have a long-term perspective.

We need to think about how to improve housing for everyone without gentrification, how we create a green and environmentally-friendly city without excluding disadvantaged groups, how we make sure that a diversity of people have access to renewable energy and a say in energy transitions. Ecological sustainability and justice go hand in hand, and it is up to us to unveil and avoid the dynamics that prevent our cities becoming more liveable, thriving, sustainable and just for all.

Further reading and action



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