The influx of refugees into Europe over recent years has posed many challenges for the countries receiving them, including how best to help new residents settle into an unfamiliar culture and begin the difficult job of rebuilding their lives.

In some cases, the sheer number of people in need of accommodation has put further strain on already stretched public housing systems. In Amsterdam, a solution has been found that not only gives refugees a place to call home and helps them integrate into local culture but also provides much-needed affordable accommodation for young Dutch people, who have found themselves priced out of the private rental market.

The purpose-built community of Startblok Riekerhaven was developed by housing association De Key in partnership with Socius Wonen, which specialises in youth and self-management housing projects. It is located on an old sports field, which has been leased from the Municipality of Amsterdam until 2026. The accommodation is made up of modular apartment blocks constructed from old shipping containers, which were leftover from a previous project by De Key and would otherwise have been discarded.

The Netherlands has agreed to accept 7,000 asylum seekers and initially the Municipality of Amsterdam wanted the Startblok project to accommodate only refugees, however it came to recognise the housing need of young Dutch citizens, who struggle to find affordable tenancies in expensive cities like Amsterdam.

Startblok Riekerhaven opened on 1 July 2016 and is home to 565 people aged between 18 and 27. Half the residents are Dutch nationals and half are ‘status-holders’ – refugees who have been granted residence permits.

How it works

Startblok Riekerhaven’s accommodation is made up of nine blocks containing 463 studios and 102 private rooms in multi-person apartments. The studios are approximately 23 square metres in size and have their own small kitchen and bathroom. Each floor has a communal living space for social activities and there are two large outside areas. All living spaces are provided unfurnished.

Potential Dutch residents sign up to an online waiting list before attending an information meeting, during which Startblok’s management team gives a presentation and a tour of the site. After this, they must write a motivation letter explaining why they want to join the community.

Residents are selected based on their vulnerability but also on their willingness to get involved in the social and cultural aspects of the project and commit as a long-term member of the community. The maximum tenancy is five years and when someone moves out, they are replaced with a new resident of a similar profile – gender, age, and educational level – to maintain the balance and diversity of the project.

Residents who are refugees are selected by the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) or by the Municipality of Amsterdam if they are living in Asylum Seekers’ Centres (AZCs). Status-holders who already have a residence in the Netherlands can apply by signing up to the online waiting list.

The gender balance among Dutch residents is half male and half female however there are more male status-holder residents. Men and women do not share apartments.

A key feature of the project is the self-management of the community. Residents maintain the common areas and green spaces and organise social activities. Each hallway has two group managers (a status-holder and a Dutch citizen), who take care of health and safety and cleanliness.

The group managers report to social managers, who are part of the overall management team. The social managers hold weekly meetings with the project co-ordinator and also have monthly consultations with other groups, such as the Dutch Refugee Council and the police, to address any issues. Residents can apply to be part of the management team when a vacancy opens up.

Counselling and support for residents is provided by the Dutch Refugee Council, Kamers met Kansen (Rooms with Opportunities), De Key, and Stichting-Ykeallo. At the moment there is no definite follow-up support for people moving out of Startblok Riekerhaven, but the Municipality of Amsterdam and the Dutch Refugee Council are making plans for this, especially for status-holders.

The project is funded by the national government but De Key, Socius Wonen and the Municipality of Amsterdam all paid a share in setting up Startblok. De Key funded €500 (USD$585) per shared living room to cover decorating costs.

Residents pay between €400-€500 (USD$468 – USD$585) in rent per month to De Key, of which €1 is used to fund community activities. For the size of the rooms, rent is below market rate for student accommodation. The project’s 50 group managers receive a discount of €50 (USD$58) per month. The accommodation also meets government standards allowing eligible residents to apply for rental subsidies. Fines can be issued to residents who fail to take their turn in cleaning common areas or for problems like excessive noise.

Social integration

One of Startblok’s primary achievements is the dialogue it has created between different groups of people – both within the community but also with the wider neighbourhood, which is predominantly home to elderly people who had initially expressed reservations about the project.

The community is based on integration and cooperation, and treats everyone – whether they are Dutch or refugees – equally. All residents learn to live with people with different cultures, languages, customs and cuisines. Refugees, meanwhile, are supported to live in a new country and develop friendships with local people who can help with translations, phone calls and homework, or simply answer questions about the city.

Residents are able to learn new skills by taking part in community events such as language courses, sports teams and cultural exchanges. By providing affordable housing with a secure tenancy, the project enables young people to access employment or further their education in the city. Startblok plans to build on this by offering workshops and training in areas such as finding employment, job interviews and housing legislation.

The future

Startblok Riekerhaven is an innovative example of how to address the needs of refugees in a positive way, while also providing much-needed affordable housing for young people. It is a model that can be replicated wherever there are empty plots of land or vacant housing. Other European countries struggling with similar issues have recognised the potential of the Startblok approach and the project has been visited by numerous international delegations.

In Amsterdam, Startblok Riekerhaven has already inspired similar smaller-scale initiatives and there are new housing projects planned for the next two years. These include Socius Wonen’s SET development and Startblok Elzenhagen – a direct transfer of De Key’s model in Amsterdam North, which will use lessons learned in Riekerhaven and will house roughly the same number of residents.

The Startblok model aims to build vibrant residential communities that benefit everyone. By celebrating the cultural diversity that refugees bring, the project promotes integration between young people from different backgrounds who have at least one thing in common: the need of an affordable home.

View the full project summary here – available in English only