Two disparate cities reveal gentrification is a distinctly universal challenge. Citizen-activists from commodified neighborhoods share their experiences and strategies.
On a rainy evening on the west side of Amsterdam’s city center, dinner concludes around 8pm. Ine Poppe, a renowned artist professor and avid reader, moves to review Sam Nemeth’s speech for the city council meeting occurring at 8:30pm—a meeting for which he has accepted an invitation to speak on behalf of his neighborhood, Jordaan.
Nemeth leaves, pulling the door closed to the social housing apartment building where he and his wife, Poppe, have lived comfortably since the 1980s. The shut door reveals a sign, red with block letters that reads: “STOP mass tourism.”
In the window, a white poster says “no/nein/non” to “Airbnb, Uber, and TOVER. “No gentrification” overlays the design in green.
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Nemeth has become the point person for his neighbors, both to rally them and speak up for them as they battle efforts from developers, government officials, and civic leaders to gentrify their community and increase tourism.
Though Amsterdam lies nearly 4,500 miles across the Atlantic from St. Louis, Missouri, where I live, work, and study, the challenges residents face would resonate with my neighbors. Struggles are ongoing, and Poppe and Nemeth present an energizing perspective on organizing for affordable housing, preserving the built environment, and fighting off commercialism.
Up until the 1990s, Poppe and Nemeth’s neighborhood reported high crime and vacancy rates, similar to present-day St. Louis. The couple, now in their 60s, met during Amsterdam’s squatter movement of the 1980s. Young people faced a failing economy, and Poppe, as a part of the movement, squatted a city-owned building in Jordaan. A period of urban renewal in the 1980s and 1990s ushered in investment and enrichment for Jordaan, and the policies of the era focused on building social housing accessible to all.
With affordable rents, a diverse network of urban pioneers were able to afford education and cultivate the essential ingredients of the Amsterdam lifestyle: bicycle shops, cafes, restaurants, and alternative cinemas. The picturesque atmosphere ultimately attracted outsiders and tourists.
Nemeth and Poppe’s quaint, formerly crime-ridden haven of Jordaan now displays the costs and benefits of the past three decades of housing and development policy in Amsterdam. Corner cafés welcome patrons lining up at a leisurely 10am opening time, vying for oat milk cappuccinos in pastel ceramic mugs. One patron holds a Dutch language book in his hand and another orders in Dutch; the rest order in either broken or slang English and pray they remember the code to their Airbnb. The barista, a young Dutch woman, receives them well.
Nemeth says many of their peers have moved to the suburbs, and the rest grow frustrated that their own children cannot afford the price tag attached to present-day life in Jordaan.
Social housing in Amsterdam, as with public or subsidized housing in the U.S., is housing that is subsidized by the government. It currently comprises 47% of the housing stock, down from 67% in 2012. It is majority-operated by nonprofit organizations known as housing associations, but the government establishes maximum rent that can be charged, currently €808.06 or less. Due to its marked ability to attract renters from all incomes and backgrounds, social housing also serves to mitigate displacement and foster neighborhood resilience.
But consistent with the global affordable housing crisis, supply does not reach demand. And just as in St. Louis, the almighty dollar—or in this case, the Euro—rules. Housing associations, the main proprietors of social housing in Amsterdam, have a right to sell to private interests—and they have done so increasingly over the past 10 years.
Over the past 10 years, St. Louis policymakers have relied on tax incentives, in the form of tax increment financing [TIFs] and tax abatements to attract developers to the urban core. According to St. Louis Public Radio, TIFs are particularly useful for areas that would receive zero development without incentive.
The St. Louis Affordable Housing Scorecard, published in 2021, reveals that tax credits granted to developers in 2020 met only 42% of the local demand for affordable housing financing. And, similarly in Amsterdam, many developers opt for luxury apartments catered to a wealthier, transient population working in medical or higher education fields in the central corridor over the production of affordable housing.
St. Louis aims to create more equitable and inclusive development through the Economic Justice Action Plan, released in late 2022. This includes a new scorecard for assessing eligibility for tax incentives, with affordable housing allotted the greatest number of points, and a goal to “invest in data and transparency around incentives.” The question remains as to the accountability of these goals.
