His report was not called into question. “But the pressure was extreme.” Professor of Housing Systems Peter Boelhouwer studied the housing market and liveability in Groningen’s earthquake zone.
Residents with psychological problems, fear of buildings collapsing and thousands of damaged homes: Professor Peter Boelhouwer’s research on the housing market and liveability in Groningen’s earthquake zone did not leave him unaffected. He presented his findings along with those of seven OTB – Research for the Built Environment colleagues to Hans Alders, the National Coordinator for Groningen, in a packed room in the village of Bedum at the start of this year.
For a period of nine months, the Delft contingency polled residents in nine high-risk municipalities and analysed statistical models in order to calculate the drop in housing prices. Their work was commissioned by ‘Dialoogtafel Groningen’, a consultative group of involved and affected parties. The group was appointed in March 2015 to help restore trust in Northeast Groningen.
The important conclusions of the report include: 29 percent of the households in the risk areas feel unsafe and people in 4,000 households are suffering from psychological problems. Generous compensation from the Netherlands Petroleum Company (Nederlands Aardolie Maatschappij – NAM) was out of the question.
Reading between the lines, it is clear that you feel NAM is too passive.
“Much more generous compensation is important. Many people are afraid that they will not be able to sell their house. The sense of not being able to escape is horrible. A buying up scheme would give people renewed perspective. Money should not be an issue. Some 211 billion euros worth of gas has been extracted from this region over the past decades. The renovation of houses needs to be tackled more effectively, too. Three thousand homes should have been renovated in 2015. NAM have only fixed up 23 of these.”
Was it difficult to preserve your independence in this politically sensitive issue?
“I dove in headfirst with this study. ‘What am I getting into?’ I wondered. Never before have I encountered such an extreme divergence of interests. It was a hornet’s nest. Everyone tried to put pressure on me. Right to the very end. Members of the supervisory committee wanted the press release to say that the method of depreciation used by NAM was no good. And that the study would provide proof. That was incorrect. I had to remove it from the press release. We were not the supervisory committee’s pawns. But we had to really stand our ground.
“I strove for the appropriate tone in the report. The urgency and desperation of the people were effectively incorporated. As well as the perspective that can be offered to them. If a fair compensation scheme materialises and the houses can be properly reinforced, most people have no interest whatsoever in moving out of the area.”
Were you shocked by the findings?
“I had done my homework on the area, of course. But the study and the findings really affected me. What the residents are going through is very intense. People talked about their grandparents not being able to have their grandchildren stay overnight anymore for fear of their houses falling down. And parents described the sense of relief every time their children returned from school safely.
‘You don’t show any emotion’ I was told during the first meeting during which I presented interim findings to a room of several hundred residents. I was trying to be professional. Now the first thing I do at these meetings is to share how it also affects me, and that it is a serious issue. Sometimes I would be talking with people and they would suddenly lose their temper. Of course, NAM lied to the residents for years. ‘No, there is no connection between gas extraction and earthquakes.’ Then the major tremor hit near Huizinge in 2012. From that moment onward it was impossible to deny. Since 1987, Groningen has had a thousand quakes. Personally I have never experienced an earthquake. I try to imagine what it’s like. You’re sound asleep and suddenly your entire house is shaking.”
As Professor of Housing Systems you frequently work on politically and socially sensitive subjects. Had you ever experienced anything like the pressure accompanying the study in Groningen?
“I was on the Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment Council for years. Together with other experts I advised the ministry on housing market reforms. A very sensitive topic. Maintaining your independence is key. Our recommendations were often taken out of context. That was the case involving my recommendations regarding special loans for first-time buyers, for example. I am positive about loans for first-time buyers, just not when the market is overheated. You shouldn’t offer them under those circumstances. People tried to put all sorts of words in our mouth. We are constantly walking on eggshells.”
What trends do you see in the housing market?
“Scarcity is growing. There is not enough new construction. Especially considering the ongoing increase in immigration. This, too, is a sensitive issue. The Government Architect says: ‘No, you shouldn’t build new homes; you should convert unoccupied office buildings into homes. Vacant buildings look bad. And allowing office buildings to remain wempty is destruction of capital.’”
“Doing something about lack of occupation is fundamentally a good thing. But we’re not going to solve the problem just by tackling vacant office buildings. Besides, you’re not even allowed to live in many offices because they are too close to a motorway. We spent years building Vinex districts. That project is now finished. Now we are building fewer than 50,000 homes a year. That’s far too few. By 2020 the housing shortage will have increased from today’s percentage between 2.5 and 3 to 3.7 percent. Prices are going to soar as a result. You will see people living at home with their parents longer, or taking up residence in caravans. In London it’s not uncommon for many families to share a house. London is our future. Things will go that way here, too, if the Chief
Government Architect has his way. Cities will be the exclusive domain of the super-rich. Is
that good or bad? To me it doesn’t sound very appealing. But really it depends on your political perspective. ”
You have been accused of being a straw man for the building sector.
“I have been accused of that, yes. Especially in connection with the Owner-Occupied Properties Monitor that we conduct four times a year and in which we write up the trends in the owner-occupied housing market. I feel that I should express my opinion. What I do is socially relevant. I don’t want to stand on the sidelines. When I was a student I decided to focus on housing because I thought it was socially relevant. Those were the 1980s; the era of the squatters’ movement. That movement had a point. There were not enough houses. Especially for young people. They were exploited. I was never a squatter. I got involved with the politics through the city council. Once again we’re heading towards massive housing shortages. Believe me, it’s going completely pear-shaped.”
‘People try to put all sorts of words in our mouths. We are constantly walking on eggshells’
Do you see any positive sides to the housing market crisis?
“The good thing about the crisis is that it forces architects to make what people want. City planners had their individual visions. In Delft you had Le Corbusier’s modernist school. The Amsterdam area Bijlmer is an exponent of that, and it turned out a complete failure. A trend you’re seeing now is ‘glocalisation’. Along with ongoing globalisation, society is becoming increasingly individualistic, and people are looking to restore personal contacts in their immediate living environment. You have neighbourhoods where everyone is ecologically responsible; you have neighbourhoods for people who like horses and golf; you have multicultural neighbourhoods. City planners and architects must now respond to this trend and listen to the people. Before the crisis they could build a house upside-down and it would still sell.”
Peter Boelhouwer is Professor of Housing Systems and Head of OTB – Research for the Built Environment in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. He is a member of the supervisory board of a housing corporation. He is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Housing and the Built Environment and belongs to the editorial board of various scientific journals. In addition, he is the chairman of the European Network for Housing Research, the Netherlands Graduate School of Urban and Regional Research (NETHUR) and the Knowledge Centre for Tackling Foundation Problems (KCAF)