Threatening The Right To The City

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Looking for your own place to live can be a challenging task in European capitals. High demand for flats and rooms for rent together with limited rental offers can make this task nearly impossible. Here is the story of a young lady Sofia who is trying to find a room in a shared flat in Amsterdam.

It is already midnight, and Sofia still scrolls down the Facebook page, “I need a Room!Room/Roomates in Amsterdam”. “One room available in a shared flat, located in the West. 15 m² €700 per month”. “Two bedrooms available in Diemen, registration not possible. €550 per month”. “Hi! We are sub-renting one bedroom (9 m²) in our lovely spacious two bedroom apartment in De Pijp from 7th of March! €710”. At the end she returns to the top and renews the page. Her budget is about €500, but it seems that with this amount she is doomed to end up either far out of the city or somewhere on a month-to-month lease.

Social media platforms are full of these groups. Flat hunters turn here when searching for a place to live. Advertisements are published every day, but one needs to be extra careful. Rule no1: react fast. Within 10 minutes, each add has already gathered 10 comments of desperate people asking for a chance to see the room. Rule no2: be aware of the scammers. And there are a lot them. Spend more than a week checking, and you will figure out that some users own a lot of properties and all of them exist in an imaginary world where renting a room is cheap, easy, close to the centre, and available immediately just for you.

It’s already been two weeks since Sofia decided to start looking for a new place (a room in a shared flat, not an apartment, studio, or a house) and since then it is as if she entered a war zone full of homeless/hopeless young people scattered around the city. In a nutshell, it’s been a full-time, unpaid job.

For most people, Amsterdam has a reputation as a city of tolerance, a welcoming place where civil liberties are celebrated in their best form. Liberal ideas and job opportunities have made Amsterdam the city with one of the youngest populations in Europe. But this popular notion of “the ideal place to live in” is challenged when housing becomes so damned difficult to find and in most cases almost financially inaccessible. How different does the city look when the right to a place to live is in doubt? Do Amsterdammers still have a right to their own city?

How Accessible is it?

Finding a place to live in the Dutch capital is not a piece of cake. According to Eurostat, one third of the city’s Dutch residents live in rented property, but Amsterdam always seems to be a place where demand exceeds supply. Today there are two possible ways for tenants to end up with a roof over their head: social housing or the private sector.

The Netherlands is – or at least used to be – surprisingly proud of its social housing policies and commitment to affordable rent. Nearly 50% of the housing stock consists of social rented apartments managed by housing associations and the government. These units are aimed at lower income groups with a maximum rent capped by law.

The situation, however, is far from ideal. In order to end up in one of these cheap apartments, where rent ranges up to €710, applicants get on a waiting list that can last up to 10 years! At the same time the City of Amsterdam is now seeking to shift the balance from social to privately-owned housing. By 2020, only 30% of new housing starts are expected to be in the social housing sector.

Buildings are being demolished or sold to private housing corporations under a decision taken by the government early in 2015, stating that the number of social housing units owned by corporations has to decrease by an average of 2.000 homes each year. This is to be accomplished by selling, demolishing, or ending rent control on 3.000 homes each year while building 1,200 new and private ones. Huurdersvereniging Amsterdam, the tenants’ association, continuously protests these new measures and reports on the rising demand in a continuously shrinking social housing market.

Moving to the second option, if someone doesn’t have the patience and time to wait for 10 years (minimum is 5, so be optimistic!) then what is left is the private sector. Here the situation is far from ideal. According to the rental housing platform Pararius, tenants in the non-rent-controlled housing sector in Amsterdam pay over €2,000 a month while the average in the whole country is €1.360. No surprise, then, that Amsterdam is included on the list of the top 20 most expensive cities in the world to live in, according to the Global Property Guide.

But even if a tenant can afford to pay that amount of rent, this still does not guarantee that housing will be available. The Dutch capital has a shortage of private properties to the extent that only 9% of all the existing apartments in the private sector are available to rent. So while the municipality claims that the solution is the demolition or sale of social properties, advocates and low-income residents on the waiting lists fight back, claiming that this will not solve the problem since for many segments of the population it will be impossible to afford the rent.

Recovering the Right to the City

The steadily shrinking supply of living space and the shift towards the privatization of rental properties contrasts sharply with the ideals that the city of Amsterdam used to stand for. The social side of the broader urban space is endangered when even the basic need for housing is not met.

Sofia, overwhelmed, flirts with the idea of giving up and finally going to bed. It is only then that she comes across the Fair City page. While checking the platform, she gets a warm feeling at last. She goes on, reading that Fair City is a platform with the aim of listening to the voice of grassroots and bottom-up organizations in order to provide a more just profile for the city: an Amsterdam focused on “diversity, environmental awareness, affordable housing, small scale economics, effective welfare provision, equality of opportunity, and a more relaxed urban way of life.” In an encouraging statement, the movement demands that citizens recover the right to choose and define the kind of community that they wish to live in.

The page brings Henri Lefebvre to her mind. During the 1968 unrest in Paris, the Marxist philosopher was the first to introduce the concept of “the right to the city”. In his book, Le Droit à la Ville, he concludes that there is a “demand [for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life”.

As the professor of anthropology David Harvey later explainsthe right to the city is far more than the individual’s liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a shared rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

Is it possible that people collectively can still support communities that will serve the common good? With this final thought, and an almost conspiratorial smile, it is about time to hit the sack.

Photo: Shutterstock

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