Beacons of Hope in the European Housing Crisis

Amsterdam      A housing conference took place in a workers’ center built in the heart of a neighborhood in the 1930s in the midst of the worldwide depression that the conveners thought underscored the possibilities even in the midst of the current European affordable housing crisis.  Guest presentations were made by representatives from Liverpool, Berlin, and Heerlen in the Netherlands that included architects, community representatives from land trusts, tenant organizers, and members of the German political party, Die Linke.  The conference was organized by the Socialist Party in the Netherlands with over two-hundred participants.  The ACORN organizers from the United Kingdom, France, and the United States along with The Organizing Forum (TOF) members from Belgium were observers.

I couldn’t help but notice that even with all of these moving pieces, the moderator, an SP member of Parliament from the northeastern area of the Netherlands, began the conference precisely on the stroke of eleven, as advertised, showing real organizational discipline.   We had headsets for direct translation when the presentations were in Dutch, but the audience, young and many much older, had none, even when most of the presentations were in English in a deep tribute to the multilingualism of the Netherlands.  The Dutch don’t fool around!

Granby team, leader and architect from Assemble

The first presentation focused on the work of a community land trust over several decades in the remnants of Granby, a historically multiracial community in Liverpool, England.  Twelve old Victorian houses had been acquired and rehabbed.  A community center was on the drawing board.  A winter garden and market of sorts had been organized. An architectural and design collective based in London called Assemble had won a Turner Prize for its work with the land trust and community.  I mistakenly had thought that prize had to do with the American media and ranching billionaire, Ted Turner, but it seems it is a very prestigious, British art prize. The project had cost about 750,000 pounds, which approaches a million dollars.  It was an impressive piece of work, but hard to scale.

On the other hand, the Mietenwahnsinn Coalition of several hundred tenant and community groups in Berlin was an effort at hyperscale.  Tenants compose 85% of the Berlin population and the coalition had been able to mobilize this mass base to confront huge landlord concentration in the housing market by companies with tens of thousands of units under management and ownership and rents which had risen as much as 20% in a recent year.  A march of 25,000 and a host of other activities had already won them an effective freeze on rents for five years in an amazing feat.  They now have a pending referendum undergoing constitutional review which, if successful, would expropriate the units of all private landlords with over 3000 units and move them to public control and ownership.  Regardless of how difficult it might be to duplicate these achievements; the campaign has been impressive and groundbreaking.  Certainly, ACORN has followed it closely from afar, so we were delighted to get firsthand knowledge.

Berlin tenant campaign organizer

Before leaving for our own meetings, we heard an amusing and insightful presentation by the architect that had transformed the city center of Heerlen in the southern area of Holland, near the German border.  Several months earlier, I had gotten to walk through the completed development which included more than one-hundred units of affordable housing, community and shopping areas, office space and more in a creative and lively construction.  The project had replaced an area of the city center that had been the main marketplace for several thousand heroin users and homeless.  This project was also the fruit of decades of political struggle in order to move forward.

None of these projects were easy to achieve, but the conference did its job of educating and inspiring participants – and for our part, I can add, observers as well.

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