How Expensive Houses and Suburban Sprawl Are Tearing Belgium Apart

Author’s photo

Panoramic view of Brussels’ grand place.

I’m positively obsessed with the point that supply restrictions on new construction cause a much broader and deeper set of problems than is commonly realized. For example, I’m in Brussels right now on a trip organized by the European Parliament for American journalists to learn about EU institutions but it naturally made me curious about the local situation as well as the EU one. And it looks like a case where suburban sprawl is literally tearing the nation of Belgium apart.

The basic situation is that Belgium is like three countries in one. There’s French-speaking Wallonia, there’s Dutch-speaking Flanders, and then there’s Brussels. Brussels is officially bilingual, but it’s geographically surrounded by Flanders and yet primarily inhabited by French-dominant individuals. Brussels is also a major international city thanks to work related to the presence of Euorpean Union institutions and NATO headquarters here as well as being a big location for lower skilled immigration from developing countries. Since French is a much more widely spoken language than Dutch, new arrivials to Brussels tend to speak French. Which is all well and good, except that the Dutch-speaking nature of the Felmish communities near Brussels is integral to the grand bargain on which Belgium’s existence as a nation is predicated.

So while in the United States housing scarcity in central cities drives unnecessarily long commutes and unnecessary environmental damage, in Belgium it becomes a cause of profound political crisis since the increasing population of French speaking in rim municipalities around Brussles exacerbates the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde dispute.

Obviously it would be pretty flip to just say that Belgian could solve all its intra-communal disputes with more residential high-rises in Brussels, but the extent to which the relative price of housing in Brussels has risen relative to non-Brussels is striking.