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Archive for December 2016

A different approach to affordable housing: Mitte Altona

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The rail site of the future Mitte Altona housing development.  In the foreground are the typical Hamburg appartment blocks built around aninner courtyard

The rail site of the future Mitte Altona housing development. In the foreground are the typical Hamburg appartment blocks built around aninner courtyard

It’s not only in Vancouver: housing problems exist, in different guises, all over the world.   It’s different in every city, but every city where the economy is doing well faces the same issues: what to do about homelessness?  How do low-income families find housing that does not require impossible commutes?  How can young couples get a chance at becoming home owners?  Add to that the need to preserve heritage values, maintain community integrity, provide decent public transit and promote job creation where people live – a pretty untractable problem.  At least this is how it seems to be in the greater Vancouver, where peacemeal strategies always seem ineffective.

In that context, I thought it might be instructive to explore what happens in other cities.  In particular, there is an intriguing development project in Altona, a neighbourhood of Hamburg in northwest Germany.

Mitte Altona (middle Altona) is a project redevelopping a former railway sorting yard, a space of 26 hectares now intended for 2500 residential units.  This is new supply, and of course by itself supply helps lowering prices – that is basic economics.  It is the second largest development project in Hamburg (Hafen City is the biggest), but it is still just one of many projects – Hamburg wants to ensure that its citisens can live where they work.

The Kleiderkasse, one of the heritage buildings integrated to the development.  Five different architects have been given a commission to ensure a diversity of styles.

The Kleiderkasse, one of the heritage buildings that will be integrated in the development. Five different architects have been given a commission to ensure a diversity of styles.

But what is really special about the project, when seen from a Vancouver perspective, is the nature of the housing.  No, I don’t mean that all the new buildings will be energy efficient; that’s great, it lowers the utility bill, but that’s taken as granted in all new construction there.  No, what caught my eye are the city’s measures to promote affordability.

A full third of all housing will consist of social housing – that is, housing where rent is controlled to a price affordable by lower wage earners, or people on welfare or disability.  This is done to ensure a proper social mix of incomes.  The extent of rent subsidy varies according to the needs of the recipient, instead of having a simple yes-no decision (welfare yes, employed no).  This ensures a fairer situation for younger families or people on small salaries, and provides for more diversity.

Let that sink in.  That is over 800 subsidized, non-market housing, and that is one development out of many where similar affordability rules apply.  One third social housing is a routine number, set by the city.  In letters from readers response to a newspaper article describing the project, some writers complained that the ratio of social housing is actually too low. By way of comparison, in the Woodward’s redevelopment, Vancouver’s showcase project of integrated social and market housing,  fewer than 30% of the units are reserved for social housing – and that’s one of the best.

Another interesting feature of the development is that a minimum of 20% of the units are meant to be of the Baugemeinschaft type, which is  a form of co-housing traditional in Germany, encouraged by the government through access to funds and reduced red tape.

The development plan - note the green corridors

The development plan – note the green corridors

A further 20% of the units is designated car-free living, which entails considerable costs savings since the developer does not have to provide space for cars, which helps affordability.  But the whole community is designed to be car independent: there are no streets or roads that go through the community.  This was the case before the development, since it was a rail sorting yard, blocking through traffic.  The city declined to punch streets through the complex, a smart move that reduces traffic, pollution, and noise.  Instead, an 8 hectare green park, with playing fields, is the main open space.  There are two S-Bahn commuter train stations nearby.   Pedestrian walkways and cycle paths criss-cross the complex, and these can be used by everyone, from local residents to commuting cyclists riding through.  This is not a gated community, a concept pretty much non-existent in Germany.

I was curious to see how typical such a project was.  I didn’t need to go far; near the east end of the Mitte Altona development is the site of the large Holsten brewery.  The site is to be re-developed since the brewery is moving across the river, to Harburg.  Though smaller, this is also a considerable development, planned for 1500 residential units, as well as 2.5 hectare of commercial or light industrial space.  The proportion of social housing is expected to be similar, since Mitte Altona is touted as the model; but ultimately, the ratio will be determined based on the results of an extensive consultation, to be completed by 2017.  In Hamburg, the public has a say in the early stages of planning.  Another example is the project on Alsterberg, which I described earlier in this blog, where a full half of the 340 is social housing.

Some of the integrated services: the stipled areas are ground-level stores and restaurants, the brown building is a school, the blue areas are reserved for people with handicaps or old age folks.

Some of the integrated services: the stipled areas are ground-level stores and restaurants, the brown building is a school, the blue areas are reserved for people with handicaps or the elderly.  The red dots are daycares, and the yellow area is for small businesses for low income earners.  

None of this is cheap, granted.  Housing is expensive in Hamburg, and taxes are high.  But that is so that the city can provide what it considers essential services, including affordable housing, to its citizens.  I don’t mean to imply that this is a perfect approach, or that it should be the model for Vancouver; I merely want to point out that solutions do exist.

But don’t say Germans don’t have a sense of humour: one of the main pedestrian paths through the complex has been named after Domenica Niehoff, Hamburg’s most famous streetwalker.  Known as the queen of the Reeperbahn (the red light district), she campaigned for the legalization of prostitution and better conditions for the sex workers.

More info about Mitte Altona (all in German) can be found here, here and here, as well as in a video that offers a lot of street views of Ottensen and Altona, the historic neighbourhoods that border the project.

(Note: for the non-metrically inclined, a hectare is about 2.5 acres, or 100,000 square feet.)

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Written by enviropaul

December 27, 2016 at 4:30 pm