It might be said that if Paris and Birmingham were ever combined, the end result would look a lot like Brussels. This observation holds true for much of downtown Brussels where, aside from a medieval core around the Grand Place, postwar concrete construction alternates with late 19th-century boulevards and brick town houses. Yet it feels shabbier here than in Birmingham or Paris; most upmarket housing in Brussels is found in leafy suburbs east and south of the centre.
The exception to this is the Dansaert design district, named after the road running through it, where trendy loft apartments abound and the streets buzz with modish restaurants and fashion boutiques.
“Things started moving here in earnest about a decade ago,” says Patrick Menache, who operates estate agency Macnash Immobilier. “It’s a magnet for young professionals, particularly from Flanders [the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium], but also for expats such as British and Americans. Now Dansaert has become very much what we call ‘bobo’ – bourgeois-bohème.”
Even before that, Belgian fashionistas were among the first to see potential in the area, formerly a place of crumbling housing, industrial spaces and flophouses. The first shoots of gentrification on Rue Antoine Dansaert occurred in the mid-1980s with the opening of the Stijl fashion house, showcasing the work of the “Antwerp Six”, including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester.
The neighbourhood’s popularity has created a micro-market. Conversions and newbuilds close to Dansaert attract a premium of “10 per cent or a little more”, says Menache. These sell for €3,500 to €4,500 per sq metre, with used properties (almost always apartments and often in need of renovation) usually selling for between €2,750 and €3,250 per sq metre.
Still, compared with London, Paris or Amsterdam, properties in the area appear to be good value. For example, a 340 sq metre, loft-style apartment with a 40 sq metre terrace, sauna and a lift that opens directly into the property is priced €1.35m with Macnash Immobilier. A 67 sq metre, first-floor unit on the southern edge of the district, with two small bedrooms is on sale for €150,000 with Olimmo.
The price of apartments in the Brussels region, as a whole, rose by an average of 3.2 per cent between mid-2012 and mid-2013, according to Statistics Belgium. This contrasts with the commune of Brussels, which contains Dansaert and the rest of the downtown area (one of 19 municipalities that make up the capital), where the average value of apartments increased 7.7 per cent over the same period.
Belgium has some of the world’s highest property transfer taxes – acting as a significant deterrent to speculation – and prices did not crash in 2008 as they did in much of Europe.
But could the housing market now be set for a period of stagnation? A recent report by the rating agency Standard & Poor’s says “the ratio of house prices to incomes suggests homes are still among the most affordable in the eurozone. The housing market in Belgium is likely to … grow only marginally in 2014. Gloomy income and employment prospects are limiting demand for new dwellings, although a shortage of housing should prevent a slump in the longer term”.
Mike Cooper, an Australian economist who lives in Dansaert, says the district has two key draws. “First of all, there is a huge selection of places to eat and drink, from cafés with art nouveau interiors … to trendy, minimalist cocktail bars. Second, the architecture is really eclectic. You glance up and see beautiful wrought-iron balconies on Rue Dansaert.”
Travel connections are also good: the area is just 2km from Brussels South train station, the terminus for services to London and Paris, and there is a direct metro connection with Schuman roundabout, where the headquarters of the European Commission is located. As a result, many residents of Dansaert have no need to own a car.
Given that households here are typically made up of professional couples or single people, and apartment buildings are often deserted during the working day, burglaries are a worry. Although overall levels of violent crime in Belgium are dropping, burglaries were up 7.5 per cent nationally in the 12 months to July 2013, according to the Belgian Federal Police.
However, Dansaert’s fundamental weakness is that it is an island of prosperity cut off from other wealthy parts of Brussels in a generally depressed downtown, where cheap, overcrowded housing, occupied mostly by north African immigrants, is the norm. Indeed, at the western end, close to the city’s main canal, gentrification appears to have ground to a halt. Yet even here there are surprises. A one-bedroom duplex loft in a quiet, off-street setting is on sale for €585,000 through the Switch agency, for example.
Meanwhile, the gradual introduction of a “comfort zone” around the Grand Place (east of Dansaert), which includes pedestrianising a number of narrow streets, raises hopes that homes in this micro-district will also attract more investment.
Confidence in the long-term future of the downtown area has also been boosted by UP-site, a retail, office and residential development by the canal on the city centre’s northern edge. At its heart is a 41-floor tower – the highest residential structure in Belgium – which features 251 lofts and apartments due to be delivered to their owners in June. Sandrine Jacobs, communications director for developer Atenor, says the scheme is 80 per cent sold and demand for the units has been “very strong”.
● Stamp duty on used homes is 12.5 per cent of the purchase price
● New-build property is taxed at the standard VAT rate of 21 per cent
● Brussels is two hours by train from London, and 80 minutes from Paris
● On-street parking is very limited
● About 75 per cent of Belgians own their own home
What you can buy for …
€100,000: A 35 sq metre studio requiring some refurbishment
€1m: A three-bedroom, 240 sq metre new-build apartment
€2.5m: A five-bedroom apartment on the 40th floor of the UP-site tower