By the initiators of the Rotterdam Woongenootschap I was recently invited to visit their Swiss source of inspiration. In Zurich, a significant part of the recent building production is in the hands of Swiss housing cooperatives, Genossenschaften. That yields special pieces of city. Although the Dutch context is of course different, we can get a lot of inspiration from the relationship between citizens, government, financiers and designers in Switzerland.

Despite a strong collective basis, the Genossenschaften are not residential communities, but primarily an organizational form in which residents develop and operate real estate under their own management. Below that is a sophisticated financing construction. All members of the cooperative must buy a share, but there is also a system of interest-free loans and subsidies in which even pension funds participate. This yields – according to Swiss standards – affordable housing with a rent based on cost price – and that for almost 100 years.

After a referendum in which the majority of the population expressed a minimum of 30 percent ‘not for profit housing’, a wave of new construction projects has recently started – no less than 62 projects with around 6,000 homes together. The municipality facilitates these with reduced land prices ‘under condition’. The visits to three recently completed locations show that it is often not the most attractive, centrally located locations. By building several complexes (with apart from housing also facilities and an attractive public space), immediate neighborhoods arise. In this way, more is contributed to urban development than to collective commissioning in the Netherlands, which often has an individualistic character.

In terms of quality, the Genossenschaften also provide a special way of building. For example, a competition is organized around each project that challenges architects to come up with a design in dialogue with the residents as the client. In particular, the attention paid to details and the smart solutions are viewed by Dutch colleagues with some jealousy. With us, a contractor or project developer would delete this immediately because it would become too expensive, says Ninke Happel – architect and superintendent of the Rotterdam Woongenootschap. Their Swiss examples seem to save costs mainly through the use of relatively inexpensive materials, such as a lot of steel and unfinished concrete. Not quite the Dutch taste, but it works in its entirety.

Twenty-six Genossenschaften are currently active in the city, from young initiatives to groups that have existed for many decades and are even capable of renewing their property. They house a cross-section of the population, from young to old, left to right, families and singles, natives and immigrants. In order to give this diversity of residents access, the municipality can make demands on housing allocation via leasehold and support ‘poor’ people themselves. Residents whose household composition changes are also expected to move by moving. As a result, the Genossenschaften contribute to the ideal of the undivided city, even though the system is not perfect. For example, the established groups appear to be relatively favored because they have their own land and have built up their assets, which enables them to rent high-quality properties at their own disposal at low rates. The newcomers still have to acquire everything and are less able to borrow from banks. This translates into higher access costs and sometimes housing costs, for an often simpler complex.

The Swiss housing cooperatives are nonetheless inspiring because they show what quality and diversity are possible when citizens are at the wheel of their living environment. According to many of the experts and stakeholders in Zurich, it has been one of the factors in the renewed flowering of the city in recent years. And unlike our institutionalized public housing, no group has ever gone bankrupt since the genesis of the Genossenschaften in Zurich, nor have members or administrators been individually enriched. Now that the housing market in the Netherlands is under pressure and construction is the motto, I hope that municipalities will not only let their ears linger to the big parties, but also dare to use the strength of the housing cooperative. In Rotterdam she is in any case eager to walk.

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