Article, Volume #43

The Empowerment of ‘Self Power’

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Once upon a time ‘left’ equaled ‘collective’ and ‘right’ ‘individual’. Those were the days. Today, it looks like ‘left’ adopted a rightwing agenda in its plea for individual freedom and the right to choose. In the Netherlands, social-democrat politician Adri Duivesteijn advocated a different approach in the nation’s housing program: instead of continuing with top-down provision of the housing product by commercial developers and housing associations alike, stimulate and propagate individual house building. It seemed like swearing in church when this became political in the late 90s, but upon a closer look the policy stems from a consistent analysis of the individual’s place in society. Volume sat with former alderman, currently MP, Adri Duivesteijn to learn about the difference between the right to decide and the position to do so.

Adri Duivesteijn

Arjen Oosterman: In 1998, as a PvdA (socialist) member of the Lower House, you took the initiative together with D66 (liberal-democrats), to oblige municipalities to realize 30% of the housing sector on ‘self-build’ plots. What did that entail?

Adri Duivesteijn: The motion was the upshot of a line of thought that began during my first period as alderman (1980-1984) in The Hague. My colleague, alderman Van Otterloo, had initiated a competition for ‘dream houses’, in the framework of a small ‘model neighborhood’. The winners received land on which to fulfill their dream. I saw all the plans, possibly around 400 of them, in the Grote Kerk. It was fantastic, but at that stage I didn’t fully realize the inherent potential. All those different ideas from all those different households. That was a ‘eureka’ moment. I’ve always been very much in favor of the right of self-determination, that people should shape their own home and social environment. In those days I also denounced fake participation, in which people were allowed to have their say, but the same building plans were effectuated everywhere.

Later, by then I was the director of the NAi (Netherlands Architecture Institute), I went to Lima to set up an exhibition demonstrating that a different objective existed other than glitter and glamour in architecture – so, the connection between city and community, and the significant role of architecture and city planning in that context. In the nineteen-twenties such ties were very strong. What I certainly hadn’t realized was that in Lima it wasn’t about slums, but neighborhoods with people who had moved to the city from the countryside, with perspectives, a desire to build up their lives and incredible optimism. What I found so fascinating in Lima was that people get a stamp indicating the public space, meaning the public program can be well organized. They then get on with their own houses. And in a 10-, 15-year process you see that what started as a straw-mat shack, develops into a regular dwelling. Houses that yuppies then want to buy into. It was spectacular to see the enormous diversity, but also that the houses were bigger than those we build at urban extension locations. And that people did so without any real capital. But that also applied for the municipality which was working without all that much money.

Here we had proof of self power. And the fact that you can organize it like that if you just have a view about city planning. In due course, Carel Weeber came to the conclusion – partly because of our exhibition, as he told me himself – that our approach was unusual. And he was converted to what he called ‘anything-goes’ housing. Later, in Almere, it was known as ‘consumers’ choice housing’, meaning the developer could continue to play a part.

An ensuing experience was a holiday trip past all ‘Vinex’* locations, at the very beginning of that development. It shocked me to see that all those houses (some of which were still under construction) were all the same. The floor plans were almost identical, everywhere, with a fake exterior. Later I discovered the developer’s architects had been given a little A-3 book with the floor plans they had to adhere to. And the Netherlands’ best-known architectural offices were obediently following them. They opted for turnover. MVRDV’s associated project at Ypenburg is a tongue-in-cheek protest – brilliant – but nothing more.

That made me think: we’ve got to break in! It resulted in that motion, that 1998 amendment. Since the Second World War we’ve had a very small number of people in the Netherlands who determine what happens in the building sector. That’s why D66, which was still a young party then, wanted an investigation into the structure of the construction industry, because they felt power was so concentrated in a number of companies collaborating with the ministries that they were controlling the production market, determining prices and dictating the pace.

In the Netherlands, unlike in many other countries, production is entirely controlled by a select group of people representing companies that make tacit agreements with one another. So our motion was intended to impinge on the situation. It never worked, even though the motion was passed and was incorporated in the junior minister’s documents – but meanwhile private building dropped to 7%.

AO: But it’s also a politically interesting moment. From a relatively unexpected quarter, the social democrats, a motion is tabled which appears to be directed at private ownership. The conservative junior minister espoused it and proceeded to be torn two ways. He was practically obliged to choose between ‘big business’ and ‘small business’.

