A Comparison of Canada & The Netherlands’ Housing Policies

Written by Kyla Tanner

May 13, 2020

The last two months have brought major changes to people’s lives across the globe: travelling came to a grinding halt, schools promptly closed, and working from home became the new normal for those fortunate enough to be able to continue work.

My own plans changed drastically. I was living in Groningen, Netherlands for the final semester of my Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree. I was there for nearly two months before COVID-19 deemed the situation dangerous enough for me to return home, flying back within 48 hours of making the decision. As hard as it was to cut my time short, I feel fortunate to be home and safe. I was also able to wrap up my studies remotely and I am pleased to be writing this blog post as Cahdco’s new Development Support! I am very happy to back with the team (virtually) after working with the group last summer as well.

Although I did not have my full term abroad, I was still able to learn a great deal about the Netherlands. Where I was living, in Groningen, is about two hours from Amsterdam: short by Canadian standards but dreadfully far to the Dutch who are used to their 41,000 km² country. For comparison, this is smaller than the province of Nova Scotia (about 55,000 km²). The city has a population of approximately 230,000 people and is located in the northern part of the country.

This was the view one block from my home: the city centre of Groningen is surrounded by a canal.

I was enrolled in a course at the University of Groningen that was geared specifically to international students. It essentially gave a crash course in all things urban planning for the country, covering topics like water management, climate change, transportation and mobility, and rural areas, to name a few.

The Mercator Building: Where most of my classes were and which I cycled to each day - no matter the weather.

The course included a lecture on social housing. The Netherlands has 2.4 million social housing units, accounting for 35% of the housing stock. Far greater than Canada’s 13.5%. The Netherlands’ strong commitment to social housing (the largest social housing stock in Europe) combined with my passion for all things housing and history of employment at Cahdco, led me to write one of my papers for the course on a broad overview comparison of Canada and the Netherlands’ approach to housing. I’ll outline a few of my findings here in this blog.

The Initial Housing Policies

There are many historical similarities between the two countries’ approaches to housing. Both began with a strong national government presence in the early 1900s. In 1901, the Dutch Housing Act (Woningwet) was released, which placed responsibility for housing on both the national and municipal governments. The goal was to improve poor housing conditions, a common occurrence in large industrialized cities at the time

Canada’s first housing policy was the Dominion Housing Act in 1935, followed shortly after by an updated National Housing Act in 1938. Many Canadians were suffering from the Great Depression and affordable housing was in short supply. The Acts focused on home ownership by means of mortgage assistance from government. In both cases, the countries’ national governments intervened to improve the housing situation.

Social Housing Supply

In the Netherlands, the majority of social housing was built following World War II, when there was a high need for affordable housing options due to damaged housing and population growth. This lasted for 40 years. From about 1950 to 1990 the social housing stock increased from approximately 10% to 40% of housing stock. In the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal was a concern of housing policy. The government intervened to make housing safer from “ghettoization”. Since the 1990s, social housing development has stagnated at about 2.4 million units (See Table 1).

In Canada, the surge in social housing came about a decade after the Netherlands, in 1960, and also lasted until the 1990s. In the 1960s, social housing construction increased 10 times the previous levels. In Canada, and particularly the province of Ontario, there has also been a stagnation of social housing being built since the 1990s.

Delivery of Social Housing

In the Netherlands, the vast majority of social housing is delivered by private, non-profit housing associations. Housing associations in the Netherlands were created to operate social housing. These were originally run by municipalities, but over time became predominantly private non-profit organizations, particularly after 1990. In 1995, housing associations became independent when all outstanding loans were written off and associations could no longer receive object subsidies.


In the 1970s, Canada began to see a shift from “public housing” (non-market social housing operated by government), to increasing delivery by community agencies such as non-profits. In the 1960s, the Canadian government found that the high development and maintenance costs associated with public housing as well as the ghettoizing of large developments made continuing development of public housing unfeasible. The National Housing Act was amended in 1973 and new models of housing co-operatives and non-profit housing emerged. The non-profit housing model today has two forms: municipal non-profits, which is part of government bureaucracy, and private non-profits, such as CCOC.

Current Initiatives

Rent supplements are widely used in the Netherlands to achieve affordability of housing. They were introduced in 1974 as “housing allowances” but today are called the “rent rebate system” and administered by the Tax Authority. Similar to Canada, households may receive money from the government dependent on the number of people in their household, income, assets, and other criteria. In 2011, almost 1.2 million households received a rent rebate, which was approximately 40% of all tenants. There is no wait-list to receive the subsidy or obligation to be living in social housing. It is considered a right for the Dutch.

In the 1990s, following the aforementioned white paper, the Netherlands no longer provided object subsidies, subsidies for housing construction. The result was a substantial decrease in social housing construction.

Although it is not a direct subsidy, housing associations can have their loans guaranteed by the Guarantee Fund for Social Housing and buy council land at reduced prices when constructing social housing. The Guarantee Fund assures access to the capital market and provides low interest rates.

In 2017, the Canadian government announced its new National Housing Strategy (NHS) as a $55 billion+ nation-wide housing strategy that includes funding from the federal and provincial governments and includes various subsidy programs. For further details about the NHS see this blog. The main takeaway difference is that the Canadian national government is providing subsidies primarily to support construction and repair, with less funding allocated to rent supplements – reversed from the Netherlands.


In summary, historically, both countries had similar approaches to housing. Recently, the approaches have diverged, where the Netherlands government provides significant subsidies to individual households but not housing associations and the Canadian government allocates more funding to construction and repair of housing and less to households through rent supplements.

Sources: Bélec, 2015; CMHC, n.d.a; CMHC, n.d.b; CMHC, n.d.d; Elsinga & Wassenberg, 2014; Leone & Carroll, 2010; Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 2019; Priemus & Haffner, 2017; Priemus, 2006; Shapcott, 2004; Sousa & Quarter, 2004; Suttor, 2016; Uitermark et al., 2007; Young, 2019.

Kyla Tanner

Project Manager

May 13, 2020