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ILR Fellowship in the Netherlands: Patchwork in the Polders

November 08, 2023

The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship offers Penn Carey Law Students financial support for a short-term summer legal research project abroad.

By Riann Winget L’24

The shortage of affordable housing in cities around the world has grown to crisis levels. And as water levels rise due to climate change, leading to a scarcity of land in cities around the world, we can only expect this global housing crisis to deepen.

This topic has been on my mind because I will be beginning my legal career in Houston, Texas, a low-sea-level city with a high level of migration that is famous (or rather, infamous) for its lack of zoning laws. The free-for-all Houston zoning places homes next to parking structures, auto body shops next to churches, and elementary schools next to tattoo parlors. On the other hand, Amsterdam, another low-sea-level city, with its neat canal houses and plentiful bike lanes, has highly specific building ordinances and regulations. Could studying zoning in Amsterdam give me a better idea of how we can use regulation, as opposed to deregulation, to structure cities where we can afford to live beautifully?

Canal Houses in Amsterdam This summer, with the help of an International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship from Penn Carey Law, I traveled to Amsterdam hoping to learn city-planning lessons in a city defined by centuries of land reclamation and urban development. In a region of lowlands that has required continual dredging, damming, and diking to keep water out, the Netherlands has developed a culture with unequaled awareness for optimizing their communities’ use of a limited amount of land, constantly under threat of flooding. Now that sea levels continue to rise, I wanted to better understand how the Netherlands’ land-use regime enables it to combat the current housing crisis in Amsterdam, and what approaches can be transferred to other communities beset by both sea-level risk and a housing crunch.

Amsterdam’s housing crisis is, indeed, one of the most dire in the world. The city houses over 800,000 people, many of whom are students and migrants, and its population is expected to exceed 1 million by 2040. The city is growing, but without much land to build on, the constrained housing supply squeezes real estate prices upward. To make matters worse, developers have bought up a significant proportion of housing in the city, further pushing prices to unaffordable heights.

To get a better sense of the current state of Amsterdam’s housing crisis, I started at the Amsterdam Museum’s Operation Living exhibit, which provided an overview of the legal regime shifts that have contributed to today’s precarious situation. The exhibit traces Dutch legislation throughout history, beginning with the Housing Act of 1901, which set regulatory compliance for the first time, and the city’s General Expansion Plan, which was a massive series of urban expansions implemented after World War II. But perhaps the most significant shift took place in recent decades, as housing development has moved from a government-controlled public good to a free-market, pro-developer regime.

To delve more deeply into this issue, I went to see the Eastern Docklands—a neighborhood on Amsterdam’s Riann Winget in Amsterdam east side that has been transformed from an industrial port into a blossoming neighborhood of affordable, sustainable housing. I spoke to, and walked around the Docklands with, Wim Key of the Borneo Architectuur Centrum (BAC), an information center about the urban planning and architecture of the Eastern Docklands.

Wim explained that because much of Central Amsterdam is designated as a UNESCO site, there has been little room to build in the city center. But the burgeoning population has needed somewhere to go, so in 1989, the Eastern Docklands Master Plan was drawn up. With the motto “Compact City,” construction in the Eastern Docklands promotes “urban” living by building within existing city structures, as opposed to sprawling out into suburbs. In this way, the Master Plan has provided for Amsterdam’s harbor basins to be rezoned to build for groups that “embrace urban living,” such as students, young families, and those who are low-income.

The aesthetic, affordable housing arrangements in the Eastern Docklands lie within an industrial area and focus on promoting sustainability, keeping parts of the city connected via public transportation, and maintaining accessible green spaces for all residents. Indeed, the Eastern Docklands can be seen as a great success in terms of its urban planning, zoning, and flexible government. So, how was it decided that the Eastern Docklands could be redeveloped and rezoned for an entirely new use?

As Wim explained, part of the success of the Eastern Docklands came from a private–public partnership model. The city faces zoning and permitting restrictions that are extremely difficult to change, especially when it comes to building new affordable housing. To better understand the zoning and permitting issues at play in the city, I took a trip to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to speak with Eric Koomen, a professor in the Department of Spatial Economics. I also spoke virtually with Sara Özogul, Head of Research at the Urban Governance Research Network.

