"Creating and financing the project is one thing but keeping the community up and running on a long term is another challenge."
Housing is a major issue in most European cities due to housing shortage and lack of affordable houses. In this series, Co-Housing in Europe, we shed the light on community-led housing projects as alternatives to traditional social housing or purely market-driven real estate. So we present the experience of City Makers involved in this type of project.
After discovering La Borda, a social housing cooperative in Barcelona, this time we explore the case of Vrijburcht, a project built in 2007 in Amsterdam.
The housing situation in the Dutch capital is quite different from Spain. In Amsterdam, social rented housing represents about 50% of the total housing stock and the municipality owns 80% of the land. This situation facilitates the emergence of more social and alternative housing projects such as Vrijburcht. This mixed development includes 52 owner-occupied dwellings, working spaces, shared facilities for inhabitants but also a crèche, a café, a theater, a little harbor that benefit to the whole neighborhood. We visited this remarkable project, guided by Menno Vergunst, a landscape architect who works and lives in Vrijburcht. Active member of the community, he has been involved from the beginning of this adventure in 2000. He shared with us his experience of starting and running collectively a self-organized housing project.
The idea of the Vrijburcht community first emerged in the late 1990’s. A group of activists from the Nieuwmarkt district in the center of Amsterdam, who were engaged in social urban transformations in the 1970’s, wanted to create their own housing community. They were looking for an empty plot where they could build their houses while sharing a rich social life.
Over the same period, the municipality of Amsterdam was developing IJburg, a new neighborhood composed of artificial islands in the Eastern part of the capital. What would become a decade later a dense and lively residential area was at that time a virgin land, a blank page. The municipality, who owns the land, used this opportunity to experiment new forms of urbanization, including self-built and collective housing scheme. In 2000, local authorities launched an open call for developing visionary projects in IJburg. Several families, including Menno Vergunst, joined the group from the Nieuwmarkt and came up with a proposal that brings together the key concept of this collective project. Their idea was selected by the municipality alongside 27 initiatives.
A collaborative design process
The CPO model in the Netherlands
Vrijburcht is a CPO “Collectief Particulier Opdrachtgeverschap” project which means “Collective Private Commissioning”. It consists in a group of families who team up in order to share the costs, design and build their project according to their own criteria. The group creates a legal structure (in this case ‘Vrijburcht Stichting’) that allows them to conduct the project as a developer (hire architects, contractors etc.). Each family that participates owns its house and takes out a mortgage to finance the global project.
‘Before joining the project, I used to live in The Hague and commuted every day to work at my office located in Amsterdam. I was particularly attracted by the project as it would allow me to build my office on the ground floor, live upstairs with my family and bring my children to the crèche built in the same block. I also wanted to develop strong ties with my neighbors because nowadays, this kind of social interactions is barely nonexistent in urban districts. What is interesting is that we built this community spirit from the get-go. Throughout the first phases of the design, besides our meetings we used to gather on the site, which was an empty plot back then, and picture themselves living there.
The project is the result of a long co-creation process. The first sketch that we made in 2001 evolved quite a lot, influenced by the group’s aspirations and urban planning rules. We defined collectively the main concepts based on the municipality’s guideline. We presented them in a booklet that managed to pass the final selection stage.
Then, we had to go into technical aspects to ensure the feasibility of the program. The municipality set up a team of experts (in construction, urbanism, social housing, land lease, public space) to assist our group. Every month we had meetings with them where we could ask questions, present our ideas and improve them, based on their advices. The Vrijburcht community was a quite ambitious and unconventional project so we were in constant dialogue with local authorities in order to find the best way to implement our objectives. We had in the group Hein de Haan, an experienced social architect and founder of CASA Architects who helped us translate our intentions into an architectural design and a masterplan.’
Financing our project
– Vrijburcht Foundation contracted a 50-year lease with the municipality of Amsterdam
– Vrijburcht Foundation: manages the theater, common spaces
– Homeowners’ association: maintenance of the buildings and rent out facilities to De Key
– De Key manages the assisted-living facility ‘De Roef’, the crèche and the café
‘We wanted to build a 52 units building complex in which 10 flats would be part of a home ownership program for low income families. As the project moved forward, more enthusiastic people joined the group. We had at some point 90 members but as soon as we started talking seriously about the financial aspects many people left the project. After estimating the overall cost and individual contributions, only 9 families were still interested to purchase a home. Later on 3 other families joined the group but it was far from enough to finance the construction. We had to look for partnerships. In 2002 we set up the Vrijburcht Foundation, so we can manage the whole construction process and search for funding.
