On May 1, International Workers’ Day or May Day, the Dutch trade union FNV will organize a national demonstration in The Hague (2:00 pm at Malieveld). Together with Bond Precaire Woonvormen (BPW), Doorbraak is planning a radical block within this demonstration, focussing on unemployed, flexworkers and flex tenants. This article is based off interviews with Abel of BPW and Aindriu of We Want Woonruimte (WWW).
When considering the vast array of issues activists dedicate time and energy to, there are few that have a direct effect on every person. Housing is one of those issues. Touching all classes, the ability to access housing that is fair, affordable and safe is a crucial need that must be met. In the Netherlands, the veneer of post-recession recovery is beginning to crack. Despite lip service paid to the existence of a healthy market, it has been clear for some time now that policies meant to safeguard housing have failed. Unfortunately, the reality of this has hit some in the worst ways possible: people are finding themselves facing eviction and homelessness without adequate redress for often being the victims of corrupt landlords and uninformed public servants.
This past fall, three international students from Utrecht University found themselves facing these very issues. By confiding in one another, the three found an outlet for sharing collective dissatisfaction, realizing that the stories that they had around housing insecurity were not just happening to them on an individual basis. It was this that led to the formation of WWW, a collective of students and activists determined to not only hold accountable those who have failed to ensure access to housing, but to point to the systemic issues that are behind this.
The group’s first direct action occurred in October: students brought mats, sleeping bags and blankets to the Janskerkhof in Utrecht as a symbolic showing of the nights students have spent sleeping in tents, cars, and hostels. Shortly after, WWW crafted three demands:
1. No more insane rent prices – the rental commission point system must be enforced so that everyone pays a fair price.
2. No more homeless students while buildings stay empty – use empty office spaces and buildings to house students.
3. Shared responsibility – together the university, municipality and housing corporation must take immediate and active responsibility for affordable housing solutions.
The actions of the group caught the attention of BPW, a volunteer-run housing justice group that has been working since 2010 on behalf of tenants facing a variety of issues related to housing security. Joining together, the two have been working since on a variety of actions to spread awareness and advocate for change.
What is remarkable about the work that both BPW and WWW are engaged in, is that they are not just attempting to provide services to those facing housing insecurity. The two organizations are confronting the roots of the problems inherent in Dutch society: a naive belief in neoliberal, market-based solutions. Conversations with both the municipality and university have brought assurances that the market is on course for a correction, and that this will lead to a surplus. What BPW and WWW are attempting to show, is that this is dated logic, and that a housing shortage of approximately 200,000 units cannot be ignored. Capitalism has repeatedly and consistently failed to provide solutions, and that is largely because policy is being designed within neoliberal frameworks.
The challenges that the groups face are formidable. Although the city and university have engaged with WWW and BPW – the timing of such engagements, of course, usually occurring directly before a publicized action – the typical approaches such as the ‘poldermodel’ or lobbying fall short of addressing systemic issues. Relying on these mechanisms, shaped by capitalistic individualism which are purposefully designed to create alienated and segregated societies, is not enough. Further, statistics are skewed to give a false sense that there is enough housing: evictions appear to be on the decrease, but this is because the government is designing flex housing policies that create an environment where tenants ‘self-evict’. Meanwhile, social housing is being sold off to developers and investors, who often convert units to private housing.
Despite this, the groups are optimistic that things can change. A second WWW group has started in Eindhoven, showing that there is widespread dissatisfaction and challenging the notion that these issues are occurring in isolation. The groups’ participation in May Day, demonstrations for which are happening in multiples cities throughout the Netherlands, also shows that there is a growing tide of activists who are pointing to the connections between things like housing insecurity and labor. Solidarity between different groups will be crucial, but it’s clear from the work WWW and BPW are doing that the energy is there, as is the hope for a different future.