Professor Koomen explained that, although the Netherlands has federal zoning laws and land-use planning directives that impact where new affordable housing is built, the permitting process for new builds is handled on the municipal level. In this way, city residents are often able to effectively veto affordable housing projects by voting down city-based re-zoning measures. This “NIMBYism,” as Professor Koomen put it, is a common hurdle, and it is by no means unique to the Dutch. To solve this issue, Professor Koomen and Dr. Özogul both noted that it is both logistically and legally easier to build on top of existing infrastructure: this means that it is less difficult to build where there is already zoning for affordable housing, or where there is unused infrastructure owned by private companies, such as the old port in the Eastern Docklands.

In the first case, there’s no need to rezone for affordable housing, and no need to apply for new permits with the local municipality. In the second, because the government or non-profit entities purchase properties from private parties and corporations, it’s less likely that there will be NIMBY homeowners protesting that affordable housing nearby will ruin access to green space or tank their own property values, and permits are more likely to be granted. In this way, Amsterdam has shown that public–private partnerships can work to bypass local zoning and permitting laws in favor of regional or national objectives.

One big drawback that both professors highlighted, however, is that of the patchwork problem: whereas one municipality may have more progressive zoning laws and deferential permitting processes, another may have NIMBY citizen-activists barring all development of affordable housing. Although the Netherlands in 2016 passed the Omgevingswet—a federal law that sets out to bring municipalities’ land-use regulations in line with each other by establishing minimum standards for environmental impact and social housing requirements—this law has not yet come into action, having been delayed for years.

According to Dr. Özogul, the delay in implementing the Omgevingswet exemplifies the ongoing pitfalls of Dutch bureaucracy we see echoed in the entrenched and local zoning and permitting schemes. She also pointed out that the Omgevingswet still will allow municipalities to bar much-needed large-scale social housing reforms as long as the municipality meets the minimum standards set forth in the Act.

When I asked Dr. Özogul the best way to resolve these problems—and, in turn, the housing shortage—she stated that the Dutch government must take charge and be more proactive, not allowing municipal citizens to hold up projects that have national-scale benefits. But she acknowledged that that is unlikely to happen. Alternatively, she agreed with Wim Key of BAC, noting that, if the regulatory regime is unlikely to prioritize long-term solutions by overriding local NIMBY municipality governments, private–public partnerships like the one in Eastern Docklands could offer the best solution.

Note at Museum One aspect of my intended research remained unexplored, though not for lack of trying. I wanted to learn how the Dutch dealt with ever-rising sea levels, and how they factored the EU’s CSRD requirements into development. When I asked Professor Koomen, Dr. Özogul, and Wim about these concerns, though, none of them expressed worry. When it comes to rising sea-levels, the Dutch have been pumping water out to create land for centuries—even Schiphol Airport lies below sea level at the bottom of a dredged lake. They felt confident that the country had the technology to keep the water at bay. As for the EU requirements? They merely require corporations to comply with the kinds of climate standards with which Dutch companies have complied for years. In short, my sources felt that my concerns about sea-level rise and EU directives were unfounded.

Although these discoveries ultimately meant I was forced to shift my research away from climate change, especially after finding out that houseboats were not going to be the solution I sought, I still took away important lessons from my time in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is uniquely situated to provide a full-scale analysis of how jurisdictional laws overlap to create a patchwork of regulation—not unlike the one created by the United States’ model of federalism. For cities in the U.S. beginning to grapple with limited land availability, increasingly due to the sea-level risks the Dutch have dealt with for generations, it may be that the best action the government can take is to encourage developers to bypass such restrictions by using workarounds such as private–public partnership. More urban citizens may soon find themselves living in redesigned warehouse lofts, as government and developers work together to revitalize forgotten districts and skirt NIMBY neighbors. It isn’t quite dredging out a new polder from the Zuiderzee waters, but it can certainly create the livable space urban residents need.