Money is not all that counts in sustainability

News - 28 March 2019 - Communication BK

Dutch housing associations are very keen on sustainability, but when it comes down to it, costs are the decisive factor. This is the conclusion of Sandra Hoomans in her PhD research. “Strategic considerations on making housing stock more sustainable should also be based on ecological values.”

Hoomans got the idea for her research after a stay in Africa where she was working for an NGO in a wildlife park. Over and over again we see that strategies to combat illegal poaching lead back to the same idea: if you ensure that the local population earn more money, they will leave the wild animals in peace. So, the NGO chose to invest in surfacing roads to give the population better connections to the local market and improve their development prospects. “But this didn't work at all,” says Hoomans. “Decisions shouldn't be aimed at the economy, but at the goal you want to achieve.”

From an analysis of data that she gathered in the period 2009 to 2017, she learned that the concept of ‘sustainability’ originally had a wide meaning. From documents, group debates and interviews, the picture arises that the discussion was originally not just about insulation and reducing energy consumption, but also such issues as biodiversity, air and ground quality and liveability. “But none of these are considered in the decision-making on investment in a neighbourhood,” explains Hoomans. “Before you knew it, the rule had become: we must make sure we aren't seen as tree-hugging, liberal types.”

Moreover, the focus was increasingly on the financial aspect, which was fairly understandable given the state of the economy. It was the start of the financial crisis and the housing associations were confronted by measures which reduced their earning capacity and their financial reserves, such as the Landlord Levy. 

Hoomans argues that this is partly the reason why the idea of sustainability took on a limited definition. Housing associations started to focus on insulation, reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions and reducing the dependence on natural gas. But the discussion on biodiversity, social factors and the quality of the living environment became snowed under. 

She notes that ten years after the signing of the Aedes covenant, the meaning has become even narrower. The most recent discussions on sustainability are restricted to making buildings more energy-efficient. Decisions that go beyond this are often scrapped as being too expensive. From her research, she concludes that knowledge of ecology is pitiful. Relevant data that is available is not used, or not used sufficiently.

In recent years, the housing association sector has worked hard to insulate houses and install solar panels; yet Hoomans feels this is not enough to qualify it as a broad sustainability effort. The literature supposes that strategic decisions should be based on values. “But if only economic values are considered, not much will change. It's not only about the price tag: being able to breathe clean air is a basic value that cannot be expressed in economic terms.”