The City of Rotterdam has bought several hundreds of privately let, poorly maintained houses in 9 so-called hotspots, of which 3 are located in the district of Feijenoord. They have done this over a period of 7 years as a strategy with the aim to restructure disadvantaged neighbourhoods: by renovating dilapidated housing, the quality of the housing and the neighbourhood would increase. However, renovated houses proved unaffordable for local residents with low incomes and unattractive for higher-income house-seekers because of the (still) low neighbourhood status. Therefore, the city decided to give the renovated houses away (in a 2004-2006 pilot) or sell them at a bargain (as of 2006) to those who are willing and able to renovate a house in a neighbourhood with a low socio-economic status. From then on the houses were called Do-It-Yourself (DIY) houses. An evaluation of the initiative in the period 2004-2011 by Deuten (2011) shows that participants were often aged 25 to 35 years old, employed in the creative sector, young families and single men, and often had medium to high annual household incomes and high education levels. Almost one in three buyers had their previous residence outside Rotterdam. Half of the DIY-houses were sold individually and half in collective renovation projects.
The initiative aims to regenerate low-income areas in Rotterdam, amongst others by structurally increasing social cohesion among residents with different socio-economic statuses in the neighbourhoods in which the DIY-houses are located (Gijsberts and Dagevos, 2007). It seeks to do so by attracting residents with high social and cultural capitals, by obligating buyers to renovate the house, to live in the house and not to let it out for at least 3 years (Eurocities, 2012). Nonetheless, it remains unclear how the new and existing residents are supposed to connect.
Between 2004 and 2011, 534 old apartments were combined into 238 residences and sold to private buyers in Rotterdam. In Rotterdam and in the neighbourhood Hillesluis in Feijenoord, demand has greatly exceeded supply so far (Sour, 2009; Huitzing, 2011). During the implementation of the initiative, the city collaborates with an architect who helps buyers develop a construction plan, government employees who advise buyers on legal matters, 2 banks that are prepared to provide mortgages, local housing corporations that are willing to buy the houses when a project fails, and the organisation Urbannerdam that supports buyers in the process of getting a house and promotes the DIY-housing project to other cities and organisations (Eurocities, 2012). Purchasing, preparing DIY-houses for sale and guiding buyers during the renovation costs the City € 30,000 on average per dwelling. Buyers pay an acquisition price and renovation costs that depend on the state and size of the house. The value of most DIY-houses increases as buyers renovate the houses themselves.
Nienhuis (2012) finds that the initiative manages to improve the socio-economic status of the direct surroundings of the dwelling, but not of the entire neighbourhoods in which the DIY- projects are located. The DIY-houses do attract higher-income groups to the projects. Their presence can also pave the way, both psychologically and economically, for more upmarket buyers to settle near the projects. New residents have more financial and social capital to invest in the public spaces and facilities in the neighbourhood. In Hillesluis, we find that they indeed initiate and participate in various local activities in collaboration with residents who have lived there for a longer time. For instance, participants have successfully restructured a local park in collaboration with existing residents and voluntarily read to children in a local school with many disadvantaged children. Nevertheless, activities, friendships and other support relations mostly occur within and not among the two groups, so in terms of social cohesion it remains to be seen how effective the initiative is.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
In the DIY-houses project diversity is used as a strategy to upgrade the neighbourhood of Feijenoord. We find that it does so in three ways. First, the project contributes to the diversification of the housing stock. DIY-houses are owner-occupied while the neighbourhoods in which they are located have high percentages of social housing and low-priced private rental housing. In addition, because buyers design their house themselves the interior and exterior design and size of all DIY-houses is unique. In contrast, local (social) housing is mainly similar in these respects. Second, the DIY-houses project differentiates the population of Feijenoord by attracting more affluent people with diverse household types (e.g. families, singles, couples, etc.) from other neighbourhoods, or from outside Rotterdam. Also, the new residents often have high-skilled and creative occupations while the traditional residents often work in low-skilled, manufacturing jobs and are more often unemployed. Third, the new residents contribute to the diversification of institutions, facilities and public spaces. In Feijenoord, they have for instance attracted and initiated new sports clubs and a new online platform for local green initiatives for all residents.
Main factors influencing success or failure
Rotterdam has continued to sell DIY-houses. Other Dutch and German cities are using the concept as well. Four factors contribute to the project successes. First, buyers of DIY-houses in Rotterdam must prove to have the financial means to renovate the house before the sale; agree to live in the house for at least 3 years after renovation; and agree not to sell or rent out the house during this period. These strict conditions and the active monitoring by the City helps buyers to succeed in the renovation. Second, the condition of no sale or rent in the first 3 years encourages buyers to invest in the neighbourhood with a long-term perspective (Eurocities, 2012). Third, an extensive guidance of the team of professionals in e.g. architecture and law enables the buyers, who are unexperienced with the complex process of renovation, to accomplish the task. Finally, the DIY-houses attract buyers who are open-minded, resourceful and willing to improve the quality of local facilities and public spaces in collaboration with existing resident groups (Huitzing, 2011). For example, in Hillesluis, we find that new residents visit all residents in their street to motivate them for collective gardening activities.
The DIY-houses project faces difficulties as well. The project does not generate strong social cohesion between high- and low-income groups. Local activities are less often initiated and visited by traditional residents than by newcomers. According to an interviewee:
“Those people [existing residents] do not take initiative […] [Instead,] they worry about other things, not about joyfully undertaking activities together. They worry about money; they have no perspectives. You cannot blame them, but with those people you just cannot build a community”.
Consequently, the current activities, facilities and public spaces in the neighbourhood might not accurately reflect the interests and needs of existing resident groups. In addition, some activities by newcomers exclude the traditional residents because they are not in their interest or (financially or socially) less accessible. This raises the question whether the initiative actually achieves urban diversity in a just way. Also, an interviewed promoter and resident of a DIY-house explains that within some projects residents counteract one another as they disagree over the use of public space. But, the project is still in an early stage. It is unclear what it will bring in the long term.
The DIY-houses project is particularly interesting for cities that have areas with high concentrations of inexpensive and low-quality housing. Combining and renovating existing houses is less expensive and has less impact on the environment than demolishing them and building new houses. The concept of DIY-houses attracts residents who are not afraid of settling in a disadvantaged neighbourhood and who want to invest in local facilities and public spaces in collaboration with existing residents. However, the small scale of the projects only allows for positive socio-economic effects in the direct environment of the project (Nienhuis, 2012). Also, the experience of DIY-houses in Hillesluis shows that it does not generate strong social cohesion between high- and low-income groups. In order to achieve the latter, and to let all residents profit from the regeneration, it is important that the traditional residents are included in the processes of change.
Image: Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
 The City speaks of a ‘hotspot’ when an area is deprived, experiences high levels of crime, and residents feel unsafe.