Anarchists to activists: a history of Dutch squatting
From occupying empty houses to trying to save historic buildings, squatters play a vocal role in the Dutch community. Mindy Ran reports.
Twenty years ago Dutch squatters had the public image of being young, anarchistic, violent and politically motivated.
A spokesman from an Amsterdam squatters group, Martin Loods, says an estimated 100,000 dwellings were being occupied by squatters during the Netherlands’ squatting heyday in the late 1970s to early 80s.
Of those, at least 5,000, or one out of three, were located in the Staatsliedenbuurt in Amsterdam.
According to squatters, the prime motivation was a lack of housing.
Squatters say that empty, boarded-up housing was a frequent sight and often these properties were kept disused by property speculators to increase demand and rental prices.
“In 1985, for the first time since the war, the city built more houses than it destroyed,” Loods says.
“There were thousands of houses shut down and boarded up.”
The squatting movement ends
Loods says the squatters were a very diverse group of people.
“The anarchistic, political group were violent and received far too much attention,” he says.
“The political wing supported violent activism, but it was a small group of about 50 people.”
According to Loods, there was a lot of opposition to the stringent Leninist/Communist attitudes of the small, vocal group.
“The group that supported violent activism began to turn against those that opposed them, within the movement itself,” Loods says.
“They started beating-up people who were opposed to their ideals.
“That was the beginning of the end of the movement.”
By the mid-80s the laws had changed making it far more difficult to squat.
Another tactic employed by the government was to use “anti-squatters” who would take short-term contracts at low cost and keep the housing free from squatters.
But one by one, the Dutch Government began to clear and evict the larger, communal squats.
Some squatters were offered the opportunity to take a contract and make the housing “legal”. Others were simply evicted, sometimes violently, which created small riots and protests throughout the decade.
By the end of the 1980s the era of the individual squat had come to an end.
Most squatters within the Staatsliedenbuurt were absorbed into the newly formed district of Westerpark and were offered contracts to “legalise” the housing.
But squatting was not abandoned and old unused school properties were squatted for low cost community centres, film houses, restaurants, classes and meeting spaces.
Modern day squatters
Hidden between the railway lines is the last surviving farm in the Westerpark district.
Built 125 years ago, at the same time as the Gas Factory (which is now being renovated), it had fallen into disrepair.
An elderly woman had been renting the farm from the Dutch Government and when the farm building became vacant at the end of 1999, the district put an anti-squatter on the farm while they decided what to do with it.
Fears for the safety of the anti-squatter and the possible financial and legal consequences if she were hurt led to the farm being left uninhabited.
According to a spokesperson for the Westerpark District, the farm was closed and a system of alarms was installed.
It was soon squatted.
But citing the building as being too dangerous, Westerpark District had the police clear the squatters.
But the police refused to come back on a daily basis and a more permanent solution needed to be found.
After a report by architects stating that the building was unsafe — in particular the roof — the council decided to make it uninhabitable. Workers were ordered to break holes in the roof and to smash all of the windows.
The Westerpark spokesperson says the responsibility for the decision fell to a local councillor and Green Left Party member Martine Fransman.
But Loods disagrees.
“It was a council decision, not the act of a single lunatic,” he says.
Community protests forced Fransman out of office.
“Save the Farm” collection pots appeared and a local group of 10 people, including one man of 78 years, decided to make repairs to the farm to save it from the effects of winter in January this year.
Several months later, with money collected from the community, basic repairs are well underway.
The group says they would like to save the farm as a community project, growing herbs and offering cafe facilities.
In the meantime, the District Council is working on new plans for the farm, but is leaning towards restoration rather than destruction.
The Westerdocksdijk is a landscape of a few old buildings, long stretches of empty harbour space and huge new housing complexes.
It is the site of one of the major new housing projects in Amsterdam with huge investors backing the creation of more than 900 new dwellings.
But squatters want to save one of the old buildings, a former railway storage depot built in 1922, for both historic and environmental reasons.
They are campaigning to change the plans from 900 to 800 new apartments so that some of the flavour of the old city can be restored.
“There are over 60 protest complaints that have been filed, including everything from construction requirements, height of buildings, the existence of rare plant that would be destroyed and the historic importance of the building,” Loods says.
“But they (the authorities) don’t care, it will bring in over NLG 100,000 for every square metre built.
“It is a huge difference in profit to leave the building standing.”
The Westerdocksdijk comes under the jurisdiction of the Binnenstad District Council.
The council’s response has been to attempt to evict the squatters twice. The latest attempt occurred on Monday 28 May.
Loods was present that day and asked police to leave them alone until the building was about to be demolished, renovated or required for housing — three reasons normally used for evictions.
He hopes it has bought them some time to try to get the building listed as a national monument.
For the moment, the squatters will keep the squat open, not for housing, but as a local information centre for the 40 or so neighbouring families affected.
20 February 2002