Europe – hands off our housing associations

1 November 2010

Europe – hands off our housing associations

We must never allow Europe and the new government to break up the social housing market to the advantage of the free market and at the expense of the chance for decent housing.

Sadet Karabulut is a Member of Parliament for the SP. Dennis de Jong represents the SP in the European Parliament.

Sadet Karabulut Europe believes that the Netherlands' housing associations receive state aids. An earlier dispute over the housing market was settled when former minister Eberhard van der Laan made a deal with Europe: henceforth, housing associations would be obliged to let 90% of their property to households with a combined maximum annual income of €33,000. If this measure, as yet unadopted, goes through, the very basis of social housing will be threatened. The new housing minister must go back to Europe with the message: Europe, keep your hands off our housing associations.

A threshold of €33,000 will limit housing associations to being a service for the very poorest. It is, however, not only the poor who, in order to find somewhere to live, must depend on a housing association. Many households with an income just above €33,000 earn too little to be able to buy and maintain their own house or apartment. This would threaten to exclude a large group of people, making it problematic for them to find a suitable place to live.

It is important to understand that Europe does not see an income ceiling of €33,000 as written in stone. It is up to the Netherlands to demarcate the target group for the housing associations' social letting activities, and the threshold of €33,000 is simply a poor result obtained by former minister Van der Laan in his negotiations. Nothing stands in the way of the new minister's going back to Europe in order to raise this limit, or better still to get rid of it. There is every reason to do so, as otherwise hundreds of thousands of tenants will be the victims, and our cities will be transformed into ghettos from which people in the middle income band have been chased away.

Furthermore, these associations are not private firms and there is no question of their receiving state aids. It is true that they can, thanks to a surety from the state, take out low interest loans, and that they can in some cases receive a discount on the price of land as well as in certain instances be considered for financial support for planning and sanitation. But housing associations are not-for-profit bodies and invest in the surroundings and in the community.

Take for instance the community development, maintenance of public space, community projects and investments in non-profit community centres, schools, sports facilities and accommodation for the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Associations receive support, but give in return support to the community. This cannot be said of private landlords.

Associations are in fact milked by the state, and the new government is looking to take a strong grip on their income. It is not only Europe which should keep its hands off our social housing. For a good stock of social rented accommodation, we need housing associations in good health.

It is not so much the income threshold, but above all the whole character of the associations which this discussion will determine. The European Commission has to date been able to think only in terms of markets and profits. They have difficulty with not-for-profit enterprises and institutions, of which the housing associations are a good example, though this also goes for cooperatives.

On 16th November a series of hearings on the 'social economy;' will begin in the European Parliament. The Commissioners to whom this is most relevant have already let us know that they are interested, because they also must admit that the economic crisis was caused by a culture of runaway greed. Enterprises and institutions not motivated by profit should be supported rather than opposed. This is especially true of housing associations. We must never allow Europe and the new government to break up the social housing market to the advantage of the free market and at the expense of the chance for decent housing.

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