Metro City reporter Nathan Domon examines the history and resurgence of squatters in the heart of Amsterdam, which is driven by the never-ending housing crisis, rising inflation and increasing inequities.
On October 31, a group of activists claimed to have squatted in a house on Vossiusstraat, next to Vondelpark. This is not just any house, as it belongs to the Russian oligarch Arkady Volozh, founder of Russia’s largest tech company Yandex. Volozh is also sanctioned by the EU for his support of the war in Ukraine. This is just the latest from a new wave of squatting in the city: in early October, squatters occupied the abandoned Hotel Rembrandt on Plantage Middenlaan near Artis for two days. A property recognized as a national monument on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal near the Royal Palace has been squatted since October 20. A few months ago, they also occupied a property on the Marnixstraat for about six weeks before the police violently evacuated it. This year has marked the comeback of squatters in the city center. With the energy and housing crisis, the squatting movement is roaring back to life with a clear-cut message: Amsterdam belongs to everyone.
Activists say they squat these properties to protest the housing and energy crisis plaguing the city and making daily life unaffordable for normal people. “People can’t find houses, they pay too much rent and have to choose between paying rent, the energy bill or buying groceries, and meanwhile, a whole bunch of properties are empty all over the city due to owners speculating with them,” explained Lev Lieshout, one of the spokespeople of the collective Mokum kraakt.
By squatting empty houses, they want to provide more living spaces for people that desperately need them. However, it is not just a matter of putting a roof above people’s heads. Squatters want to show the necessity to provide more space in the city center for counterculture and political alternatives, for places where creativity and imagination can flourish and where people can meet and exchange ideas. “We want to show that living is not only about staying somewhere, but also about feeling that things are happening in the city, that you have contact with people, that there is room for creativity and experimentation,” said Lev.
On the weekend of October 28-30, the squatted property on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal hosted the exhibition Piep, knars, krijs, kraak – a reference to a city cracking at the seams under the weight of growth and expansion and gradually losing its meaning. The 13 artworks displayed in the dilapidated building deal with all sorts of topics: the meaning of home, the insecurity of temporary lease, immigration and racism and the precarious existence of platform workers. Squatting has always had a political dimension: “We squat this building as a political statement, for housing justice. This exhibition is an extension of that”, said one of the organizers in an interview.
Squatters demand, among other things, the legalization of squatting, a rent ceiling on rental houses and the abolition of temporary contracts. They also call on the municipality to crack down on landlords and rich investors: “The current crisis is a crisis for the precarious masses. For landlords, it is a party. They dance to the rhythm of rising property prices and the tinkling of the cash register. For us, the cost of living, for them, the pleasures of living,” declared Mokum kraakt on Instagram following the squatting of the monumental building. Activists squatting in the Russian oligarch’s house state in the same vein: “The rights of billionaires, who see our cities as investments, are better protected than those of vulnerable people who need a roof over their head. […] It seems the only thing that determines whether you belong in this city is whether you have money.”
Squatting is not just about reclaiming living spaces and promoting housing justice. It is also a broader protest against gentrification, mass tourism or monoculture in the city. Squatters see with regret that big chain stores, tourist restaurants and souvenir shops are replacing local stores. “Amsterdam has been sold off,” said one squatter in Trouw. “Instead of criminalizing squatting, they should make the next Zara or H&M shop illegal.” For Lev, this growing commercialization to appeal to the lifestyle and tastes of the happy few is worrying: “The center of Amsterdam has become a theme park for tourists and a small group of rich Amsterdammers. We think it is for all Amsterdammers.”
The city that is Amsterdam today was largely shaped by the squatting movement, which started in the 1960s when the Netherlands faced a housing shortage. In the 70s and 80s, squatting became a very effective means to influence the political agenda. Protests and riots pressure the municipality to rebuild dilapidated buildings and build more social housing. Squatters also managed to prevent large-scale destruction in the historic city center –thanks to them, there is no highway going through Nieuwmarkt and Jordaan and De Pijp still exist today. They also established important cultural centers: places like Paradiso, Melkweg, OT301 and NDSM were all established by squatters.
Amsterdam owes many of its success stories to these rebellious minds: “It is the squatting movement that made this city livable and enjoyable,” says Lev. For a long time, squatting was tolerated in Amsterdam; it was not necessarily legal, but it was also not prosecuted. This changed in 2010 when the Dutch Parliament passed a bill to ban squatting. Despite repression and eviction, the squatting movement has kept afloat under the slogan “kraken gaat door” (“squatting goes on”) and continued to squat empty buildings throughout the city, with varying success. Fueled by the ongoing housing crisis, rising inflation and growing inequalities, the movement is gaining momentum again and new squatted buildings are popping up everywhere in the city center. The question remains to see whether this new generation of squatters will bring change to the city. Lev warned about the seriousness of the situation: “The city is dying. We all see that happening at the moment […] That’s why we’re here.”
“We want to show that living is not only about staying somewhere, but also about feeling that things are happening in the city, that you have contact with people, that there is room for creativity and experimentation” – Lev Lieshout, one of the Mokum kraakt spokespeople.