Our partnership with De Key, a national housing association, was a turning point. They were attracted by our strong business plan, as we already found people interested by running the café and the kinder garden, but also the social dimension of our program. They financed the first phases (including the design of the scheme), bought the café and the assisted living homes. In case we could not find enough buyers, they also agreed to buy the remaining houses and rent them as social housing. Hopefully we managed to sell every houses by ourselves.
The project has also been supported by the RABO Bank. They partly funded the preliminary phases and provided low interested mortgages to each family so they could give it in the Foundation to cover construction costs.
In the end, we found ways to finance the whole project at a cost of 16 million euros. We finished the construction on time and were able to move into our new houses in September 2006.’
A place where people can meet
It feels like we live in a little village.
‘From day one, building a community of ideas was the most important aspect of the project. Vrijburcht is not a standard property development project but it is a group of families who consciously choose to live together and feel responsible for the success of the project. The community is very diverse, there are nurses, book keepers, mentally-challenged young people, retired persons in their sixties, young people in their twenties etc. It feels like we live in a little village.
We created places to give inhabitants the opportunity to meet each other within and connect with our surroundings. It is a combination indoor (the theater, the café, the glasshouse, the workshop) and outdoor spaces (the courtyard, the little harbor). To facilitate exchanges and communication we also have a website that includes an internal platform for the community members. Everyone can post ads on a “digital billboard”, make arrangements with other members for any kind of activity or services. The project has had such a positive impact on the neighborhood that now some people buy their house in the area in order to live closer to our community.
It has been 10 years since we started living together, and the group’s social life evolved. It is not as intense as it used to be in the first few years, mostly because members are quite busy with their personal lives (family, work, events outside the community). Nevertheless, strong bonds remain within our community, we know we can rely on each other. For example, if someone is getting sick and posts: “I need to go to the hospital every Monday for several months, who can give me a ride all along?” within a minute 10 people will answer positively. When you know each other, live and run projects together, you have a lot of things in common so you are willing to take care and help each other too.’
The decision making process in a self-organized housing community
It is a real challenge to make sure that everyone takes part in the decision process.
‘Since the project has been built, we have been organizing tours and advising groups interested in starting their own co-housing project. They come with a specific idea of what they want but they should also wonder “how long can we keep up with such enthusiasm for this project and collectively achieve our goals ?”. Indeed, a lot of groups are falling apart in this long process because members’ lives and expectations change over the years. Creating and financing the project is one thing but keeping the community up and running on a long term is another challenge.
So if they want their project to succeed, they have to find people who have the strength to work through each phase, overcome obstacles together no matter what.
Our community is structured around the Vrijburcht Foundation and its elected board that has the responsibility to move the project forward. The foundation decides on social and technical issues but it doesn’t have unlimited power. For instance, when families decide to move out, the foundation cannot choose newcomers because it doesn’t have ownership on the land nor houses. So what we do is that we ask our members and their friends if they are interested in buying a house. There are also a lot of people who swap houses, as in the case of this couple who divorced and the father moved to another flat in the Vrijburcht community so he could remain close to his family.
For every decision, we operate the foundation as an association by involving everyone. We send newsletters, we have committees who discuss specific topics and every two months we organize an assembly with every participants. This is where we make decisions, collectively.
We act as a group, we don’t want our members to be just spectators and critics. But it is a real challenge to make sure that everyone takes part in the decision process. Being involved in the community, especially the board, requires a lot of dedication. In the first 2 years Johann Vlug (my business partner) and I were involved in building the concepts behind the projects like everyone else in the group. Then as the project became more complex and concrete, we became engaged in the board. We are used to manage project, because of our professional experience, which is useful to move the group dynamic forward. We invest a lot of our time but it worth it.’
If you want to learn more about practical and financial aspects of the project :