Amsterdam, like most cities, has a significant amount of pressure upon its housing market to provide affordable and adequate accommodations to those who need it. This strain is due in part to the mass migration to cities that is happening around the world. The International Organization for Migration estimates that about 3 million people move to cities each week, and approximately 54% of people worldwide now live in cities, up 20% from 1950. However, this problem is not new. Following WWII, the Netherlands suffered a severe housing shortage characterized by an abundance of vacant and abandoned buildings and high rents. Despite a lack of affordable housing on the market, rundown buildings are often held onto by their property owners until the market improves before renovating them, leaving many livable buildings unoccupied, and many people without a feasible housing option.
Social organizations and activists have been responding to this shortage since the early 1960’s through alternative concepts of ownership. Squatting, or occupying an abandoned or unused dwelling has been one method used since that time. This method serves a practical and symbolic purpose. First, by providing a place to live to someone who needs it and second, by protesting a principle of homeownership that allows the available housing stock to be exploited for the financial gain of property owners.
Squatting became a legal practice in the Netherlands in 1971, when the Dutch government ruled that the right which protects homes from being entered against the will of the occupier, also applies to those without a legal title to the home. This required building owners to legally evict squatters through a court process, and the number of squatters in the Netherlands grew to nearly 20,000 in the 1980’s. Over the next decade, the rules became more stringent; squatting was still legal, however, the occupied building had to be vacant for a year or longer, and the occupier must establish that the property was being used as a private residence through supplying a chair, bed, table, and a working lock. In order to establish a squat, occupiers simply contacted the police who would check it out and process the paperwork legally entitling the squatters to the space. In 2010, the Dutch government passed a controversial law relinquishing the legal protection squatters had enjoyed for nearly forty years. Some squats, however, have made themselves ‘useful’ to the municipality, diverging from typically anarchist and anti-establishment roots and adopting a multi-functional approach to their collective existence.
Overtoom 301, or ‘OT301’ is a great example of an organization that underwent the transition from squatters to legal renters and thriving artist incubator. The origins of the group rest in a former film academy building, the ‘Vereniging Eerste Hulp Bij Kunst,’ which they first occupied in 1999. The group used the building as a platform for artists to live and work together and offered a stage for experimental music, film, dance, theatre, and workshops through public programming. The building was rundown and was set to be demolished in the coming years to create a bike path but the group proposed an alternative plan to the local council in order to make use of the existing building. After a year of planning and programming, the group presented their idea of a non-commercial art and music space and OT301 was named a new incubator. The project was granted just over $898,000 as part of the ‘Broedplaats Amsterdam’ policy, also known as the ‘breeding ground policy’ which funds space-seeking creatives and subcultural initiatives. The policy gave the organization money in order to make fire safety repairs, as well as wind and water resistant renovations. In return, strengthening the image of Amsterdam as an attractive place for talent and entrepreneurship.
The purpose of the organization is to cultivate a space where artists can grow and experiment without commercial interference. In 2007 the group was able to buy the building and has been on a journey to iron out the nuances of self-management since. The group is constantly shaping and reshaping, altering and bettering their democratic internal structure while facing new challenges put forth by official ownership such as licensing and rules. The building hosts events, manages studios, cinemas, a bookstore, and a vegan-organic kitchen, to name a few. It also provides affordable in-house services such as printing, web design, and video production aimed at non-profit organizations and artists. The culture kitchen, ‘The Peper,’ aims to highlight issues around food, demonstrating a positive example of accessible green food choices, democratic management, and non-capitalist business sustainability. The kitchen is run by a diverse group of volunteers and is 100% non-profit. They work to inspire a healthy planet and an animal-friendly, socio-politically aware lifestyle through food. The kitchen also provides cultural and social support for other projects in the building and a meeting place for people who work in the building or those who come for a visit.
The path that OT301 has taken over the years provides an interesting example of how policy can foster and promote community-led and non-commercialized projects, rather than shut them down. While the practice of squatting has been criminalized in Amsterdam, there are some organizations that have managed to scale up and legitimize their work while providing the City with examples of creative experimentation and alternative entrepreneurship. OT301, along with other historic squat communities such as NieuwLand and ADM, provide inspiring examples of how autonomous spaces can exist, survive, and thrive within a neo-liberal city.
What is your take on squatter’s rights and what does your city do to promote self-management and experimentation? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments below!
Credits: Images by Holly Hixson. Data linked to sources.