Collective Housing Beyond State and Market: De Nieuwe Meent Community in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is increasingly unaffordable for many. While the city still achieves a good degree of tenure mix within its borders, poorer groups are increasingly being displaced to the outskirts of the metropolitan area, forced to move because they cannot afford an apartment within the border of the municipality. The Dutch call this process ‘tweedeling’, literally splitting in two parts; the incessant fracture between a wealthier inner city and poorer outskirts. The few districts with the highest shares of social housing are currently facing repeated rounds of gentrification.¹ Those who gross less than 70,000 euros a year would not be able to afford a house in the city. Although income remains the most important factor in housing location, there is also an increasing trend of segregation by ethnicity. Low income families of non-Dutch and non-European origins are being displaced from the inner city and, despite the national programs to promote social mix, studies report a trend of segregation between white and non-white groups.²
The collective ‘de Nieuwe Meent’ (the new commons) aims to create an alternative to this housing market. Conceived in late 2018 by a group of activists, architects, and engaged scholars who, despite being highly educated, struggle to afford rent in Amsterdam. Today, it has become a progressively diversifying community of over 50 people working to realize a vision of affordable living in Amsterdam able to address the two main shortcomings of Amsterdam housing market.
First, private home ownership in Amsterdam has become increasingly dominant yet unattainable, with average prices as of 2020 over 480,000 euros, rendering living in the city highly exclusive. Second, social housing providers have become increasingly managerial, growing in scale as a result of mergers and adopting risky entrepreneurial strategies to capitalize on their assets. Meanwhile, Amsterdam’s social housing rental stock has rapidly shrunk in past years. In 1983, 53% of social housing units was provided by social housing corporations, while today only 40% of all units are social rents as a result of national and local reforms aimed at tenure diversification and private ownership. In Amsterdam’s social housing, residents are often objects of a hierarchical relationship that leaves little room to exert control over one’s housing conditions.³
Is there a way out of this binary choice between a social unit (in the outskirts of the city) and the long-term indebtedness necessary to purchase an apartment?
De Nieuwe Meent and its project details
De Nieuwe Meent proposes a model of collective housing that realizes affordability through sharing. Its approach is to collectivize ownership and enable a socialized approach to housing. This project builds on the tradition of housing justice movements in the city and is rooted in the squatting movement that, after being tolerated in the mid-1990s, has today been heavily criminalized. Housing justice movements in the city are searching for new ways to appropriate and legalize affordable housing, such as forming cooperatives. De Nieuwe Meent builds on this path. It builds a housing cooperative that promotes sharing as a way towards reduction and ecological living and understands commoning as an architectural vision, a social practice, and a political mission. Yet the community is facing great challenges. It needs to combine its ambitions of inclusivity, diversity, and democratizing decision making with the necessity of having a feasible budget, access to a mortgage, and the ability to crowdfund its existence.
The project started as an idea of a self-organized group of activists, journalists, scholars, and architects that decided to participate in a public competition launched by the Municipality of Amsterdam in late 2018 to build affordable houses in an available plot. The city was searching for innovative ideas of housing provision in Amsterdam with the explicit aim to ‘test’ cooperative forms of housing provision. The winning project would have to comply with several legal requirements: be a residential cooperative that would own the estate, reside on publicly owned land, and provide at least 40% social housing units. The rules set by the city also prescribe that the building would permanently be owned by the cooperative. In exchange, the city would grant a partial discount on the land lease and provide essential bureaucratic help for its realization.
The estate proposed by that group of initiators covered a surface of about 2000m² and offered both high-density and quality construction, largely made of wood. Its layout is organized around ‘collective living groups’ (woongroepen). This living set-up involves the sharing of essential facilities such as bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room and appliances, while retaining a private bedroom. The project hosts 5 of these groups with each sharing one floor of about 200m². One of these groups is exclusively dedicated to those aged 55 and older. The groups have variable sizes, from 4 to 6 residents, totaling 25 units. The project also hosts 15 independent social housing units. One of these units is dedicated to undocumented political refugees. A number of facilities are shared by all residents of the building, including a dining space, library, daycare, and a courtyard. The internal courtyard and part of the roof will be open to both residents and non-residents of the building, particularly those living in the adjacent neighborhood. It represents the ecological core of the project, a shared space that nurtures community-supported agriculture and ecological education for children (see figure 1). The project also includes about 200m² of non-residential spaces, which will be dedicated to cooperatives in the sectors of food, education and care.