In Amsterdam, the 40-40-20 policy aims to mitigate the affordable housing crisis and maintain a diverse inner-city that is not exclusive to the uber-wealthy. New buildings must retain 40% of units for social rent, 40% for affordable private rent or affordable home ownership, and 20% for market-rate housing. However, waiting lists for social rent average 13 years, and market-rate rents have doubled the affordable rate.
The buildings surrounding Poppe and Nemeth were built in the 1980s and 1990s, but only half of them remain social housing. Nemeth points to a little shop down the street. The older man who owned it passed away, but his activism maintained his block as social housing. The rest have been sold by the housing associations.
Nemeth recalls the Dutch term Poldermodel, saying it’s the common responsibility to fight one adversary—the sea—that drives the Dutch history of negotiating and solving things communally. Everyone has a responsibility to pitch in and solve things communally lest they become overwhelmed. The term emerged in the 1980s and fostered participation in society, but also a belief—more than just faith—in the power and obligation of citizen-led activism.
Poppe says she hopes for more social housing, for housing associations to be unable to sell, and for diversity in both class and race in her neighborhood. However, she remains a realist.
“To be honest, I think we’re completely lost already," Poppe says. "But you have to do something.”
So, what can a citizen do?
Back in St. Louis, former Alderwoman Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl answers this question. Pihl represented Ward 17, which is now Ward 9, located in St. Louis’s central corridor. She has seen her neighbors priced out of their apartments and affordable housing grow scarce, largely since 2017.
Pihl responds with one word: “organize.” She sees citizens organizing, but around issues she refers to as the “tentacles,” rather than the “entire inequitable capitalistic system at work.”
Nemeth says it’s important to keep the pressure on. Poppe speaks to the importance of actively choosing to participate in community.
In December 2023, members of Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighborhood will light up their homes and shops with red lights, reminiscent of Amsterdam’s touristy Red Light District.
“We feel like actors in the show of the tourist industry,” says Nemeth.
A five-minute ferry ride north of the city center, lawyer, activist, and north Amsterdam native Terra Dakota Stein tells it straight: Housing is a human right that has been sold to capitalism.
North Amsterdam, or Amsterdam Noord, like many Amsterdam districts, has its own cultural traditions and unspoken customs inherent to the largely working class and immigrant population. Stein drives south from de Banne to the banks of Amsterdam Noord, passing a market with fresh fish and mass-produced shoes for a modest three euro a pair. A woman wearing a niqaab strolls alongside children on bikes adjacent to beautifully overgrown gardens. Humble apartment complexes mimic each other on either side of the street yet begin to advertise as hostels as she moves towards the city center. Hollow warehouses, shells of a manufacturing industry that controlled much of the north up until the 1970s, provide new homes for art galleries, and a gray backdrop for a massive yellow crane. It moves—an arm in the creation of new, unaffordable development along the wharf.
On the banks of Amsterdam Noord, a middle-aged man owns a vintage shop and prices a costume pearl necklace at $35. He says business is better when it doesn’t rain, but overall, it’s good enough to continue. He says gentrification is good for growth, and a natural part in the development of cities.
Stein disagrees. She believes in the possibility of community enrichment without displacement.
She speaks from success. Her organization, Verdedig Noord [Defend the North], is a corporation founded by members of the transitioning Amsterdam Noord neighborhood who believe in ownership and the reclamation of community space.
De Rietwijker is an old theater building the city was ready to demolish. Stein and Verdedig Noord intervened and successfully lobbied to turn the building into a space for the surrounding community. Now, the building hosts community theater productions and block parties, and offers free Wi-Fi and bathroom use.
She points to a map on the wall in the main hallway: "DE SOCIALE WEEFSEL KAART VAN NOORD." In English, The Social Soul of Amsterdam Noord. The map designates 45 different places key to Noord’s history, culture, and community.
“This is the true value of our neighborhoods,” says Stein. “What gentrification does is it drives this out of our communities.”
For more on Terra Dakota Stein, check out https://verdedignoord.nl/.
For more on Sam Nemeth and Ine Poppe, check out their community project against mass tourism: https://www.stichtingkatrijn.nl/.