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Prof Talk | Searching for ways to put a roof over people’s heads

The Netherlands faces a pressing housing shortage. Rental prices are historically high, while the supply of homes on the market is at an all-time low. Buying a starter home after you graduate from university? An affordable owner-occupied home close to where you’ve landed your new job? It seems virtually impossible. TU/e professor Theo Arentze believes that the national government should resume control to accelerate the designation of new construction sites, preferably with many prefabricated homes. Until that time, we need to be creative.

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Major cities have been struggling with the disturbed balance between supply and demand on the housing market for some time already, but the housing shortage has also worsened nationwide over the past years. Starters are most affected, but so are seniors who can’t move into suitable smaller homes and therefore continue to live in family homes. There are calls from all quarters to build more homes; the Netherlands needs to build one million homes over the next ten years. But isn’t there too much focus on new housing developments, and shouldn’t we take a better look, especially for the shorter term, at what can be done with existing real estate?

Building new homes takes time, and since we need to build a large number of homes at a fast pace, we should look for other solutions, says TU/e professor of Real Estate and Urban Development Theo Arentze. “There is a strong demand for small, affordable homes, but project developers are mostly inclined to build large luxurious homes. One fast way to create more living space, is to divide larger homes into several apartments.”


Several nationwide experiments aimed at a more intensive use of existing homes are currently underway. Because the Dutch have an average living space of 65 square meters, which is quite spacious compared to how people in other European countries live, and that is why those precious square meters could be divided more efficiently. In the Nijmegen region, for example, two (single) starters can now share a family home, each with a personal living unit. The municipality of Son en Breugel is developing a concept known as ‘Duo living,’ which allows seniors to divide their large owner-occupied home so that they can rent out an empty upper floor to young home seekers.

An excellent temporary solution, Arentze believes, and so are flexible housing forms such as tiny houses. “We should however find a way to solve the problem of housing shortage without having to live in small private spaces, as you can see in major Chinese cities, for example. As a result of the corona crisis in particular, we’ve started to attach more importance to our interior space. There used to be a migration into the city for a long time, but people are now starting to move back into the opposite direction. The past year has shown that people are often very comfortable working from home, which is why an extra room has become more important than living in a small apartment in the city center close to amenities.”

Construction sites

Arentze does however believe that long term solutions are to be found in the urban environment. “From a spatial planning perspective, you really only have two options. Development on the outskirts – that’s certainly an option, but only to a limited extent since we want to keep the green areas intact for nature and agriculture. Compact cities with high-rise structures have many advantages when it comes to infrastructure and amenities. But the designation of new construction sites remains essential here as well. We’re in the aftermath of a financial crisis, when housing construction dropped sharply. That needs to be compensated now, with the acceleration and upscaling of building activities. But under control of the national government, to keep an overview and to ensure a rapid rollout. Now that we no longer have a ministry for Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, decisions on construction sites are made by municipal and provincial authorities, and this leads to many processes that cause delay. It’s time for less talk and more action.”

People who need to find a home fast could consider living in converted backyard sheds or in studios placed on top of a flat roof. “We also saw the transformation of vacant office spaces into living spaces during the past ten years. But since the most suitable locations have been used by now, we need to be creative. And in the meantime, we need to keep investing in new methods for the fast construction of homes. The technological options are increasing, think of prefab construction, or concrete printing. Promising, but there aren’t enough construction companies at this point that can work with these technologies on a large scale. Because we need to build a lot of homes, there’s no getting around it.”

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