Moving On A Budget: Social Housing in The Netherlands

Photo Credit: tpsdave / Pixabay CC0 (Public Domain)

People who follow me on Facebook know that I’m trying to move from social housing in the north of the country to social housing in the center of the country for quite a while now. They are amazed at 1) that it is taking long and 2) the social housing process. I get the question about how social housing works and how it is different from ‘private’ (commercial) housing a lot. This post is an attempt to explain what social housing is, why it exists and I also try to explain why it seems to take forever for me to move.

Low Income Citizens

Unlike in the United States, having an “affordable, safe, healthy and energy-efficient” roof over your head is considered to be a basic right here. You don’t have to fight for it, you can take it for granted. It’s important enough for the national government to put out a whole body of legislation called the Woningwet (housing act).

It particularly deals with affordable housing, social housing. While the guidelines are issued by the national government, the implementation is usually done at the municipal level. Various municipalities have slightly different rules, it’s always good to check what the local rules are before moving. Private housing, like renting from commercial realtors and purchasing a home is very similar to the practice in other countries.

The idea that nobody needs to live on the streets in a First World country is the point of departure in many laws. It’s setting the bar a bit higher, to protect the most vulnerable people. For instance, if you lose your home, you can get a ‘urgency’ status that puts you in front of all other people who want to move to a certain type of housing. If you don’t have any income, you can apply for a very basic income called ‘assistance’ which is 70% of minimum wages, right now that amounts to €933.65 per month.

It is designed to cover basic costs. It’s also designed to be temporary, if you don’t look for work, your assistance gets cut down. Every Dutch citizen (or permanent resident with valid visa) without income of their own is eligible for assistance (Dutch: bijstand), even the homeless. They will get a lower allowance because they don’t pay rent. They sleep in homeless shelters. If they want to, they can get a house, but often addiction and psychiatric issues will also create financial problems, which makes it hard for them get and to keep a house. Everyone else can get accommodated pretty quickly.


Being on a low income means that paying rent can get difficult. To make it work, the government has a system in place called ‘additional rent’ (huurtoeslag). In order to qualify for that you need to be a citizen (or permanent resident with valid resident visa) over 18 years old on a low income, which is defined to be an income under €22,200 per year for a one-person household and €30,150 for a multi-person household.

The housing needs to be independent, this means you don’t share your kitchen, bathroom, bedroom with others and you have your own front door which you can lock. Plus, you need to pay your rent in time to your landlord with whom you signed the contract. The contract must be in your name. Also, you need to be registered with the address you apply for at the public records office.

The amount you get depends on what you make per year and what the rent is. There is a maximum rent of €710.68. You always have to pay €230-ish yourself, and depending on your income, you get the remainder of your rent as a subsidy. The more you make, the lower the additional subsidy will be. This is a gliding scale. If your rent is over the ‘liberalisation threshold’ you’re not eligible for subsidies, even when your income is low.

Social Housing System

Social Housing are houses that meet the criteria for the rent subsidy mentioned above. These houses are sometimes owned by a private company or by a foundation or trust. Their goal isn’t to make as much money off their tenants’ backs as possible, but to provide affordable housing for low income families. They can make their own rules for applying. Usually they are more lenient when it comes to the maximum income you can have. It’s often between 30-40k as an annual income. Most companies rent out both the bare-bone social houses and commercial houses that are decorated and come with kitchen appliances.

The List

In order to be considered for the social housing in your city, you have to sign up for a waiting list and pay the administration fees for maintaining that list. This is about €30 for signing up and then €15 annually for as long as you want to be on. Once you have signed up, the waiting game begins. People are put on the list on basis of seniority. The longer you are on the list, the higher you rank.

Some cities, like my hometown, apply points instead of waiting months. This is to distinguish between ‘starters’ and ‘transfers’, more on that later. At any rate, you get one point for each month you’re waiting. Once you’re ready to move, you apply for a house you like and if your seniority is high enough you will be invited for a viewing. You can apply for a max. of three houses at a given time before the application closes.

After closing time, the system gives you another ticket until you get three empty seats again. Then, the game starts all over again until you hit the jackpot. The moment you’re in the top 5 somewhere, your ability to sign up for new houses will be frozen until you decline the offers. This prevents people with good seniority to hoard viewing invitations.

List Strategies

If you apply for a house, you can see what your pending position is on the list compared to the people who already signed up before you. It then says ‘pending position’ is 10 for instance. This means that nine people with better seniority than you have signed up already and they all need to decline before you have a chance to accept the house.

Signing up then becomes a strategy game: there are 30-40 houses you can sign up for, you only have 3 tickets and you can see your current position. The moment you accept a house and sign the lease, you move to the bottom of the waiting list again. If you don’t like your new house, you may be stuck with it for ten years! People will factor that in when they view a house.

