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When neighbourhoods generate solutions

A field visit in Rotterdam's Afrikaanderwijk

Rotterdam , 19 October 2015 | Social
During the field visit in Afrikaandwrwijk (LW)
During the field visit in Afrikaandwrwijk (LW)

Housing Europe participated in the field visit "Field truths: Social and housing investments for better living conditions in urban communities" organised by Aedes and by its member association, Woonbron in the neighbourhood of Afrikaanderwijk in Rottedam. Michalis Goudis reports from an area that's supposed to be the most deprived in the Netherlands but apparently also a region that stands for its social innovation...

Like in most of big ports, the contrasts between the various neighbourhoods of Rotterdam are clearly visible. In the largest European port another city lies beneath the shiny skyscrapers and the modern architectural gems. The National programme South Rotterdam (NPRZ) is trying to address the inequalities between the northern and the southern part of the city. It is a joint initiative of the Dutch government, the municipality of Rotterdam, local schools, hospitals, social housing bodies and the business community.

Aedes, the National Federation of Dutch Housing Associations and a member of Housing Europe organised a field visit for a Brussels delegation of MEPs and European Commission fonctionnaires. The visit was an opportunity for EU officials to get a better understanding of community challenges occurring in difficult urban settings and ways in which social housing tackles them.

Social Housing in the Netherlands

The day started in the office of Woonbron, a social housing corporation based in Rotterdam and a member of Aedes, with an introduction to the Dutch Social Housing System by Sebastien Garnier. Sebastien provided a brief overview of the historical evolution of the sector, clarified how social housing is defined in the country, identified the key challenges with the context of the crisis and concluded by making the link between the national market and the EU. Some of the key figures mentioned during the presentation include:

  • Number of social housing organisations in the Netherlands: 378
  • Jobs in the social housing sector: 26.200
  • Average amount of monthly rent: 470€
  • Number of houses built: 33.000

All Dutch participants stressed the fact that the tax on social dwellings is a real burden, considering that in 2016 it will reach a total of 1.6 billion Euros.

The President of Woonbron, Bert Wijbenga presented the mission of the association that is active also in Delft, Spijkenisse and Dordrecht. While Woonbron’s financial status is viable, Bert highlighted that the crisis had a significant impact both in terms of employment and mainly in terms of construction and renovation.

Marco Pastors from the Municipality of Rotterdam presented the National Programme Rotterdam Zuid (South) in detail. Mr. Pastors stated that around 200.000 people live in the South of the city, 13.000 of which are on (municipal) social allowance and much of the housing is of poor quality. The wider region has changed from a place of settlement for a rural population working mainly in an industrial economy to a highly urbanised, rather dense area with a hyper ethnically diverse population. The approach of the Programme is dual:

  1. The long-term goal is to elevate its output on socio-economic indicators to the average level of the 4 largest cities (G4) in the Netherlands by 2030
  2. An intensive, integrated, communal and long-lasting approach should result in an area that can be seen to be the economic engine for the Greater Rotterdam area and the country as a whole

In this integrated approach around 3 basic pillars “School-Work-Living”, housing plays a key role with new investments urgently needed. To this end, Marco Pastors and his team have reached an agreement with the EIB to provide with low interest rates investors who will decide to fund new dwellings or renovation of the existing private stock. The planned/expected investments for the period 2015-2018 amount to a total of 1.3 billion Euros.

Visiting Afrikaanderwijk

It only takes 20 minutes by car- or by bus in our case- to get from Rotterdam Central Station to Afrikaanderwijk. The view of the skyscrapers from the heart of the port quickly gets into the background once somebody crosses the Erasmus Bridge, the one locals call “the Swan” because of its shape; a single 139-metre-high asymmetrical white pylon with a prominent horizontal base.

The borrow of Afrikaanderwijk is in the epicentre of National programme South Rotterdam (NPRZ). Traditionally a working-class neighbourhood, Afrikaanderwijk was initially established in the beginning of the 20th century, hosting people who emigrated from South Africa after the Second Boer War between the British and the Dutch settlers. Its name comes from the pattern of street names which are based on South African geography in general. The neighbourhood was one of the first in the Netherlands to have a majority of residents with an international background, primarily consisting of Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese, and Antilleans.

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The neighbourhood cooperative

Our first stop was at a former pump house that has been transformed into a cooperative kitchen. “Wijk de Keuken van Zuid” is the core activity of the neighbourhood cooperative that has been established 5 years ago on the residents’ initiative. The kitchen started operating in 2013 and as the director, Aicha El-Fassi says: “We just created a network of people who had a talent. Out of this talent we thought of generating jobs, improving skills and creating facilities for the locals”.

Cooking classes, workshops and catering services are just a few of the activities of the cooperative that also supports local shopkeepers who provide with all the products and ingredients needed. Instead of making profit, due to its social mission, the money is re-invested in the neighbourhood for social services. The pump house was given to the cooperative by the housing association, Vestia at low, regulated rent despite the generous buying offer by a Fund.

The Mayor

The Mayor of Rotterdam also joined the table a few minutes later. In his statement he stressed the need to link the EU Urban Agenda with the local Urban Agendas, highlighting that this is among the Dutch Presidency priorities. Responding to an intervention by Housing Europe regarding the added value of solutions at local level, such as the neighbourhood cooperative, Mr Ahmed Aboutaleb said that the role of the cities is increasingly important, especially in light of the refugee crisis, while he insisted that more work has to be done in terms of knowledge sharing among local authorities at EU level.

Mr. Abutaleb suggested that innovative projects that generate solutions locally should be exempted from EU rules concerning state aid, so that practical obstacles can be easily overcome. Closing his presentation he briefly shared the axes of the policy of his administration regarding contact with citizens. “We hold a meeting with 200-300 citizens every two weeks in different neighbourhoods where all relevant stakeholders and representatives of local authorities are present. Vice-mayors and municipal employees have to take note of people’s problems and respond within 6 days”.

The school

After a walk around the neighbourhood the group visited the primary school, which is situated just a few meters away of the Essalam Mosque and also nearby De Kuip, the football stadium of Feyenord. According to the teacher out of 250 pupils, only one’s both parents are Dutch, whereas 24% are of Moroccan origin, 18% Turkish, 7% Surinamese etc. The school plays therefore an important inclusive role both for children but also for their parents who often receive homework, too.

Along with the official school programme, 6 more hours are offered per week on a voluntary basis. The so called Community Team, consisting of representatives from all relevant local stakeholders, takes note of all sorts of everyday problems, such as overcrowded apartments, and provides with a series of after school activities, including care and social support.

Can housing measures alleviate poverty and strengthen urban areas through special community teams integrating social housing, schools and care? All participants seemed to agree before boarding the Thalys back to the European capital…

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