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Living In A Box: For Young Dutch, Housing A Key Election Topic

Living in a 20-square-metre (215-square-foot) container house project on an old sportsground north of Amsterdam, 26-year-old Youri Hermes considers himself lucky: at least he has a roof over his head.

Many young people in the Netherlands “don’t have that luxury”, said the leadership coach, as a crippling housing crisis shapes up to be a key topic in Wednesday’s knife-edge election, especially with the youth vote.

Hermes lives with 540 other young people, half of them refugees with a residence permit, in one of the “Startblokken” (“Starting Blocks”) facilities that have sprung up recently in the Netherlands to ease the housing shortage.

The “Startblokken” project started in 2015 using refurbished metal shipping containers.

Now for around 400 euros ($440) per month, youngsters can rent a small studio within striking distance of Amsterdam, in a “container house” made of wood and recycled materials.

Available for people between 18 and 27, the studios each have a small kitchen and bathroom and are stacked on top of each other in large blocks.

The maximum rental period is five years and project manager Arnold Hooiveld says he gets “hundreds of applications” every time a studio becomes available.

“There is a huge shortage of housing in Amsterdam. This is one of the solutions,” Hooiveld told AFP.

The complex was also conceived to encourage young people from all walks of life to live together.

“For me, the multicultural aspect is important — living with people from different backgrounds, of the same age,” Junia Kersten, a 29-year-old construction engineering student, told AFP.

“You sometimes have the feeling you’re living in a big house with your brother and sister. You can knock on anyone’s door.”

But the Starting Blocks project is a drop in the ocean of the Dutch housing crisis.

The Netherlands needs around 400,000 more houses, reckons Marc van der Lee, spokesman for the Dutch Association of Real Estate Agents (NWM), with demand “continuing to rise”.

With just under one fifth of the Netherlands standing on reclaimed land, space is at a premium in the country, one of the world’s most densely populated.

Adding to the crisis is a growing population, rising immigration and smaller family units, said Van der Lee.

Red tape is not helping, with new housing permits often taking 10 years to come through.

And the country’s top administrative court, the Council of State, has nixed major construction projects due to nitrogen emissions.

“When there’s a shortage, prices rise. It’s difficult” for young people in the Netherlands, admits Van der Lee.

The average house price in the third quarter of 2022 was 422,000 euros, said Van der Lee, who said the situation for young people in the major cities was “disastrous”.

A report on the state of the Dutch housing market last week said that to buy an average house required an annual income of more than 80,000 euros, twice the median.

Youri Hermes says a monthly rent of up to 1,500 euros for a single person in Amsterdam is commonplace.

Cheap social housing is available but the average waiting list is currently more than 13 years, according to official figures.

Students in particular are finding it tough, with some forced into squatting, or living on campsites or in hostels.

Others have moved in with pensioners who have a spare room.

The issue is one of the crunch battlegrounds in the November 22 election.

A survey of 38,000 people by broadcaster RTL found the housing crisis was the top election topic, especially among young people.

The centre-right VVD, currently leading the polls, has pledged to build “hundreds of thousands of houses so that pleasant and affordable housing is again possible for everyone”.

The New Social Contract party, which has come from nowhere to be challenging for power, promises 350,000 new houses.

A left-wing Green/Labour coalition pledges more houses too but also proposes a cap on rental prices and more social housing.

Parties on the right have stressed that a reduction in net immigration to the Netherlands is needed, partly to improve the housing situation.

Hermes told AFP that among people of his generation, housing was the key issue in determining their vote.

The link between immigration and the housing shortage was a difficult question, he said, especially for people like him whose friends and neighbours were often refugees.

“Of course, we are dealing with a lot of people from different backgrounds here.

“At the same time, we are battling with the housing crisis… This is very difficult to reconcile.”