Converted housing. A solution to the housing shortage?

Written by Benjamin Roberts

In the last couple of years, the Netherlands has been reminded again of its age-old problem. With a growing population and chronic scarcity of housing, its problems due to lack of space linger on the horizon. In other countries, the obvious solution to the housing problem would be to build new homes. But not for the practical Dutch.

In early November 2018, the Dutch minister of Internal Affairs, Kajsa Ollongren, proposed a plan to solve the growing shortage of housing by converting former office space, factories and health care facilities into affordable residences. The plan would primarily help students and young people who are starting out on the housing market and are struggling to find a home in the current market. On a yearly basis, the minister hopes that approximately 7,500 new residences will be converted from existing buildings that are no longer in use. The Dutch Bureau of Statistics (CBS) supports Ollongren’s plan for converting existing structures for residential purposes, and argues that it is better to transform abandoned buildings within city limits, instead of annexing green farmland on the outskirts of major cities and thus create more urban sprawl. In many places throughout the Netherlands, converted housing has already impacted the demand for housing. In 2017, more than 7,570 new residences were transformed from 1,900 vacant office buildings, stores and factories that were no longer operational. Since the 2008 economic crisis, the amount of vacant office space has grown considerably in the Netherlands, primarily caused by company downsizing and an increase in remote working.

Homes for singles

In 2017, more than 40% of the new housing was converted office space, while 17% was located in buildings that were previously used as care facilities. According to the CBS report, 8% of all new residences nationwide created in 2017 were converted housing. Most converted housing was created in the province of South Holland, the densest populated area in the Netherlands and even Europe (1,300 residents per square kilometer). In South Holland, one out of every five new residences came from converted structures. Amsterdam, where the house prices are the highest in the Netherlands and affordable housing is scarcest, has been successful in creating new housing by converting unused buildings. Most of the converted housing is small, approximately 50 square meters, and ideal for singles. In general, the city touts a single, young population. More than 64% of its population is unmarried, and 36% is between 25 and 45 years old.

According to the Metropoolregio Amsterdam (MRA), an organization bringing together the province of North Holland and 32 municipalities in the vicinity of the metropolis that are concerned with urban development and planning, 2017 was a record year for converted housing. More than 500,000 square meters of office space were converted, half for housing and the rest for other purposes, such as hotels and stores. However, the MRA does not foresee the 2017 record for converted housing record being broken in the future. For Amsterdam and environs, the office market is slowly drying up, and office space is slowly becoming scarce.

‘Bois en Lombre’

In the converted housing market, big-time real estate developers have played a key role. During the post-2008 economic crisis, which lasted in the Netherlands well into 2015, the real estate market bottomed out, and investors with ample capital were able to purchase commercial properties for a song and a dance. In 2015, the real estate investment firm Pinnacle bought 60,000 m2 of office space from the ING Bank, located on the Haarlemmerweg in Amsterdam. Between 1979 and 1990, the building had been the iconic main office of Dutch national bank Postbank, before it merged with the NMB and became part of the ING Group. Over the last three years, architect bureau Tank transformed the 1970s, non-descript, concrete edifice into 90 airy apartments, featuring balconies with lush green trees and scrubs and amazing vistas of the Westerpark and the skyline of Amsterdam. Today, half of the apartments are rentals; the other half are owned by investment firm Bouwinvest. Because of its rich greenery and the pastoral surroundings of the Westerpark, the former ING Bank high-rise has been renamed “De Voortuinen” or ‘front gardens’. In the brochure, De Voortuinen is advertised for its apartments overlooking the Westerpark and the neighboring Amsterdam district, gentrified ‘Bois en Lombre’. Ironically, the neighborhood was first built as lower-class housing in 1935, and has always been called ‘Bos en Lommer’. Many locals did not approve of Bos en Lommer’s new fancy French name. The Dutch are practical: converted housing yes; Frenchification, no.