Dutch housing in the 21st century
Since the 1990s, and even since the 60s and 70s, the Netherlands has contented itself with presenting the veneer of a progressive country at peace with itself. In the Netherlands, the story goes, the division between capital and labour does not really exist. Every decision is made with all parties taken into consideration. The Netherlands likes to forget that its institutions have been built as part of a colonial empire that stretched across the globe, and that was maintained in favour of capital interests. Nowhere is this paint more chipped than in the housing market, which under progressive neoliberal governments has turned into a wild west for financiers, to the detriment of people actually wanting a home.
The origins of the BPW
The Bond Precaire Woonvormen (Union for Precarious Housing, BPW) was founded in response to increasing liberalisation of the rental market. Before 2006, all rental contracts in the Netherlands required special circumstances in order to be terminated, such as planned renovations or the tenant not paying their rent. In many of these cases, the landlord had some duty to help the tenant find new housing, as well as reimburse them for their moving costs. In 2006 these protections were rolled back for student housing, meaning students had to move out of their homes after they graduated (or otherwise ceased their studies). In 2015, the possibility was introduced to provide temporary housing contracts, up to a maximum of two years.
Especially the 2015 reforms have been incredibly detrimental to the housing situation in the Netherlands. Almost half of households in the Netherlands rent their home as of 2021, and most people rent a house for the first few years as they leave their parental home. In theory, tenant and landlord can come to an agreement on whether to use this temporary contract, but in practice this choice is made unilaterally by the landlord. In the current housing shortage, there are enormous waiting lists for new housing, and for every hesitant tenant there are nine more willing to take their place. Thus, most people start off with a temporary tenancy agreement, and then move on to a long-term contract if the landlord finds them agreeable. If not, the landlord can evict them without reason and grant a temporary tenancy contract to a new person on the waiting list.
The second kind of landlord is the landlord who owns a complex slated for demolition. This can be a short-term plan or a long term plan. The key feature of the temporary tenancy agreement is that the landlord can end it for no reason after the two year period elapses. Subsequently the landlord can evict current tenants every two years to replace them with new tenants. Whenever the planned demolition comes around, the landlord can simply not fill new vacancies. This is opposed to the system before 2015, when the landlord had to buy out current tenants and help them find new lodging. The result is a new class of tenants called ‘tenant nomads’, who move from temporary housing to temporary housing without ever finding security. It goes without saying that not knowing where you will live in two years is a large burden for many people, especially since marginalised communities are more likely to become ‘tenant nomads’.
The Housing “Market”
These problems are symptoms of larger systemic issues, the current housing shortage being one of the main contributors. A lack of housing means landlords have more power over their tenants, both because empty homes can be rented out faster with minimal loss of profit, and tenants often have little opportunity to buy a home because they lack funds to do so. Bank loans are often insufficient because people who pay monthly rent are not trusted to pay lower mortgage payments. Central to these systemic problems is the fact that banks are more eager to lend money to landlords seeking to buy a property for the rental market, than tenants seeking to buy a home to live in, since the former is more likely to make long-term mortgage payments.
The housing shortage has brought with it an increase in land value. As a result, more and more financiers have entered into the lucrative land speculation market, which in turn has increased land values exponentially. Financiers often buy up newly constructed housing, either to immediately rent them out, or to keep them vacant in order to increase value for future sale. The power of financiers has increased drastically because of neoliberal tax reform in their favour and active attempts by the government to attract foreign capital into the Dutch housing market. The fact that these financiers have enough capital to buy property outright, while individuals have to apply for a mortgage, means that those national and international financing firms have first pick of properties in the Netherlands. This has become so bad that even the middle class (for the purposes of this article: working class people with excess funds) can invest in housing funds.
Thus homeownership is diminished and tenancy increases, even in a country were almost half of properties are already on the rental market. Increased land value, apart from bringing in speculators, has also lead to an increase in rental costs, which in turn siphons off more and more money from the working class, making it even less likely that they will eventually own their homes instead of renting them. Debts, including student debts introduced in 2015, are also increasing, and counted against one’s ability to make mortgage payments. Because homeownership is the greatest contributing factor to intergenerational wealth in the Netherlands, this directly results in an increasing wealth gap between the working class and the owning class, with the owning class actually benefiting from the deterioration of the housing market. This has become such a good example for Marxist analysis in practice that leftist agenda is now incredibly easy for laypersons to grasp; the only good that can be said to have come out of this ordeal.
