On my last trip to the Netherlands, amid the obligatory bike ride to the windmill park and the random free boat ride down the canal in Amsterdam, I discovered that the Dutch have come up with a creative solution to the debated occupation of empty buildings, which happens all over the world. As it turns out, they’ve had this arrangement since the 1990s, and since then it’s spread to other countries, like the UK.
National reform is seeking to end the illegal occupation of empty buildings, an activity otherwise known as “squatting”. Usually, these “squats” are inhabited by a wide array of individuals, often with a somewhat anarchistic viewpoint. Be that as it may, squatting in general, internationally speaking, has many positive sides to it, and frankly makes a lot of sense: people who are looking for a place to live, but lack the funds needed to pay rent or simply are unable to meet the requirements of the landlord such as a fulltime job, find a building currently not in use, where they set up camp, so to say. The building can be everything from an abandoned house to an empty factory no longer in use – the point being that the space is unoccupied, serving no purpose, and thus in theory available. In short, it seems logical that people without somewhere to live, create a home where there is room. People looking for housing + an empty building = we have a match!
Of course, if you break it down it might seem more complicated. There are legal issues, for example. But all in all, it has the potential of being a positive arrangement. A lot of effort usually goes into the process; the building can be in a pretty lousy state, and the new inhabitants go through a great deal of work to make the place suitable for living. This is obviously in their own interest, but also in the greater scheme of things you would think that this benefits everyone, also the [potential] owners of the building: someone’s taking care of the property, thus not letting it decay. And at times this does actually receive the appreciation it deserves – on several occasions the proprietor lets the “occupants” stay, at least temporarily, because he or she acknowledges the positive side effects. Moreover, a vast majority of the squats become social centers; they open small cafes or bars to fund the costs of electricity, etc., and invite people to attend political meetings, events, free classes of language or yoga or tango – you name it. Many of these social centers end up playing an important role in their community, offering the locals a place to get together and create a hub for political discussions, but also purely social hangouts – without having to pay an arm and a leg. Often the squats invite their neighbors to come to help out and get involved in activities like cultivating a vegetable patch, whose produce will be shared among whoever contributed.
In the Netherlands, however, the authorities wanted to put an end to squatting – they didn’t just make it illegal, though, they came up with an alternative. Now owners of empty buildings – be it companies with empty office spaces or the municipality with schools too old to be in use – can charge people a low price in order to be allowed to move in. It’s a way of institutionalizing the practice of occupying; thus the nickname anti-squat. For example, 19 % of all the office spaces in Rotterdam are currently unoccupied, so there are anti-squatting companies giving services to rent out this unused space. Although you have to pay rent in this case, while squatting is free, the rent is still considerably cheaper than what you would normally pay, and if you’re lucky, you’ll end up living somewhere pretty peculiar, like a whole classroom to yourself in an old school, with toilets being separated for boys and girls, and swings in the playground for your own personal use. If you squat, you can be thrown out, beaten up by the owner, etc. – while this is a safe and cheap way of living. To be able to participate in this antiquated system, there is a couple of conditions, mind you – you’ll need to put your name on a list and wait for something to open up. In addition, you have to agree to be ready to leave the site on rather short notice (like 3 weeks). Considering the rent market today, it is still a fair deal. People I’ve met who have tried the anti-squat seem content enough. There is also the option of renting an office space for professional use, should you already have an abode.
There’s also been a lot of criticism about this criminalization of squatting, and people protested when the reform was first ratified. Is it better for society to institutionalize the Occupy movement? As an anti-squatter, you don’t have any proper rights as you are not a tenant, per se – and then there is the question of whether squatting really should be a criminal offense. For the local community, squats have time and time again proved to be beneficial. The incentive to show solidarity and work together on creating a public space, without financial support (and therefore no political guidelines either), is in itself of great value. A bigger sense of community seems to be exactly what we are lacking in today’s hyper-capitalist society. One of the reasons the policymakers want the squats out of the way is no question their potential of being meeting arenas for political debate. Like in ancient Rome, where theaters were being demolished after every show purely to avoid this, the people in power always fears the power of the masses once they got together and realize their joint force is greater than that of the authorities.
Empty buildings kill the spirit of the town. To keep the place alive, one should use the available spaces, be it for temporary things like pop up-shops and exhibitions, or rehearsal studios for music students. All in all, I reckon both schemes; anti-squat and traditional okupas, represent a fairly good alternative. Either way, it seems a better solution than letting an empty building just sit there until permission is granted to tear it down and build another modern, horrendous shopping mall – which is exactly what a lot of investors do with old buildings.