Dutch plan to cut housing subsidies may spark revolt

With the country's housing crisis continuing to worsen, the new Dutch government has begun formulating plans to tackle the problem - in a way that could provoke strong social protest.

Threatening the social peace are plans to cut government subsidies for millions living in state-supported housing, thus increasing tenants' expenses, but helping to trim the country's mounting budget deficit.

''Socially,'' Housing Minister Peter Winsemius conceded in a recent interview , ''we could have problems.''

For years, lofty government subsidies have made it possible for a high percentage of Dutch ''to pay less for better housing'' than any other people in Western Europe except the Italians and Irish, according to Dr. Winsemius. Last year, government spending in housing reached 10.4 billion guilders (about $3.85 billion), or nearly 10 percent of the national budget - more than double the 1975 figure.

''This bill is quite unaffordable in today's economy,'' the minister emphasized.

Officials say that plans to trim spending in the housing sector are part of an overall scheme agreed to by the new center-right government formed last fall to cut public spending by an unprecedented 13 billion guilders ($4.8 billion) this year and by about 34 billion guilders ($12.6 billion) over the next four years. The national budget deficit last year - initially estimated at 16 billion guilders ($5.9 billion) - eventually reached more than 28 billion guilders ($10. 3 billion).

Added to the financial aspect of the problem is the fact that the housing shortage in Western Europe's most densely populated country has become more acute in recent years. Reasons for this include:

* Old buildings continue to decay beyond repair.

* Children leave home much younger than ever before.

* Speculators hold onto property, waiting for prices to rise.

* The divorce rate increases.

* The general population opts for smaller homes.

* The elderly tend to live in private homes rather than in institutions.

What this has meant - and will continue to mean for some time to come - is a shortage of about 75,000 dwellings in the Netherlands. Put another way, about 25 ,000 people now need housing. Making headlines and highlighting the need for cheap and convenient housing has been the country's strong ''squatter'' movement.

Today, the Netherlands (population 14.3 million) has 5 million dwellings, up from about 2 million in 1945, and government planners say their goal is to have about 6 million ''someday.''

But experts here warn against reaching the ''ideal'' 6 million mark through government-backed building too soon, pointing out that unemployment in the country's building sector - now running at a record 25 percent - would be seriously aggravated by a sudden halt in government-supported construction.

''Theoretically,'' said one Housing Ministry official, ''we could reach 6 million in less than 10 years, building 100,000 dwellings a year that would certainly ease the housing problem. But it would also bring the construction unions down on us like thunder.''

The long-term aim of the government is to ease the problem by ''restoring the market economy to the housing sector,'' according to Dr. Winsemius, who adds that the spectacular fall in mortgage rates from a high two years ago of 12.5 percent to 7.5 percent today will help.

But independent analysts say that despite the lower mortgage rates, private housing construction cannot be expected to pick up much until the economy does.

''It's still too expensive to build,'' says one expert, ''especially when you compare it with the relatively inexpensive cost of government-subsidized rents.''

The key, according to some observers, will be to wean the Dutch away from their state-subsidized rents gradually without touching off a social revolt.

''You have to remember that the large majority of renters in the Netherlands have been used to forking out only about 10 percent of their income for housing - against about one-quarter, for example, for the French,'' one expert said. ''Now the government wants to bring the rents up to the market level, albeit slowly, while keeping wage hikes to a minimum, and while prices for natural gas used for home heating continue to rise.''

Even Dr. Winsemius is concerned. ''By allowing rents to rise while pursuing the rest of our program at the same time,'' he says, ''we will be squeezing the weakest people in society. And that is something nobody wants to be responsible for.''

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