Right now, all the things I own are stored in three different houses in Amsterdam. Most of it is propped in the storage of this couple friends of mine who live in Ijburg because, after six years in Amsterdam, I still don’t have a house. Then I have some other stuff in the Westerpark area, at the place of another friend who has also been the caregiver of my cats while I can’t have them with me. Finally, there is a piece of luggage and a backpack that I carry with me everywhere, with the essentials for everyday life. Currently, I am staying in the area of Museumplein (I know, I know). This other couple friends went on holiday and offered me their home. I am plant sitting while they’re away. Unlike most people in Amsterdam, didn’t Airbnb their place at the first opportunity. If they had done so they would now be enjoying a free holiday. I’m lucky. Airbnb prices here are similar to hotel ones so it is easy to understand why people do it so massively over here. This also helps explain why this is not the first time that I am homeless in the almost six years I’ve been living in Amsterdam.
The Amsterdam way
Living in the great A’DAM as a non-wealthy expat means you become an urban nomad, if you want to give it an exquisite name. “Nomad” suggests a chosen lifestyle though, yet this is everything but. We are forced to live like this. If you are a wealthier expat you may be able to acquire your own home. Well, maybe not at current market prices but until around 2016 (I guess?) one could still do so, and some of my friends bought houses then. An urban nomad in turn is a person who has to move very often from house to house because simply put, there is no place for them to settle for a longer period of time. Everything that could mean a more permanent shelter is whether prohibitively expensive, whether exclusively aimed at Airbnbs, which obviously makes for a much more profitable business. Moreover, landlords will limit rental contracts to short-term with a maximum of two years to prevent tenants from gaining lawful rights of permanence in the house.
Even before the boom of Airbnb the market was already pricey because of how crowded Amsterdam is. This leads locals to rent or sublet their apartments or rooms whenever they travel. Amsterdammers travel very often, and while we are affected by housing market speculation, we also take personal advantage of the system. Which is a catch 22. Many people get to travel with no housing expenses, and they get to keep their place too (if they are in that position.) I did this myself as well. When I backpacked for two and a half months, I sublet my room and this is how I managed to travel on my small budget. Then, six months after, the owners of the house returned to The Netherlands, the one-year rental contract expired and my roomies and I had to leave.
Before that, I lived in the Indische Buurt. The landlord had been granted a social house (a house for which he paid a lower rental price compared to standard prices) which I shared with a friend. He lived together with his girlfriend in another social house. We had an inspection knocking at our door trying to persuade us to report the illegal arrangement. If we collaborated the organization would protect and arrange us permanent housing in the city as a reward, and we wouldn’t have to worry anymore (that’s what they told us anyway.) We aren’t hypocrites so we didn’t collaborate. Couldn’t I then apply for social housing as well, I wondered. I later found out that, in theory, I could. The waiting list for one of those, however, accounts for between 10 and 15 years. Fun times. Oh Ana, why on earth did you insist on studying theater?! I can hear the voice of my relatives say. At times my mother enquires: why don’t you settle down in one house? She, herself, while married to my father, purchased her first home at age 36. I’m not sure any member of my family can grasp how the housing situation works for people of my generation.
The Huurtoeslag & the Huisbewaring
Between 2014 and 2016 I lived in the house of a friend who moved to Berlin. This is the longest time that I managed to remain in one single place in Amsterdam. We had a rental agreement and because the total price I paid wasn’t too high, I was even able to get a huurtoeslag, a subsidy the government grants people with lower incomes. Those blessed times came to an end when, in face of the rising prices in real estate, my friend decided to sell the house. The huurtoeslag could be our general salvation if it actually worked. The reason why it doesn’t work on 90% of the times is that you are only entitled to this benefit as long as your rental costs don’t exceed a certain amount. The amount in question is, of course, waaaay below market prices.
I lived together with my ex-boyfriend in another house, this time around in Westerpark. Since he owned the house, this was a period of minimal housing worries. After that, I shared a place with a girlfriend of mine but since we were in a situation of huisbewaring, eventually the owners came back, and we both had to move out. AGAIN. Huisbewaring enables people who move abroad temporarily to sublet their rental home for a maximum period of two years.
Solidarity is everything
This leads me to the present situation. Right now I am staying wherever I’m welcome. I have had the luck to be welcomed by different friends who live different areas of the city. Advantage: I get to know Amsterdam really well which is useful for my job at Amsterdive. I would never have the means to live in the Museumplein neighborhood where I’m currently at. The emotional instability this lifestyle implies, however, weighs on me more and more. It feels like a roller coaster. Not only are millennials living in an unstable work era (some call it flexible,) but cities are getting increasingly competitive too. On top of that, relationships have been tendentially getting as temporary as rental contracts. And there’s the doom of climate change too. What impact does this have on people’s mental health?
On a personal note
I remember having periods where I felt like a loser for not having the means to secure a permanent place of my own. The more the people around me bought houses, the smaller I felt. Anxiety would start spinning inside me like a wheel spitting a thousand questions at the same time (brace yourselves): Until when will I have to live in shared spaces? Does this mean I should leave the city I love so much? What if I join the creative scene in some other city? What about all the friends that I have here and the network that I’ve built and my emotional geographies? Is it really how it works, you earn below a certain amount, you’re out? What if Amsterdam is indeed becoming a town for yuppies and wealthy people, as everyone says it is? Does it even make sense to keep writing this blog, then? Why should I have to leave the place that feels like home to me? How many people have already been displaced from a city that feels like home to them?
I still feel like there is space for me in Amsterdam. I guess the decision to stay here is not very rational, but more of a gut feeling. As long as I still feel I belong here, as long as I feel welcome, as long as I feel Amsterdam is unfinished business, I can’t leave. This being said, if you hear/smell/feel the presence of a vacant living space, could you please be so kind to send me some smoke signals, a carrier pigeon, a message in a bottle? Oh. An email might do just as well. Thank you, Dankjewel, Obrigada, Gracias, Merci, Grazie, Mulţumesc, Hvala, Danke schön Tak, Sağol, شكرا جزيل
Thanks for reading this! And, by the way, anybody going through the same struggles at the moment?
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8 thoughts on “The unwilling urban nomads of Amsterdam”
Very very recognizable …
Love your style. It makes reading a blog a pleasure.
Thank you Zdeno! Your compliment means a lot to me 🙂
Very nice way to educate us about the housing system/situation through your personal experience.
On a personal note, I lived also sharing with people (10 in total) kitchen, living room and 2 toilets/showers. On my case, worst time ever!
So I think I know how it is. After that I told to myself “ain’t gonna share EVER again!”.
Yet solidarity goes first. If one day you need a place for a couple of months, I will be glad to help.
Cheers and keep writing!!
Wow, 10 people sounds like waaaay too much! Until now, the maximum for me was sharing a house with 3 others and it was already enough of everything. Thanks for your kindness! 😀
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