‘Not a five-star flat, but there are enough prospects’

They don’t have to pay for their room in apartment building ‘Louis Armstrong’ in Zwolle. In exchange, Social work students Jessica Brugman and Winnie Cheung, help improve the liveability in the apartment building. This is an initiative by housing association SWZ and the Travers Welzijn foundation.

A shopping trolley here and there, a harsh sign about camera surveillance and a stray garbage bag. Other than that, there isn’t anything out of the ordinary about the Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong apartment buildings in the Holtenbroek quarter in Zwolle. Yet many residents don’t feel safe, according to a survey by housing association SWZ. A large renovation is scheduled, but it takes more than just a renovation. That’s why Jessica, Winnie and two other students live free of charge in ‘Louis Armstrong’ and ‘Elvis Presley’, and they will ensure the other residents are more comfortable. How are they going to do that? They are busy making plans.


A few months ago, their first impression of the apartment wasn’t great. Jessica: “When we got here, it wasn’t the best of places to live. I don’t want to cast a shadow on the previous tenant, but let’s say that a team of professional cleaners really had their work cut out for them. SWZ has also done a lot for us. They painted the walls and we have made it into a wonderful little student house. It’s not a five-star apartment building, but it’s okay. There are enough prospects.”

It’s been tumultuous within and around the two apartment buildings somewhere in the back of Holtenbroek for the past few years. People feel unsafe, there’s a lot of loitering going on and a lot of trash lying around. Jessica, Winnie and a third student called Quinty, who lives in ‘Elvis Presley’, have been collecting residents’ experiences in the first few months.  

Winnie: “We hear a lot of similar things. For example, there’s an intercom downstairs without a camera. Many residents don’t like that, because that way strangers can get into the building. We then tell SWZ they need to install a camera. We also hear about trouble with youth. There’s not much to do for them. They get bored and start harassing others.”

Cooking, crafts, coffee

The interviews sometimes take up to two hours. Jessica: “People are glad they can finally get this off their chest. We did read up on the history of the neighbourhood first. Otherwise, residents might not take us seriously. Some people have lived here for twenty years, whereas we just moved in.”

According to the arrangement, the students spend ten hours a week on the project. Jessica, Winnie and Quinty aren’t making any solid plans just yet, but some general ideas have started to take shape. “There will be a community room that will host activities for children, adolescents and adults, like cooking, arts and crafts and drinking coffee. That way they’ll have something to do and they can get to know each other. We also ask them to contribute to the activities, doing something they’re good at. We hope that makes them feel involved.”


The root of the problems can be found in the fact that the residents aren’t really connected, according to the students. Winnie: “Everyone has their own life. People greet each other but don’t engage in conversation or ask for help.”

Jessica: “If more people keep an eye out for each other, they won’t be alone when there’s trouble. And hopefully, residents will abide by the rules a bit more. For example, you won’t be allowed to take your bike into the elevator. There will also be arrangements regarding trash, which you’ll have to take out properly. If people address these issues to others, it’ll be safe and sociable.”

According to Winnie, there needs to be more togetherness. “Residents will report broken things from their own homes, but they won’t if it’s from a communal space. We want people to feel at home. Not just in their apartments, but also in and around the apartment building.”

Smashed window

In the first few months of living there, Winnie and Jessica had been put to the test quite a bit. Winnie: “In the main entrance, a window had been smashed. We tracked down the culprit and talked to him. We made it clear to him that he has to think before he does such a thing.”

It’s not their intention to lecture others when Winnie and Jessica talk to someone. “That approach makes people listen. We are very approachable. When we talk to a boy like that, he’ll see us as nice girls who want to have a very sociable conversation with him. We aren’t formal people.” Winnie: “We also take care of things ourselves. We immediately called a glazier to get a new window.”

Wasted energy?

Even though many residents have responded positively to the students’ work, not everyone is happy with the project. Jessica: “Some people aren’t experiencing any trouble and don’t want things to change. Others don’t plan on staying here very long, so they think: why put in the effort? Getting involved feels like wasting energy to them. That’s a shame, but it was to be expected. It takes some time for things to change.”

Winnie: “You have to start somewhere and I do really believe that our efforts pay off.”

Text: Silke Polhuijs
Photos: Jasper van Overbeek

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