One could justifiably ask why, in a progressive paradise such as the Netherlands, the above-mentioned system can not only persist, but receive support, as our parliament voted in early 2021 to expand the possibilities for temporary tenancy. The neoliberal centre-right coalition has been re-elected to power in March 2021, with social-democratic parties hardly gaining seats. Why have people not risen up against this system? Where are all the tenancy unions making a stand? The sad fact is that the progressive label of the Netherlands is often used as propaganda, both in the international scene and for the domestic audience, to ensure that no meaningful progress is made.
The absence of grassroots organising in the Netherlands can be explained by the fact that there has been no large Dutch anti-capitalist movement since 1956. The year the USSR invaded Hungary, both Dutch labour party PvdA and the left-wing trade union NVV gave up their anti-capitalist rhetoric and fully embraced modern social democracy, and thus sought to balance the interests of capital and labour, instead of fighting for the latter and abolishing the former. The communist trade union EVC fell victim to infighting soon after. Outside of the Communist Party of the Netherlands, mostly funded by and in service of the USSR, socialism receded from mainstream politics. The flame was kept alive by radical activists of all stripes, including feminists, trans activists, BIPOC activism and disability activists, but all these groups were themselves marginalised by main-stream social democratic movements.
The Netherlands embraced up the so-called Poldermodel, to international acclaim. In continuation of the Rhineland Model of Germany, the Poldermodel seeks compromise between capital and labour, with the government acting as independent arbiter. The Dutch labour party and the left-wing trade union both were critical of the excesses of capitalism, but were entirely uncritical of capitalism as a whole. This contributed to the establishment of capitalist realism; after the fall of the USSR in 1991 mainstream politics had come to universally accept the place of capital ownership in society. Unions morphed into lobbying groups, and the labour party became liberal; its left-wing politics not going further than defending current welfare systems and (unsuccessfully) warding off liberalisation of national industries.
The result of this disappearance of left-wing dialectic criticism of capitalism is that Dutch politics came to reinterpret what ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ meant, much in the same way as it was reimagined in the United States. ‘Left-wing’ came to describe progressive social views. ‘Right-wing’ became second-hand for conservative social views. After the fall of the USSR, then, four groups formed: social democrats (Labour, the Socialist Party, and the Greens), who defended the welfare system; social liberals (D66) who were ambivalent about the welfare system but wanted to expand individual rights while not infringing in the market; neoliberals (VVD and CDA) who were either socially ambivalent or socially conservative and wanted to protect capital interests; and fascists, who came about later and were until recently mostly concerned with xenophobic perceived threats, while voting in favour of capital interests.
It is no surprise, then, that the labour party actually voted in favour of the 2015 tenancy reforms that introduced temporary tenancy agreements. Those reforms fit perfectly within the frame of social democratic politics at the time: expanding possibilities so that the housing market is not obstructed by government regulation, and parties can find one another more easily. In theory this should have improved the situation both of tenants and landlords, but this market analysis of course completely missed the point that landlords, being part of the owning class, have tremendous power over tenants, and that any loosening of regulation will automatically lead to landlords applying more of that inherent economic power.
The lack of any dialectic framework in broader society, and the lack of mainstream left-wing opposition to market reforms, can be blamed for the fact that even to this day organised opposition to the landlord class remains minimal. Since the autumn of 2021 there have been protests against the government housing policy, co-authored by BPW, and this finally has somewhat united left-wing politics on the issue. Even with the rise of anarchist and other anti-capitalist groups in the Netherlands, however, these groups remain marginal, and the mainstream of these new housing protests still advocate for market solutions. The idea that the housing market is not fundamentally broken and can be fixed with adequate liberal reforms still persists. Abolishing the landlord class entirely is a concept that exists entirely outside the realm of mainstream acceptability.
