University of Groningen: Home-building aldermen made the difference 100 years ago

How can municipalities tackle the housing shortage? Municipal housing corporations could be the solution—just like they were 100 years ago.

In 1901, municipalities in the Netherlands were given the responsibility of building social housing. They did not only supervise high-quality public housing but also established their own municipal housing construction companies. ‘This was really needed’, explains historian Stefan Couperus. ‘Workers in the cities lived in tightly packed hovels with narrow staircases, little sunlight, and hardly any sanitary facilities. Multiple families often shared a house, living in poor hygienic conditions, as a result of which diseases like cholera were able to spread.’

Amsterdam as a shining example
The city councils energetically got to work, with Amsterdam as a shining example. Aldermen like De Miranda and Wibaut supervised the building of good houses, ensured that everyone had access to public facilities, and built roads below railway tracks so that facilities in the city were more accessible. ‘Their political goal was to improve the lives of Amsterdam’s residents’, says Couperus. ‘This boosted the city enormously and was followed up in many other cities.’

After the Second World War, the national government increasingly took responsibility for the construction of housing. Housing corporations were given a great role in implementing this. Since the 1990s, these corporations have strayed, in the opinion of Couperus. ‘They have rejected houses, built too few new homes, and invested in risky projects—like the millions lost by a Rotterdam housing corporation in purchasing the SS Rotterdam ship.’

Opportunities for now
Should we make dynamic, idealistic aldermen responsible for tackling the housing crisis once again? Couperus does see possibilities for a new municipal housing corporation that would construct houses itself, just as they did a century ago. ‘Even though city councils are much more complex than they were a century ago, when aldermen were given a free pass to tackle the problems’, admits Couperus.

‘In addition, work pressure is higher now, and many local councillors have to deal with outspoken, angry citizens. The number of municipal council members and aldermen is connected to the number of residents in a municipality. A municipality should be free to compose its own council, so that it can appoint more aldermen—including full-time ones. Then, local councillors could really make a difference.’

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