AD: A social democrat will always consider Spatial Planning to be important. And he will always want to put the ordinary citizen in a position in which he can function. The big difference between the social democrats and our conservative friends is that the latter maintain emphatically that the individual citizen is the prime focus and, for that purpose, we have a market and the market enables the citizen to choose. But the market is (also) an intermediary, a level between the citizen and government. A social democrat wants to have a direct relationship between government and citizen – to enable the latter to function. But it is indeed a frequent misunderstanding that self-build is conservative policy.

AO: In the Netherlands, we’re coming out of a period, possibly a century, in which the government provided and made available to those who are unable to secure minimal quality (housing in this case), the welfare state. And then, sometime in the ’nineties, you came to the conclusion that it was no longer tenable, was reaching its limits, or was no longer applicable because circumstances had changed since the ’thirties or ’fifties’.

AD: I’ve always opposed the dominance of parties that have taken control of the welfare state: first the housing associations, then property developers, who became welfare-oriented. “I know what you need, also you’re not capable of doing it – building a house yourself.” The institutes look after the people. I’ve always said: people should look after themselves. And conditions should be created to achieve that in a responsible way. The program in Almere ‘I am building my house affordably’ is a good example. There’s great skepticism about people’s ‘self power’. We have a building structure in which building is monopolized and we have an interpretation of the welfare state dominated by thinking for others. And we had a market in which everything the specialists proposed was realized and accepted. That market has changed. The housing shortage has been largely overcome, there’s only strain in part of the housing market. And that’s the result of people’s desire to have a bigger dwelling and move house, a matter of quality, not quantity in absolute terms.

AO: So you propose two structural alterations for the Netherlands: a change of mentality and a change of system. So Homerus Quarter in Almere Poort, where you introduced self-build plots on a large scale and wanted literally to shut property developers out, was intended as breaching the system.

AD: Yes, brutally. Only the individual citizen was left. When we embarked on it, I was pretty nervous. Weren’t we overplaying our hand by ‘throwing’ 1000 or 1500 plots on the market? Property developers always create shortages. I was particularly worried about the big plots. Would there be a market for them? To my surprise, they were the very first to go. People from the city proved to have an awful lot of money and, in cultural terms, a lot of ‘ethnic minority’ Dutch bought them. And another thing we hadn’t predicted was that buyers, unlike people wanting an existing house, dealt very realistically with their financial possibilities. The criterion wasn’t what it might be ideally, but – very practical – what was feasible.

AO: Did you also see that people erected their houses by degrees, storey by storey, the way they sometimes do in southern countries?

AD: People really wanted to have their homes as soon as possible. Early on, there weren’t enough builders, but that problem soon resolved itself. But remember that 60% of the plots had catalogue houses built on them. Even then, they are always bigger, cheaper and better geared to the buyers’ wishes than what the market routinely offers. That 60% represents the ‘cement’ of the neighborhood and makes for serenity in the surroundings, while the 40% containing unique houses adds color to the neighborhood.

AO: In other words, people’s self-organizing ability is substantial. So what help (from the government) is still needed?

AD: In Almere Oosterwold, with Winy Maas of MVRDV, we radicalized that idea of self-build plots. Not pre-planning, but allowing the 4,000-hectare area [almost 10,000 acres] to materialize from initiatives. There are ‘ground rules’ with which the initiatives have to comply, but people have to organize the rest themselves. Also among themselves. Organized organic growth. But government must facilitate, in more general terms. A nice example was a group that wanted to develop several plots in Homerus Quarter jointly, but wanted to adapt the concomitant layout. That’s fine, that’s what it’s all about. Citizens come up with ideas that the urban planner or I, as a government official, don’t think of. Support is what’s needed.

AO: If, essentially, the individual is the one to launch the initiative, how as officials, can you make sure there’s differentiation and diversity?

AD: In Homerus Quarter I wanted a cross section of income groups, of housing types, of cultures. But self-build automatically generates that. You don’t need to do much.

AO: So what in fact is the role of the government?

AD: Spatial planning. I’m also an advocate of scarcity, of not throwing the world wide open and making everything possible. That’s why Homerus Quarter is an interesting case. We introduced a choice, but we left to chance how the neighborhood developed.

AO: Are we on the way to a city where public sector housing is no longer needed? Is that a perspective?

