Houseboats of Amsterdam


June 24, 2019

When visiting Amsterdam one can’t help but notice the house boats that are around all of the canals. These boats are extraordinary and quite picturesque in historic Amsterdam. Of course, you can stay in them but why are they around? Why do they exist? 

The history of the houseboat in the Netherlands is actually pretty simple. After World War II there was a housing shortage. One might say it was an affordable housing crisis. (See where I’m going here? The Dutch were able to innovate out of necessity and once people were living in the houseboats, change and create new laws to accommodate the innovative housing.) So the Dutch government permitted citizens who worked in the shipping trade industry to live on the miles of canals right in the heart of the city. Currently there are 2500 houseboats in Amsterdam, and around 100,000 in the Netherlands, many of which people live on as their primary residence. The three most well known types are “Arken”, “Scharken” and “Woonschepen.”

Arken are actually attached to the floor of the canal and have  a concrete piers as a foundation in the water, with buildings made from wooden, bricks or synthetic material resting above the water on the piers.

Scharken look a lot like Arken, but have a metal foundation and need to go to the wharf for maintenance once in five years. These metal ships are often ships that are no longer used as inland navigation ships. On the top people created a stone, wooden or synthetic material construction.

Woonschepen are usually traditional and historical ships that lost their function and gained a residential function.

Since 2005, all of these vessels are required to connect to city sewer and electricity. Some houses do have have solar but most are connected to the grid. The city also prefers homes with the more historic look (Woonschepen) which the government feels add a nice ambience to the downtown area. We saw a number of them even have mini established yards right off the front door on the canal and have their mini cars parked in front!


Due to popularity, the city of Amsterdam recently capped the total number of permits (ligplatts) for houseboats to 2500 to prevent the canals from being too congested. The popularity combine with restriction of quantity, has increased the cost of the homes substantially (law of supply & demand). As a result, occupants of houseboats now have the reputation of being called “wateryuppies”. But initially houseboats were a way to add housing quickly to the Netherlands and all types of folks lived on them. Once it was seen as an innovative housing solution but now it has turned into fashionable icon and a costly way to live. 


  1. Regulating a set maximum of a certain housing type could undermine the purpose of attaining affordability and converting an innovative idea to a sought after luxury item.

  2. Just because a rule doesn’t exit to allow for innovation doesn’t mean it cant be created. (Tiny Houses are the Houseboats of the current day!)

  3. We are still operating in a small circle of ideas and tiny houses and other holding options our just outside our reach. We need to believe we can expand our ideas and allow for more innovation to take advantage of creativity.

Will Johnston