Poverty: how can vulnerable neighbourhoods be genuinely helped?

Gijs Custers

Twelve directors of the Nationaal Programma Leefbaarheid en Veiligheid (NPLV) expressed their concerns about vulnerable neighbourhoods in society in an opinion piece in the Algemeen Dagblad. In their opinion piece, they call for more structural investments in vulnerable neighbourhoods and advocate for unorthodox measures to address issues in these areas. Ten university researchers, including Gijs Custers, Assistant Professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, responded to the NPLV directors' piece by submitting an opinion piece to the Volkskrant. In their opinion piece, they agree that structural investments are necessary for vulnerable neighbourhoods. However, the researchers disagree with how the NPLV directors approach the issues and structural investments in vulnerable neighbourhoods. 

One initial problem the researchers point out in their opinion piece is the language used by the NPLV directors. For instance, the directors write in their piece that 'they are doing things that are not meaningful at all'. They also use terms like 'a 'stacking' of problems' and 'poisonous crime' when referring to neighbourhoods with many poor residents. The researchers describe this language as stigmatizing and highlight in their opinion piece in the Volkskrant the consequences of the directors' language: "By doing so, they exacerbate the negative perception surrounding these neighbourhoods and vulnerable residents." The researchers also point out the use of terms like 'disadvantaged neighbourhoods' and 'decent urban averages' by NPLV directors. Such language suggests that a concentration of poor people makes a place sick and that poor people are indecent. Custers states: "This kind of negative perception is used to secure funding for the program but simultaneously worsens the stigma of the neighbourhoods and people." 

Rich and poor in a shared neighborhood 

A second problem the researchers highlight is the proposal by the NPLV directors to welcome more affluent people into vulnerable neighbourhoods. The directors see this as one of the solutions to combat poverty in vulnerable neighbourhoods. The researchers write the following in their opinion piece in the Volkskrant: "Currently, there is little scientific evidence that spatial concentration of poverty substantially worsens social problems in Dutch neighbourhoods. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that mixing with affluent newcomers does not lead to a better socioeconomic position for poor residents. Moreover, large differences between rich and poor in these neighbourhoods fuel discontent and mistrust." 

In their opinion piece, the NPLV directors argued that unorthodox measures are needed to address the issues of vulnerable neighbourhoods. The researchers write in their opinion piece that building social housing in middle-class and wealthier neighbourhoods is truly unorthodox. "By spreading in this way, the stacking of problems in vulnerable neighbourhoods can be much more effectively slowed down," the researchers assert. 

Priority in housing allocation 

In the opinion piece published in the Algemeen Dagblad, the NPLV directors called for social housing to be rented out with priority to certain people. Citizens who, according to the NPLV directors, should have priority for social housing are those who 'do not demand extra attention from neighbours or authorities.' Examples given for this description are people with professions such as teachers, police officers, and caregivers. The researchers do not find this to be a solution. They write in the Volkskrant: "In practice, this means that vulnerable groups are pushed even further into the margins. It is also an indirect solution: applying band-aids for certain groups solves the lack of affordable housing. Only expanding and making the social housing sector more accessible would address this problem at its root." 

The Rotterdamwet 

2006, the Act on Extraordinary Measures for Urban Problems was first applied in Rotterdam. For this reason, the law is also called the Rotterdamwet. In their opinion piece in the Volkskrant, the researchers criticize the law: "This law is controversial because of its discriminatory and exclusionary nature. Based on the law, people without income from work can be excluded from areas where the measure applies." The researchers also write that multiple evaluations have been conducted testing the law, but no evidence has been found that the Rotterdamwet improves livability and safety in the neighbourhoods. 

The researchers point out the negative consequences of the Rotterdamwet: "The law does limit the options of housing seekers, including a disproportionately large number of people with a migration background. These people are moved to the outskirts of the city. Their problems remain unresolved or worsen due to a greater distance to facilities." 

Custers points to the so-called Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) as a popular alternative. ABCD is a process that brings people together in their neighbourhood, intending to bring about change collectively. ABCD focuses on making a community visible and strengthening it. 

Is it a citizen's or the government's problem? 

Finally, the researchers criticize that little attention is paid to the NPLV directors' opinion piece on how the current situation came about. Regarding social issues, blame is often placed on residents of vulnerable neighbourhoods without delving into the influence of government policies implemented in recent years. The researchers write in their opinion piece in the Volkskrant: "For example, the social housing sector has gradually been dismantled and stripped, there have been cuts to the social minimum, social provisions have disappeared, and the government has largely stopped structural investments in vulnerable neighbourhoods." 

The researchers indicate that they support structural investments in vulnerable neighbourhoods. In this way, people can have more perspective. According to the researchers, different measures need to be taken to provide people with more perspective than the NPLV directors propose: "Provide more support to the countless resident initiatives active in vulnerable neighbourhoods. Give residents a serious role in shaping the approach in their neighbourhood rather than imposing from above what the neighbourhood should be. So, no artificial social mixing favouring affluent residents." 

Assistant professor
More information

You can read the opinion piece by the researchers here.

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