Figure 1: the building of de Nieuwe Meent with its different sectors. Source: Time to Access architects/de Nieuwe Meent. Credit: Time to Access architects 2020
In the vision of de Nieuwe Meent, co-housing is a practice of caretaking and caregiving. All members give their time to the building of the estate and its community, joining maintenance and the provision of essential services. Also, they all contribute to find new members and enlarge the group. These practices presuppose time and care, which is reflected in the financial set-up of the project. Social housing units will be rented within the regulated rent threshold of 740 euros per month, which will decrease with the support of national subsidies to households. Mid-range units within living groups reach an average of about 600 euros, but each group will have autonomy in allocating individual rent based on their own considerations of income and financial situation. After the mortgage is repaid, the rent will be directed to maintenance and a solidarity fund to be used for projects that share the same vision. At the moment of writing, there is discussion about the possibility to further reduce rent. Ideally, living affordable is understood as a way out of the obligation of full time paid work and to give more space to care for the building, its maintenance, and its internal democracy.
Two thirds of the overall budget of 6 million euros is covered by a loan from a German cooperative bank; one third with issue specific subsidies for sustainable building and one third through the issuing of investment bonds (with interest rates) for a crowd of investors.
Autonomy and Self-management
De Nieuwe Meent understands autonomy as the capacity of the group to self-provide housing within a locked housing market; to escape the obligation of private ownership through debt or long-term social rental far out of the inner city. They search for a way of life that involves solidarity and care.
The key challenge of the collective was and still is to provide a pocket of affordable houses in the city in a way that is democratic and self-organized without turning into an agency that would produce profits by capitalizing on the estate. The initial group asked itself, “How can we manage to allocate housing units without turning into a pure landlord and maintain a high degree of diversity in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and income? How can we ensure that this realizes and maintains a self-critical attitude towards itself and its mission as well as a social diversity in its profile?”
These were the questions that challenged the project during its initial steps and became its fuel of democracy: to create a housing community that, despite its legal constraints, would be able to self-define its internal rules and organization, and in doing so would nurture internal democracy and inclusivity.
October 2018 to February 2019 marked the ideation phase of the vision for the application to the public tender. At that time, the project was just an idea of a way of living and a building by a group of about 10 people. Through horizontal and deliberative set ups, the group started to discuss the vision and values that would then be turned into real-life decisions through the involvement of other individuals. The ethic of commoning would link principles of solidarity, health, education, and affordability. At this stage, it was essential to define a trajectory that could embody the possibility of self-determination by its future inhabitants, once the group would enlarge. It was not a blueprint, but rather a compass of core values not defined in a top-down manner, but through open meetings held each Sunday at the same location.
These early steps laid out the conditions that would ensure that the project would not fall into a top-down, managerial residential development. It was necessary to avoid the risk of turning into a professionalized agency that, while being governed by a small group of informed participants, would simply rent out the units (becoming a de facto social housing association). While this risk is always present in complex self-managed estates, the statute of the cooperative was designed to control this risk as much as possible. De Nieuwe Meent would be based on consensus-building, direct and collective ownership of the estate, un-alienability of the estate, diversity, and inclusive membership. This combination of principles would institute protective mechanisms against commodification. The building would always be co-owned by the cooperative, the residents of the building would be the members of the cooperative, and their decisions – including those about future members – would be reached by consensus. In order to comply with legal requirements, the statute includes a board (chair, treasurer, secretary), but the power of this board is achieved by the consensus principle within the community.
After being granted the option to build on the plot, the challenge was to set a process that could achieve a realizable business plan within two years, enlarge the community of involved members, and enable this community to self-define both the architecture and their internal working processes.
Adaptation and democracy
At the start of the project, the group immediately worked to include future inhabitants, making de Nieuwe Meent community thrive through promoting further diversity.
For the entire phase of preliminary design, the group had to enable easy access to newcomers and to do so, it formed 5 working groups: design, legal, financial, community, and media. These groups would be autonomous in their decisions over specific aspects of the project but would coordinate with each other. In addition to the weekly meetings of these groups, a plenary assembly would be organized each month to allow newcomers to join the project. These groups became the gateways to the project: newcomers would be directly involved in making decisions involving concrete matters such as crowdfunding, architectural facilities, and formalization of membership. The community working group in particular played a fundamental role in these phases of the project. Its task was to ensure that de Nieuwe Meent community would fulfil the principles of diversity and inclusion that were stated at its conception. In particular, the project intended to shelter the most vulnerable categories of individuals in Amsterdam’s housing market: those with low incomes (particularly the elderly and single people), mid-to-low income individuals not able to access social housing nor able to buy a house, ethnic minorities and people of colour, undocumented migrants, and individuals searching for a living format different from nuclear family household types. The group did not have a specific diversity plan, but understood diversity as a pathway towards the inclusion of individuals that did not self-identify necessarily with the characteristics of the initial group of initiators.
