What we can learn from Dutch housing activists

By Wallis Grant


In September, 15,000 people took to the streets of Amsterdam to demand an end to the housing crisis and better regulation of the markets.

Het Woonprotest”, literally “the housing protest”, saw a massively diverse crowd of people gather in Westerpark and march through the city to end up at Dam Square.

The variation of participants was reflected in the posters people carried; “the housing crisis is a class struggle”, “gentrification is segregation”, and a particularly sad one from a couple, “when will we be able to live together?”.

Although there had been pockets of housing movements in the Netherlands, particularly at the local level, this is the first time since the 1980s that a successful mainstream campaign has broken through. Why now?

The Netherlands has been experiencing a significant rise in house prices year on year since 2013 and the issue of extremely long waitlists for social housing stems back to the impact of the financial crash.

“We ended up in a perfect storm in terms of the timing of the protest: we had the media’s attention due to not having a government, the pandemic had opened people’s eyes up to huge inequalities and young people engaged in a way we hadn’t seen before”, said Melissa Koutouzis, one of the main organisers with Het Woonprotest.

Melissa is a housing researcher and activist who, after spending time in Berlin, wanted to replicate the collective action taken by residents there in response to housing shortages in the Netherlands. 

But Het Woonprotest didn’t just have luck on their side when it came to the success of the campaign – what they managed to pull off in terms of widespread support and grassroots involvement in the campaign is something housing activists globally should be looking to for inspiration and tips. 

The reality of the housing market

The numbers paint a stark picture of the housing crisis in the Netherlands; an overall housing shortage of 300,000 houses, with the number of people homeless doubling in ten years to nearly 40,000.

Recent studies show that more than half of the Netherlands’ local authorities have no housing options at all for people on moderate incomes and the waitlists for social housing average nine years across the country. 

What makes the Netherlands crisis unique to other countries is that it impacts nearly every group in society.

“In many ways, we’ve managed to receive widespread support and turnout because the impacts are being felt by the white, middle class,” notes Melissa, highlighting that ethnic minorities, refugees and those from poorer backgrounds have been at the forefront of dealing with the crisis and demanding attention to it for years. 

One group that is particularly topical this time of year is housing for students, where last year, an estimated 22,000 students were without housing at the start of the academic year. Speaking to an international student based in Groningen, Katie* highlighted the difficulties in finding housing as an international student, with no network in the city and a not-so-welcoming student population.

“If you scroll through any student housing websites, you’ll see ‘no internationals’ in capitals on a majority of the advertisements as many Dutch students don’t want to live with non-Dutch speaking flatmates. It massively limits your options.” 

Furthermore, she spoke about the particular risks for female students who have ended up in temporary accommodation, which are mostly mixed, and the lack of privacy and security that comes with this: “Some of the girls staying in these dorms are only 18 or 19 and haven’t lived away from home before and are now having to get changed and sleep beside up to 10 guys they’ve never met before. It puts them in a really vulnerable situation.”

A similar situation was circulated on social media where a student was effectively homeless after being assaulted at her university accommodation and moving out as a result of feeling unsafe.

Student groups in Groningen have organised in response to these issues, with a particular focus on the lack of communication from the university to prospective students and the inadequate planning by the university of where to house students that gets worse year in year out. 

All of this has massively taken its toll on Katie and other students in similar situations: “I’m working three jobs to try and secure better housing, all the while trying to continue doing well in my studies. If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come.” 

Turning individual feeling into collective action

Katie’s situation as a student is just one aspect of the housing crisis but the feelings of stress, financial loss and insecurity are felt by many who are impacted.

What Het Woonprotest did successfully was to capitalise on these individual feelings to turn them into collective action in two strategic ways. 

Firstly, they created a look and feel for the campaign that turned individual stories into a collective narrative.

“The first posters we created for the campaign were 8 different posters, with all different perspectives of people who were victimised by the housing situation”, Melissa says, and anyone looking at the social media presence of the collective can see that they’ve done this well. It also really helped to engage young people who were a huge part of the turnout for the September protest. 

Secondly, the collective managed to create a unified movement with stakeholders from all ends of the spectrum and this proved particularly important for the creation of their manifesto.

Although this seems obvious for any campaign to be successful, Melissa highlights that the reality is hundreds of cups of coffee with different groups, sometimes over years, to gain their trust and bring together the spectrum of interests. 

She also noted the importance of standing firm on progressive asks, particularly in their manifesto, instead of a more ‘middle ground middle-of-the-ground’ approach: “There was some questioning around why our manifesto’s first ask was eradicating homelessness and a general focus on racism. But we were firm that we needed a holistic vision and base principles to build the movement on and in the end, everyone got behind it.”

And it worked as newspapers across the country continue to draw on this manifesto to drive the discussion on the crisis. 

What’s next for Het Woonprotest

The recent budget announcements in September by the Dutch government saw them invest an extra one billion for the construction of affordable homes and much of the debate around what to allocate focused on the huge turnout of Het Woonprotest.

But as many commentators have pointed out that while this is welcome, a significant shift in the distribution of wealth and investment is what’s really needed.

And given that government set to be formed, following the election earlier this year, will be centre-right, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. 

“My fear right now is that we talk and march about the housing crisis but that false solutions will come to the surface. We cannot let this happen” says Melissa, and she emphasises that the housing movement is not a success if it only alleviates the problem for students and the middle class.

This is the focus for Het Woonprotest going forward –  continuing to grow the movement, particularly outside of the cities, but not losing this delicate balance between principled stances and policy asks that have made the campaign have mainstream success. 

As more action is planned – with one march happening in Rotterdam this Sunday – housing activists across the world should watch closely – the Dutch might just be leading the way to a housing revolution that we all should be taking inspiration from. 

*name has been changed to protect the identity of the person


Featured Image: Wouter Sterrenburg (@woutersterrenburg)

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