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20/9/2018 / Issue #020 / Text: Jorge ds

Hacking the housing system: cooperative alternatives to housing corporations.

“Rental and housing prices in Amsterdam are expected to drop and become affordable for everyone in the next coming years.” 
Said no one, ever.

The housing crisis and capitalism
It has become cliché to hear about the pain in the ass it is to find affordable housing. If you are not in the social housing scheme, you will pay exorbitant rent for a studio or a room.Then, once you have somewhere, you may well receive a letter from your housing corporation saying that they want to sell the house where you live soon. Not now, not in one year, but soon.  If you are eligible for social housing, there are decade-long waiting lists. 

Many of you will be familiar with the anxiety that comes from getting closer to the expiration date of your tenancy period while you haven’t found an alternative yet. It is arguable that high prices, long waiting lists, and anxiety caused by uncertainty are all symptoms of a structural problem in our city: that a capitalist market economy is ruling the housing system.

One of the key points of the capitalist system is that decision-making processes and participation is reserved for owners of wealth, production, and property. In this system, one way of determining the prices of things is through the rule of supply and demand: high demand and low supply leads to high prices. This is what it is happening in Amsterdam, and other “superstar cities” as the US-American geographer Richard Florida calls them. To this you can add vicious corporations and property owners playing with this mechanism, keeping houses empty houses and speculating to increase the value of their estate(s), allowing them to get more profits when selling them. 

The housing crisis is a crisis for those who aren’t owners, of course, and mostly affects the youngest, the oldest, and a big bunch of regular workers. The internal logic solution, i.e., the capitalist way out, is to get the supply to meet the demand. Although this may help, it seems to be only a palliative measure, paracetamol for a chronic headache. Is there an alternative solution? Bring down capitalism? Expropriate means of production, in this case, house building? Break the chain of supply and demand? Eat the rich? Well, not precisely. 

Though it may appear difficult, every open system, including economic and legal ones, are open to being hacked. So, if changing the whole supply-demand chain to address the problem of housing prices seems impossible, why not hack it? Some people are doing just that.

Liberating housing from the market
Nowadays there exists a couple of community land trusts and cooperative housing projects with the aim of taking houses out of the market in order to offer them as affordable living spaces. With this, they play with some of the rules of the market by protecting these spaces from being exploited for profits. An organisation that has been inspiring this model of organisation is the German based Mietshäuser Syndikat. 

The Mietshäuser Syndikat officially started in the 90s and today has participation in 130 housing projects and twenty initiatives in Europe. According to the Syndikat’s 1992 statutes, their primary goal is “to support the genesis and achieve political acceptance of self-organised house projects—humane living space, and a roof over the head, for everybody.” To achieve that, the Syndicat works together with independent groups in different cities and towns in Europe to acquire houses and resists them from being reintroduced into the real-estate market. This means that once an autonomous group buys a house with the help of the Syndikat, it becomes almost impossible for the group to sell that house again since the Syndikat has a veto vote on selling the place. It goes without saying that the Syndikat can’t sell the property either, or decide what to do with or within it. The outcome is that collectives own the spaces and run them autonomously. With this type of “lock”, the space remains as an affordable, communitarian and socially-committed project ran by people that share ideals around community participation.

The Syndikat developed its complex model by adopting a capitalist legal form of governance and organisation, namely Limited Liability Company, but turning it into a sort of post-capitalist model that promotes a participatory and solidarity economy. A Limited Liability Company scheme is simpler to govern and cheaper to operate than a traditional cooperative model, that often needs to go through periodical (and expensive) audits. The Mietshäuser explain on their website:

...we—the Syndikat and the projects—exist and walk among them: we cavort in the urban undergrowth among building speculators and property sharks, among home-builders, apartment owners, building associations, and capital investment firms. In the fight against expulsion, we compete with them for the one or the other property and play Monopoly on a scale of 1:1. We are working with zeal on the growing network of the Mietshäuser Syndikat. With every new project, another property is withdrawn from the real-estate market and can be permanently secured as “commons.”

Departing from some ideas of the squatting movement and post-capitalist values, the ventures between the Syndikat and other autonomous groups start with the desire for living a self-determined life without the risk of being evicted or having a lack of control over their housing situation. In their own way, and playing with the respective legal system of each country, these groups also try to remove houses from the real-estate market to offer a self-determined way of living. In Amsterdam, one of these groups is Soweto, whose firsts pilot project is the community living collective, workplace and a social-political neighbourhood centre NieuwLand.

From Mietshäuser to Soweto and NieuwLand 
Since 2007, Soweto has functioned as a social housing association. It was developed with the aim of serving as the legal and democratic framework within which multiple housing projects can operate together. Inspired and set up in collaboration with the Mietshäuser Syndikat, but following their own principles, Soweto looks to create affordable cooperatives and living groups in which solidarity and sustainability play a significant role. In their vision, each building, each project, should be self-managed, communitarian, sustainable and all members of the housing community should be able to participate in deciding the policies of the group.

Soweto signed the acquisition of ta 1893 building located in Pieter Nieuwlandstraat 93-95 for their first project, NieuwLand, in 2014. This was just one step in a long process that started years beforehand. Eline is one of NieuwLand’s inhabitants and someone who has been at the front line of the project since she joined in 2015,. After years of long negotiations with banks, lengthy bureaucratic discussions with the municipality, going through the always challenging process of self-organization, and  finding some financial stability, she says that nowadays NieuwLand can be regarded as a successful example of an alternative housing project. 

Although both Soweto and NieuwLand are two separate legal entities, many of their members are members of both. The relationship between NieuwLand and Soweto is that the former pays the latter an affordable rent for the living, working, and community space. The rent helps to pay the loan that was used to buy the building and to develop other, similar projects. 

Soweto started the titanic endeavour of fundraising €200,000 to kick-start NieuwLand in 2013. They wrote on Facebook that in the future they wanted to create and develop more places where a new way of renting and living would be possible. Today, after having successfully established NieuwLand, they are preparing the terrain to plant new seeds: The Nieuw[er]Land.

Hacking the housing market: an open question
In a conversation with Selj and Niels, two individuals who have been involved developing the ideological and practical basis of Nieuw[er]Land, they commented that  the group is planning to apply for a tender (an offer to the municipality to build and self-develop a place) to develop a self-built, circular social housing. This project is just starting, and it is dependent on how much support it gets from the people and other groups. They hope that the new (left-wing) municipal government will be supportive of their project. They have been organising info BBQs and inviting other members of the community to join the discussion to build Nieuw[er]Land. 

One of the goals of the project is to break the precarious power relationship that normally exists between tenants and landlords, be they an individual or a corporation. In this regard, the idea of collective ownership is of central importance to Soweto. With Nieuw[er]Land they want to question and challenge notions of how ownership is expressed and perpetuated in the city. According to Selj, while initiatives like Soweto definitively break with some of the rules of the market, they do not, of course, change the system as such. These initiatives are ongoing processes, and it is necessary to see how they evolve. Nieuw[er]Land, replicating Soweto’s values and adding some more, aims to be a blueprint for a long-term collective and sustainable housing project. To keep up to date on Nieuw[er]Land’s project, check NieuwLand’s website: