My daughter saw her first beggar in Brussels. We waited in the car at a red traffic light. A man with a sign around his neck that read ‘I’m homeless’ tapped the window. He wanted some change. We only had plastic cards in our pocket.
The daughter became sad. “Everyone has a house, right?” she asked. I tried to explain that a roof over your head is indeed a basic right, and that we all have to make that possible. For everyone. I reassured her that homeless people are rare in the Netherlands.
She was five at the time. Meanwhile, in the class of our group six, the first divorce is a fact. Father continues to live in the owner-occupied home. Mother moves to another part of the city because a house in the neighborhood is unaffordable: owner-occupied homes start at five to six hundred thousand euros and a rental home costs at least two thousand euros a month. Because she can’t afford that, she “chooses” to travel up and down for an hour to take her child to school.
I also know many more dire cases. Fathers who camp illegally for years in a garden shed without heating. At friends in the attic was no longer possible after a few weeks. Sitting like this thousands of Dutch people after a divorce without a home.
Finding affordable housing is a serious problem, not only in large cities such as Amsterdam, but also in the Randstad periphery such as Amersfoort. Working young people who have to pay 1,050 euros per month for a home of 45 square meters, as could be read on Saturday in de Volkskrant, hardly have any money left for other things.
While we have all never been so rich, a new generation of young people is in danger of falling into poverty. Unless parents step in. For those who are not that lucky, living independently is increasingly unfeasible.
I am a liberal. To me, that means that the government should guarantee every individual a basic existence that is dignified, the rest everyone can find out for themselves. That basic existence consists of: food and clothing, good healthcare, good education and of course a roof over your head. The four pillars of the welfare state. In the Netherlands we managed that reasonably well over the past decades.
But something is seriously wrong with that roof over everyone’s head right now. There are all sorts of reasons for this. That too little has been built, that interest rates are extremely low, so that house prices continue to rise, that the population is growing faster than ever estimated.
What would the government do if one of the three other basic needs is at stake? Act hard, of course. The free market and restrictive laws would be temporarily put out of action. In the event of a food shortage, the government would distribute the available food as evenly as possible. The black market would be tackled, because we don’t accept wanting to earn from something like that. The same would happen in healthcare or education. It is inconceivable that we would accept that the doctor or the teacher would only offer his services to those who can afford them.
But when affordable housing disappears, ‘The Hague’ seems to be watching helplessly while approximately one million homes have to be built before 2030. Of course, every politician is calling for more to be built; but it doesn’t happen. The mortgage rules for young people and the self-employed are being relaxed slightly, drops on a hot plate.
There is no such thing as really thorough intervention, one way or the other, because there is a crisis going on. It is incomprehensible that we accept that nitrogen standards hinder housing construction, that we accept that homes are used as an investment object with rents without any brakes, that extreme profits due to rising house prices are not even taxed, that land speculators are allowed to buy pastures around large cities and cut them up again. resell, that legal proceedings can delay housing construction for years. And incomprehensible that the government does not shout much louder that the European Central Bank must stop with that idiotic low-interest policy.
In addition to politics, society also has butter on its head. Elderly people, such as my mother-in-law, who continue to live alone in a closet of a house after the children have left home, may well ask themselves whether this is socially desirable. And why does hardly anyone feel compelled to rent out part of their oversized property for a reasonable amount to someone who needs it, as landladies used to do? Because, unlike with food, education and healthcare, we continue to see a home as purely private property, rather than something that everyone is entitled to?
Aylin Bilic is an entrepreneur and publicist.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 2, 2021