AD: Everything changes when there are no shortages. In 1980 or thereabouts I went to Liverpool with the city councilors of The Hague. Liverpool was having a rough time and a third of the housing stock was empty. There were some very strange effects. All the high-rise was empty and completely run down. But in the upscale residential areas the boring houses were empty too. Even in James Stirling’s Runcorn, which was relatively new, the corner houses, which were clearly less popular, were boarded up. Tragic. But an eye-opener. I continued to press for scarcity later on. A city benefits from scarcity. It’s unfortunate that not everyone has the same kind of house, but that’s preferable to the effects of unoccupied dwellings. But we’re now approaching a situation in which not much more is being built. That’s already the case in large parts of the Netherlands. And then you have a slack housing market. Prices are now being kept high artificially. Rent allowance for the lower income groups has the effect of raising prices. When it is withdrawn the whole ‘rental structure’ of the housing associations has to change. But I think the situation will remain unchanged for now, and that the housing associations will continue to play their part for the lower income groups. I just hope very large portions of their housing stock will be passed on to the citizens. Not ending in the market sector, selling off individually, but in ‘housing cooperatives’.

I managed in the Senate to get the housing cooperative included in the housing act, alongside the housing association. The idea is that the existing housing stock should be transferred to the citizens and, under their own management, they can define their own individual home. I envisage people taking charge of their own housing to a greater extent.

AO: Incidentally, I don’t understand why the housing associations are being hit with an extra tax while having to sell off part of what they own and being reduced to purely social housing, so being allowed to embark on any profitable development to defray the costs of social housing production. Politicians are forcing them to jump through some very small hoops.

AD: But there’s one thing you mustn’t forget. Altogether, the housing associations’ property is worth 285 billion euros, including € 90 billion in debts. So if today you were to sell all the associations as one company, you’d be very rich. Together they’re by far the wealthiest large-scale landowner we’ve ever had in this country. Even compared with feudal times. So I can imagine the associations being quite a bit smaller and more focused on the target group. They don’t need to own 2.4 million rental homes when the target group comprises 900,000 households.

AO: And that’s what we call an empowering society!

AD: Yes, very good.

AO: But is that still an inclusive society? If the individual takes charge of his own housing, the government has far less influence on where the individual takes up residence. It will be interesting to see how society sets itself up – if it remains a multicolored mosaic or actually splits up into specific groups. In the Netherlands the government has always been fiercely committed to mixing the population with a view to a stable society.

AD: In the Netherlands we’ve always been fiercely committed to artificial diversity: imposed from above. But in practice, the different groups have no contact whatsoever with one another. That’s emerged from various studies. In Homerus Quarter we mixed people up too, small plots are spread over the whole area for instance, but then we left it to chance. To my mind it’s spectacular that an inclusive society actually came about there, without any molding from us. We do have 30% social housing in the plan, self-build, but don’t specify how and where. You can interpret that as a criticism of Dutch post-war planning. As a government, you must facilitate things for people. The post-war neighborhoods are now a big challenge – all owned by the housing associations. I see the old reflexes cropping up: demolish a row and put up a new row in its place, with no influence for the individual. And neighborhoods like that are far more stigmatizing than what we’re now doing in Homerus Quarter.

AO: But is it a problem? Do you think it’s a problem when people group themselves?

AD: No, grouping like that is fine. But ask yourself: does the government do it or do the people themselves? A small house next to a big house is great, it adds interest.

AO: But what happens when it’s the other way round – if the Homerus Quarter turns into a ghetto of the rich?

AD: It just doesn’t happen.

AO: In Amsterdam a working class neighborhood like the Jordaan or De Pijp has been ‘yuppified’. Does that matter?

AD: I’ve noticed that the housing associations are harmonizing rents in the extreme, so when a house is vacated, the rent is increased substantially if the property is at an attractive location. And that the housing appraisal system [the criterion for subsidized rent] now includes in the appraisal location and unique attributes to a far greater extent. It means people on low incomes don’t have access to certain areas. We’re losing that. From a social-democratic perspective I believe it’s important to safeguard differentiation. In Amsterdam the ‘underclass’ is being driven out of the city to far beyond the beltway. Of course, that’s dreadful.

AO: So some form of protection will still be needed?

AD: In my view, yes. But I’m pessimistic. It’s becoming increasingly ‘normal’ to accept that inequality exists. And that the market works like a sorting machine. All these processes conceal a great underlying ideological battle. The liberals and the conservatives, and the Christian-democrats, often take part, believing the government should be as small as possible and the market as big as possible. And that affects all aspects, health care, you name it. In the past the insurance companies and the housing associations were bodies implementing government objectives. Now it’s market objectives.

* National housing program, indicating in which municipalities and what areas a total of 800,000 dwellings should be realized between 1995 and 2005.

Volume #43: Self-Building CityThis interview was held at Adri Duivesteijn’s house in The Hague on January 23rd, 2015, and published in Volume #43, ‘Self-Building City’.

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