Meanwhile fascism has seen a rise. There is now a cesspool of varying fascist parties; from the more ‘working class fascism’ of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV now the third largest party in parliament) to the business fascism of JA’21 and the agrarian fascism of the Farmer-Citizen Movement, as well as the conspiratorial covid-denial of the Forum for Democracy (FvD). As living standards decrease and government seems not only unable, but unwilling to implement the radical changes necessary, many people find themselves drawn to the far right and their easy solutions, which centre around Euroscepticism (stopping eastern and southern Europe from siphoning money), much inspired by the Visegrád Group, as well as xenophobia. A common right-wing talking point is to talk about refugees being the main pressure on the Dutch housing market, while the influence of the handful of refugees the Netherlands has accepted is laughable compared to the influence of financiers.
While these fascist parties are ‘people’s parties’ in name, even the nominally working class PVV mostly votes in favour of employers and landlords in parliament. They perfectly fulfil the role expected of them, being anti-union and anti-leftist agitators that in fact only increase the power of the owning class. Nowhere is this more obvious than with former neoliberal politician Wybren van Haga, head of second-smallest fascist party in parliament and a landlord in his own right, with over fifty properties under his name. The conspiratorial FvD (of which Van Haga used to be a member) is largely funded by small businesses and petit bourgeoisie, making their interest blatantly obvious. The much-maligned ‘Rotterdamwet’, a municipal ordinance that is used to segregate neighbourhoods by income (and by race), came originally from far-right proponents, before being adopted by neoliberal city governments.
This also explains why grassroots activism has been slow or absent. Class consciousness in the Netherlands is nearly non-existent. Without systematic critique of capitalism false consciousness runs rampant. There is no widespread acceptance of the idea that the goals of capital and the working class are fundamentally opposite. Many tenants do not unionise for the simple reason that they do not know it is possible or beneficial for them to organise, and because existing tenant unions are inherently social-democratic institutions. People and the media keep looking for answers in parliamentary politics, even when those answers were never forthcoming; especially not now that neoliberals and fascists are in power.
The latter is especially true in the current political climate. The last time the Dutch social democrats held such a small percentage of parliament was in 1917, before the introduction of universal male suffrage. Fascist parties have never held such a large percentage of seats, and that is a record they break every election. The current division of parliamentary seats means that any housing reform requires the assent of at least one of the neoliberal or fascist parties, and their support for any actual change is not to be expected.
Our hopeful strategy
The goal of the BPW is not to wait for national politics to fix the broken housing system, but to organise a system of solidarity from the ground up. Members can advise each other on practical matters or matters of experience, while others give legal advice (in cases where the legal system is on the side of the tenant). In other cases members can support one another in through direct action, ranging from demonstrations to rent strikes. Many large-scale landlords, especially those in the social housing sector, are very sensitive to publicity, and this has already forced some landlords to back down on evictions.
The downside of this kind of solidarity is that it requires a lot of participants to work, even participation of those who are at that moment not yet threatened by eviction. For many, taking action against the landlord can actually be personally detrimental, since temporary tenancy agreements can be terminated without grounds. For the majority, keeping their head down is still the best way to avoid problems with a landlord. Since landlords have so much legal leeway in the Netherlands, many of their actions can be legal, and for many people here that stamp of legal approval is enough to conclude that nothing more can or should be done. In that sense, the tenant community in the Netherlands is still very insular. The number of times BPW successfully halted an eviction can easily be counted.
We are still taking the movement’s baby steps, but as our country’s inherent problems with capital become more and more obvious, more and more people are willing to join the cause. Already, there has been a marked shift in perception of Dutch police following violent action against housing demonstrations in Rotterdam, as well as police anti-squatting raids. Landlords are quickly becoming the most despised class. Awareness is definitely on the rise, and BPW has been a part in that. It is our hope that this growth continues, so that the Dutch working class may finally pose a real threat to capital, something it has not managed in over a hundred years.
The author is a legal adviser to the largest left-wing trade union in the Netherlands. He is active as an activist with the Bond Precaire Woonvormen, as well as a local board member for the radically inclusive anti-capitalist party BIJ1 and active within the Leiden-based anarchist group xCC. Views presented in this article represent his own views.