Fearless in Amsterdam: housing is about homes, not investment

Amsterdam is part of the global municipalist Fearless Cities Network. Commons Network collaborates with activist groups in the dotank The 99 of Amsterdam that embodies the Amsterdam tranche of the Fearless Cities network. Like Fearless Cities worldwide, The 99 of Amsterdam strives for radical democracy, an earth-friendly and care economy, feminizing politics, and stands up against the far right.

In the upcoming weeks, we will address some of the most pressing issues Fearless City Amsterdam is coping with, and fill you in on recent developments and the important work that’s being done. This week: housing.

Affordable housing is a big problem worldwide. Many poor and middle class people don’t have access to affordable housing, many more are forced to move out of their communities and neighborhoods. For those who have not yet seen it, the documentary Push poignantly illustrates the global housing crisis. In Push, Sociology professor Saskia Sassen describes the capitalist dynamics on the housing ‘market’: “Finance is like mining. Once it has extracted what it needs, it doesn’t care what happens to the rest.”

Globally, residential property is worth an astonishing 162 trillion dollars, a ridiculous amount that is almost three times the value of every single country’s GDP combined. Clearly, there is something wrong. In Push, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Leilani Farha paints a grim picture of the reality of the housing market visiting places like Toronto, New York, London, Valparaiso (Chile), and Uppsala (Sweden) where investors are quickly buying and selling, or buying, renovating and renting out hundreds of properties at once. She learns, for example, that investor companies are specifically targeting poor residential properties and neighborhoods, that they raise rents by huge percentages, and force out, threaten to evict or otherwise sue tenants.


Housing costs soar, wages don’t

Farha also learns that, in Toronto, housing prices have increased by 425% over the last 30 years, while average family income has only increased by 133%. Needless to say, this has severe consequences for the access to adequate housing. As a result, people are forced to move out of their communities and neighborhoods, only to be supplanted by more affluent sections of society.

There is a similar trend in the Netherlands and Amsterdam. From 1996 to 2020, the increase in average rents exceeded the increase in average wages by 13%. An increasing chunk of people’s incomes is sucked up by their rents. On average tenants in the Netherlands spend around 40% of their incomes on rent, whereas a century ago that percentage was less than half. The graph below shows how residential property prices developed in roughly the same period in the Netherlands and Amsterdam. It illustrates that housing affordability issues are only exacerbated in the city, where market speculation has been pushing home prices through the roof.


Source: destadamsterdam.nu

A few recent developments in Amsterdam

Fearless Cities, like Amsterdam, are looking for ways to combat the housing crisis. Several measures have been implemented by the Greens-led municipal council, such as the 2020 ‘woonplicht’, which lays down the obligation for house owners of newly built houses (usually on the city’s outskirts) to actually live in their property, instead of renting it out. Measures to prevent investors from ‘splitting’ residential buildings into ever smaller units have also been implemented on the municipal level.

Albeit steps in the right direction, the city of Amsterdam has not been able – and has come too late to – reverse gentrification trends, mitigate unprecedented market prices for homes and prevent the less affluent from being pushed out of the city. This trend is particularly visible in North Amsterdam, where activists organize themselves in groups like Verdedig Noord in order to actively resist the gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

De 99 van Amsterdam and Commons Network are working together with these groups to create awareness about the adversarial effects of gentrification for – usually less affluent – residents, and to build a countervailing power to market forces. A countervailing power that supports local communities and fights for fair rents and accessible housing for everyone.


Source: De 99 van Amsterdam


When housing and commoning coalesce

Parallel to these developments, Amsterdam recently saw the birth of several innovative and social initiatives in the domain of housing. Initiatives that follow the logic of the commons, that let us reimagine housing as a common good, not to be exploited but to be used, stewarded and regenerated by its inhabitants. One of these initiatives is the Community Land Trust Bijlmer, which is exploring the use of the ‘community land trust’ as a potential organizational and legal model to co-own a residential building. Another is housing cooperative De Warren, a community of 50 people that is collectively developing and building a 36-unit-building in a socially and ecologically sustainable way.

Finally, a great example of housing as a commons is De Nieuwe Meent, which started as a group only a few years ago. Its mission is to provide long term and affordable housing for the people of Amsterdam. How it works? The future tenants in De Nieuwe Meent together form a cooperative. The cooperative lends and crowdfunds enough money for the construction of a 50-apartment complex. The cooperative permanently remains the legal owner of the 50 homes, the tenants rent back the individual units from the cooperative of which they are a member. The complex consists of low and medium rent apartments, a communal space and lobby, a garden, a roof terrace, a bike stalling and greenhouse.

What makes the ownership structure of De Nieuwe Meent special, is that no one ‘owns’ the building, and therefore not one single member of the cooperative has the right to sell his or her unit. In other words: the complex has effectively been taken off the market, relieved from its whims and speculation. De Nieuwe Meent is currently crowdfunding a part of the initial investment it needs for financing the building. To see how you can help, have a look at their website to learn more.

Source: nieuwemeent.nl

Join the Cities for Change Forum

Where some aldermen, civil servants, housing cooperatives and community groups have succeeded in making housing more accessible and affordable, many more are still suffering from the inherent injustices of the housing ‘market’.  The efforts of Fearless Cities worldwide, including Amsterdam, are needed to turn the unjust system around.

In order to make this transformation happen, The 99 of Amsterdam brings together pioneers, activists, politicians and civil servants together in the Cities for Change Forum which plays out over a two-month period, from March to the end of May.