If it is a tiny house in a unpopular neighborhood, chances are many people will decline after viewing it because they may have been lucky on another house. It then can pay off to sign up even when you’re not in the top 10. In fact, that is how I got my current apartment. So it’s a lot more complicated than you would think and it will become more intricate in a moment!

Starter versus Transfer resident

There are two types of people, as I mentioned before. There are starters who look for a house, but don’t leave a house behind and ‘transfers’, who move from one social house into another. This means that when the transfers move, it doesn’t affect general housing availability that much: a new social house gets added for every one that is rented out.

For this reason, transfers usually get priority over starters. In my current town, that works with points, I have 127.7 points: one point per month for waiting and 0.5 bonus point for being a transfer. In my new town, I am a starter. Therefore I move up the list slowly, being overtaken left and right by everyone already living in that area. This also means that if I want to move fast, I can’t be picky.

Moving Into Social Housing

Once you’ve done the math right, got lucky and get an invitation for viewing a house, you decide you want the house. Now what? You indicate you accept the offer and go to the landlord to sign the contract, pay one month of rent in advance and get the keys to your new house. Sometimes you will get a ‘starter kit’. My current landlord gifted a bucket full with cleaning stuff when I moved in my brand new house to which I was the first tenant.

Before calling the movers, you need to go over and see how the house looks: is it clean? If not, you need to clean it yourself. You may need to redo the wallpaper, carpet and paint. You need to take care of that yourself. Also, no kitchen appliances. Bring your own fridge, washing machine, stove and hood.

The first thing I do after getting the key is go to the house, get the measurements, maybe do some cleaning and go back home. I have to re-apply for the housing list first and THEN I call the movers. Waiting times can be long, seven to ten years aren’t an exception, so it’s better to be pro-active on the housing front. The moment I decide to move, I can actually move because I silently moved to the top of the housing list here in my current town.

This is why it takes a bit longer in my new town: when I got the contract on a project basis with the hint that I might get hired as an employee as soon as that would be financially possible, I signed up. That’s five years ago. Being a starter, that wasn’t soon enough. Alas.

Urgent Matters

It sounds easy, and on paper it is that easy. But there’s a catch. As I said before, people can get ‘urgency’ if their house burns down, gets demolished, when their relationship breaks down and they can’t stay with their ex etc. The local government can list reasons that make people eligible for priority. Instead of their seniority on the list, they get ranked on the date when their urgency was granted, bypassing everyone else on the list.

So on top of being overtaken by transfers, I also get overtaken by everyone with urgency, including many refugees after things went south badly in the Middle-East in 2014. Some people bemoan this or get frustrated with refugees, but I’m not like that. I have a great house, it’s just in the wrong town. I have a roof over my head, they ran for their lives with only the clothes on their backs. Of course they should get a house before I do!

Legislation Chaos

In the past, local governments would also make a list of qualifications you’d need to have in order to be allowed to live in that town. For instance having a job for more than 18 hours per week, because otherwise the new town would have to pay welfare to the new resident. Or having lived there before for a number of years in the past 20 years. The first example is what the municipal government calls ‘economic ties’ and the latter is an example of ‘social ties’. Especially municipalities that are popular would do this to protect local people who want to move to another part of their home town.

These rules prevented me to move for years. I was not employed in the region, but was self-employed. The rules for self-employed people would constantly change. At first I had to provide proof that I did most of my business in the area. It also needed to be sustained over a longer period of time. Okay, so I worked on that until I got the necessary trail of papers in 2014. Then, the legislation changed again!

Now, self-employed people with a business needed to be incorporated in the province they moved to. My company of course was incorporated in my current province, so I couldn’t move, only inside my own province. I already live in the capital, so I got stuck there. In order to get incorporated in the new province, I first had to move there… So I hoped and prayed to be put on a payroll somewhere in the region.

I finally got that in the works in 2015. But by the time I almost got there, national law changed! This time in my favor. National government put legislation in place last year that prohibited these practices, citing EU guidelines regarding free movement (of people and goods). The new town could not refuse me any longer. Instead, they now give people with ties to the city priority on the waiting lists.

This means that people get grouped on priority status and then on seniority. I now can finally apply for a house in the center of the country. The contract is now a bonus, putting me in front of people who apply without ties to the area. But man, this was frustrating!

It All Boils Down To Patience

Using the social housing system means that one has to be patient. In my new town, demand is so high that they decided to make two lists: one list for the regular seniority candidates and another list for people who have zero chance using their seniority status. The latter group can sign up for a number of houses using a random draw.  It’s the same rules: three seats at any given time. You need to wait until a lottery finishes to be able to use your ticket again.

You don’t have to worry about urgent candidates, because urgency plays no role. There’s a random draw and the random name generator decides your spot. You won’t be overtaken by local residents or by urgent candidates. Downside is that up to 600-800 people sign up for these houses because everybody has the same small chance.

Right now, my results on the ranked list are almost always better than the random list, but still by far not good enough to get a reliable chance. As Yoda says: Patience!