These working groups formed a collective organized around three bodies: the general assembly, the spokes council, and the council. The general assembly is the plenary and fully open moment of deliberation where everybody is welcome to give input. Key steps in the project would be regularly introduced and discussed. The spokes council includes one representative from each working group, and in this space all groups coordinate with each other making potential conflicts of coordination explicit. Examples of these conflicts include the relation between the size of living groups and the placement of common facilities, or between the possibility of lowering rents to favour access to poorer households and the overall budget plan. Finally, the Council is the formal decision body of the cooperative, including all residents of the building. This body discusses and makes decisions based on consensus. All members of the working groups can be part of these bodies.
Figure 2: one of the early open meetings on site.
It is through these working groups that key decisions have been taken. One of the most challenging was establishing a system of allocation of housing rights to households that would not be biased towards current members only and could generate diversity to a large extent.
The first admission started in June 2020 and targeted about a half of all available units. The chosen approach included a collective application by groups (not by individuals) based on open questions on how the proposed group would contribute to the core values of the project. Community building events were organized prior to this process specifically geared to attract individuals of colour and lower incomes. The selection resulted in a new group of both existing members and newcomers that, in turn, induced the project to further adapt to its members' needs.
This procedure enlarged and changed the group of involved individuals in de Nieuwe Meent. New perspectives came into the assembly, which in turn affected the internal organization of the process based on the self-determination of the newly formed group. Constructive conflicts emerged around the organization of the project, its ethnically homogeneous profile (especially at its beginning), and the over-representation of expert housing activists. The assembly started to prioritize diversity and inclusivity. As a result, two new working groups were formed. One, called ‘white privilege group’, deals with the issue of diversity across the spectrum of race, class, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, differently abled bodies, and structural marginalization. The assembly also instituted a so-called ‘safe space’, a space where people of colour would introduce newcomers and share their feelings relating to differences in the project. A third group was formed that would organize the use of non-residential spaces searching for new cooperatives that would, in turn, become part of the cooperative de Nieuwe Meent. Also, in this practice, specific attention is given to associations that strive for equality and the protection of migrants.
These adaptations resulted in further improvement to the admission procedure for the next set of dwellings. The current opening invites applicants to reflect on how they will pursue the project’s goal of diversity, and sets a target of 50% non-white inhabitants in the estate. The selection is coordinated by a commission of non-white individuals and one white ‘ally’.
Figure 3: One of the meetings that take place online today.
The challenges of Self-governed housing
De Nieuwe Meent is a project of housing commons that strives for autonomy. It practices autonomy as the capacity to self-govern each step of the development of the estate and combines this with the possibility of change to its internal composition across social boundaries. It is through the formation of new groups that de Nieuwe Meent continues to thrive and self-critique as an ecosystem of commoning practices. The incoming round of admissions for housing will reflect this changed organization and as the new proposal states, it will give priority to our diversity goals and will approach this from an intersectional feminist perspective.
Yet, today the project is facing one of its most critical phases. As with many other start-up cooperatives with explicit social goals, it relies heavily on external investors purchasing small bonds and voluntary donations through crowdfunding. De Nieuwe Meent is one project of an emerging landscape of cooperatives that are advocating for reform of the housing market in The Netherlands. It also faces the challenge of persistent democratic engagement. The group is enlarging and its self-organization is a process that requires energy, work, and perspective. Today, it still relies on the unpaid work of many engaged activists and community members who do not yet have the certainty of living in the estate. Yet, this is the mission of decommodified radical housing projects such as de Nieuwe Meent: to make housing the nest of urban democracy, a space to exercise political voice, deliberation, and possibly a germ of a society where sharing and cooperation replace the imperatives of competition and individual profit from housing markets worldwide.
Federico Savini is an Associate professor in Environmental Planning Institutions and Politics at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. If you are interested in the project, please visit its website. You can also support the project by purchasing bonds or donating at this link. Feel free to contact the author of this essay for further information at firstname.lastname@example.org or the project itself at email@example.com .
¹ Savini F, Boterman W.R. van Gent W., Majoor S. (2016) City Profile: Amsterdam in the 21st century: Geography, housing, spatial development and politics. Cities 52, 103-113
² Bolt G, van Kempen R, van Ham M. Minority Ethnic Groups in the Dutch Housing Market: Spatial Segregation, Relocation Dynamics and Housing Policy. Urban Studies. 2008;45(7):1359-1384.
³ Bossuyt, Daniel, Willem Salet, and Stan Majoor. 2018. “Commissioning as Cornerstone of Self-Build Housing. Assessing the Constraints and Opportunities of Self-Build in the Netherlands.” Land Use Policy. 77: 524-533.