Thriving, Affordable, and Inclusive: Can a City Have it All?

A challenging side of human nature—we tend to distrust people from other groups. Because of this, diversity and social tension are often interlinked. We don’t need to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but as American and European societies become increasingly diverse, we’ve got to learn to live with one another. How do we make that happen?

Practice, basically. Regularly interacting with different groups may feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually, we grow accustomed to the presence of others. With the right amount of exposure, our “us versus them” inclinations start to diminish.

The way we experience diversity is largely shaped by national and local housing policy. It’s been eye-opening to see how Dutch national policy and Amsterdam’s local approach to housing has influenced the ways that different groups interact in this city.

The central government in the Netherlands plays a huge role in regulating housing markets—it’s a level of involvement that would be unthinkable in the United States. Housing affordability and stability for low- and middle-income people is guaranteed by a robust set of national laws, and tenants enjoy strong protections from rent increases and evictions.

Some of the key elements of the national system: The Dutch government caps rents via a nationally-administered points system. The points that a specific unit receives are determined by things like size, the number of windows and bathrooms, and location, so it’s difficult for property owners to increase prices year over year. Properties with points under a certain threshold are considered “social housing,” and they are available only to low- and moderate-income individuals (and are made more affordable through government subsidies). Central government enforces strict quotas on the quantity of social housing in cities, and housing operators are subject to a level of scrutiny that surpasses anything I’m aware of in the United States.

Amsterdam builds on this foundation of affordable and stable housing with a remarkable dedication to mixed-income neighborhoods. The amount of social housing in Amsterdam is stunning—nearly 50% of the city’s housing stock falls into this category. While there are some pockets of concentrated wealth or poverty, most neighborhoods are extremely diverse. Throughout the city, affluent people, poor people, Dutch natives, Muslim immigrants, students, and the elderly all live alongside one another.

On the ground, you can feel the combined effects of these national and local policies. With so many different kinds of people around, there’s a richness to neighborhood life. This is enhanced by the way that neighborhoods and public spaces are designed. Despite the massive cultural differences between Dutch natives and Muslim immigrants, tension between the groups feels relatively low. People may not be close, but they are clearly accustomed to being around each other. And though many traditionally low-income neighborhoods are experiencing huge influxes of newcomers, the hostility that so often accompanies gentrification feels less pronounced. Perhaps because lower-income renters are so protected, they are less likely to see newcomers as a threat.

The system isn’t perfect. In Amsterdam, there’s a fairly acute middle-class housing crisis, as the non-social housing stock is relatively limited. People who make too much money to qualify for social housing but not enough to afford non-subsidized rents are often forced to live elsewhere in the region. And the mixed-income neighborhood approach hasn’t created a classless, post-racial utopia. But there does seem to be a comfort with coexistence that exceeds most of what I’ve seen in the United States.

What’s preventing the United States from guaranteeing greater housing affordability and stability to lower- and middle-income people, and what’s stopping our cities from demanding mixed-income neighborhoods? After all, the benefits of such an approach go far beyond greater social solidarity—creating mixed-income neighborhoods generates greater social mobility, reduces crime, and promotes better public health outcomes.

Two of the major culprits—timid and toothless regulations at both the national and local level, and a never-to-be-underestimated resistance toward creating greater housing density. Until we’re able to advocate for a stronger government role in housing markets and change attitudes about the socioeconomic composition of our neighborhoods, the segregation, inequality and social division that plagues American cities will continue.

Skeptical that a city can simultaneously ensure affordable housing, promote mixed-income neighborhoods, preside over a thriving economy, and remain a nice place to live? Maybe a trip to Amsterdam is in order.

Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.