New targets and new solutions for social housing

More than ever, social housing is fulfilling a central social role, as a weapon against the rapidly growing housing shortage in many countries. Social discontent about this is great, and this in turn reinforces another social problem: the increasingly widespread dislike of asylum seekers. Most people are naturally hospitable and helpful, but when the choice is between housing your own child or someone from very far away, it becomes difficult to remain hospitable.

In the Netherlands, social housing institutions have been given a clear mandate by the government: to build 300,000 additional homes by 2030 and to make the existing housing stock much more energy efficient. The government has also given them more financial clouts to meet these performance agreements. But there are simply not enough ready-to-go building plans to spend that money quickly, so it will initially sit on the shelf. Moreover, rising interest rates wipe out some of the financial clouts, and the average lead time for a Dutch housing project is 12 years. In short, there is a good chance that the affordable housing sector will fail to meet the construction plans, despite all the firm language and good intentions. Social discontent about this will be inevitable.

But housing is a means, not an end. The real goal, of course, is the number of people with a roof over their heads. The Dutch social housing sector does that for about 4.2 million people, 850,000 of whom are single. When these institutions set goals in terms of the number of homes, then building is the only solution. But if they would redefine their target to housing many more people, then suddenly the perspective changes and a wider range of solutions comes into play.

Suppose that from now on social housing institutions promise to house an additional 600,000 people by 2030. To get there, new construction remains important. But in addition, they can start actively encouraging their tenants to share their homes with others, so using the existing housing stock much more effectively.

Many of their single tenants have plenty of room for that. In the affordable rental market, singles’ homes are on average smaller than those of multi-person households, but the difference is minimal: only 8 m2 on average. And that small difference applies to all age groups. Singles aged 55 and older rent a social housing unit of 80 m2 on average, compared to 86 m2 for multi-person households in that age group. Homes of younger multi-person households are on average even smaller than that 80 m2 of older singles. An international comparison also shows that the Dutch live spaciously: they have an average of 65 m2 of space per person, compared with 44 m2 and 46 m2 in England and Germany, for example.

Some social housing institutions are already experimenting with the idea of home sharing. Portaal is an example and allows tenants to rent out a room. The SOR, a social housing institution focused on homes for the elderly, commissioned independent research on the willingness of residents to share housing. This would involve sharing facilities such as kitchen and bathroom, with each person having their own living space. The findings indicate that one in five tenants would be willing to share housing.

But there are still lots of roadblocks. Sharing a home has disadvantages, of course, and the home must be suited for it. Therefore, people need some encouragement, but unfortunately, they hardly get it from most social housing institutions. In their rental contracts, for example, there is almost always a standard clause prohibiting home sharing. Such a clause is difficult to understand, even from a purely financial perspective. In fact, the probability of arrears is reduced if there is additional income from subletting. Thus, this clause should be removed from contracts.

In addition, they should organize active support for home-sharing, for example through an active information campaign among tenants and by offering to make targeted modifications to a home, such as an extra door in a stairwell, or a sink and hood in the room to be rented out. Corporations could invest in in-house experts to do this quickly and efficiently.

The big advantage is that they can get straight to work solving the real problem: housing citizens, and don’t have to wait for the availability of building sites and lengthy procedures due to protesting neighbors. If one-fifth of all single tenants rented out part of their homes, that alone would provide additional housing for 170,000 Dutch citizens.

The question, of course, is whether this is a structural solution to the housing shortage. But even if this would only lead to a more flexible supply of housing, it would already bring major social benefits. And it would simultaneously solve some other major problems, such as loneliness and poverty, increasing energy efficiency at the same time.

In short, if housing associations shift their goal and get to work on this, they can quickly increase their social significance. Here is a great opportunity up for grabs. Let’s get to it!