Does Social Housing Have Real Accountability?


            Heerlen      Planning the first organizing drives in the Netherlands, we of course don’t know what the issues might be, neighborhood to neighborhood, but we’re pretty confident that there will be tenant issues with both private landlords and with housing corporations.  Private landlords are what they are, but these housing corporations are an animal of a different breed.  We like to think of them as “public housing,” and they serve that function, and are often seen as synonymous with “social housing,” run by nonprofit management firms, but the more we tried to get our arms around the system, the more complex it seemed.

Talking to two aldermen for the City of Heerlen, we started to get an introductory course in both the advantages and challenges faced by tenants under this system.  There’s an annual review of the agreement between the municipality and the housing corporations, but it’s more of a discussion, than a forum for accountability.  Appeals over the operation of a particular housing corporation – and there are over 300 in the Netherlands – have to go to a national commission.  The corporations build the housing and they own it.  The municipality seemed to have little leverage.  When I asked if the city had the right to buy the corporation out if there were problems, similar to a public utility, the answer was “No,” meaning that in a final analysis they are almost a power unto themselves, which was surprising.

The Netherlands trade association for the bulk of these corporations puts an interesting spin on the situation.  They claim they are governed by national “rules and regulations.”  They assert that they are accountable to various municipal and tenant stakeholders.  Rents are limited to 8.8% increases according to an “in a nutshell” pamphlet they issued in 2017.  They make other claims about guidance and restrictions from the European Union and efforts to save energy and retrofit buildings.  Nonetheless, anything amounting to real accountability or sharp teeth that would really protect tenants and advance their interests was still strangely missing.

Indeed, some of these corporations provide some social amenities.  A largely senior facility in one area had a community garden and a social center of sorts for residents.  More research will be needed to determine if this was a contract requirement or a case of noblesse oblige.  The 100-year record of this form of social housing invariably makes it difficult to change, but the public involvement in providing cheaper construction loans to enable their building along with favorable interest rates for retrofits and renovations should give the public more voice in their operation than seems the case at first glance.

We even had a hearty conversation with a former housing executive on whether the housing corporations’ contracts with municipalities were available through public information requests.  What could be proprietary for a nonprofit with exclusive rights to build and a contract with the city?  More research will tell us whether their nonprofit status provides additional tax benefits, similar to a tax-exempt status in the US, for example.  There may also be general guidelines for nonprofits which also cover these social housing corporations that deal with personal enrichment or self-dealing.

There’s a lot of work we need to do to understand these outfits and the rules and regulations that cover them, so we’ll have to be careful to guard against “premature certainty,” but at first glance we have a lot of questions about what real powers tenants have to make changes and achieve reforms and improvements when needed, given the thin oversight and lack of many forms of clear accountability. Four million tenants living under these corporations must have an equivalently clear voice.