The future of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is in a state of flux: sanitizing the Red Light District, over-saturation of tourists, increase of finance capital fleeing the UK, and an increasing housing crisis.

Christian Patterson
2019-12-17
Underground Mall

Amsterdam is in a state of change, for several reasons. In this post, I’ll highlight some of those changes, because Amsterdam is at the nexus of, and exemplifies, many things happening in European politics.

First, I will start with Amsterdam’s Red Light District, which is being sanitized, due being overwhelmed by tourists. This signifies an overall trend of Europe becoming flooded with tourism, to an extent that they’re struggling to handle.

Then, I’ll transition to how, with Brexit looming, finance capital is moving to Amsterdam from London. This is effecting the local economy, and putting a major strain on housing – which I will also focus on. The housing problems aren’t just because of an influx of capital; Amsterdam has a new house-sharing policy that seems good on the surface, but has highly repressive consequences for poor renters.

Red Light District

The New Yorker published an interesting article about how De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red-Light District, has become overrun with tourists. In the mid-2000s, the Netherlands beefed up their Amsterdam tourism campaign, and now that De Wallen is unmanageably swarmed by tourists, they’re having difficulties.

This is an example of a broader trend of Europe becoming overrun with tourism, and for Amsterdam in particular, sex workers are in the crosshairs.

Anna Russell writes in New Yorker:

“In Amsterdam’s main red-light district, or De Wallen—where the streets are long and filled with coffee shops, bars, and brothels with sex workers standing in the windows—the stag dos have become unavoidable. Lads. Lads. Lads. Because prostitution and certain recreational drugs are legal there, the city has become a tourist destination for partiers from around the world. This is partly by design. In 2004, Amsterdam created a slick marketing campaign to draw tourists (slogan: “I amsterdam”). Between 2005 and 2016, the number of yearly visitors to Amsterdam rose from eleven million to eighteen million. Today, some thousand guided tours pass through the red-light district each week—at peak times, twenty-eight groups an hour, according to the city. But there’s now a perception, real or not, that tourism has crossed a threshold, that a phenomenon that was once manageable, even desirable, has grown legs and stumbled drunkenly into a canal. The government has changed course, raising taxes on tourists in Amsterdam and attempting to divert them to other Dutch cities and towns (Zandvoort! Muiden!). The popular “I amsterdam” sign outside the Rijksmuseum, once a celebrated selfie backdrop, was removed. When I visited last month, the streets of De Wallen were strung with festive banners warning people not to pee in the street or drink alcohol in public spaces.”

British bros have to ruin everything right?

The article continues saying guided tours through De Wallen will no longer be allowed near brothel windows. The current Amsterdam mayor, Femke Halsema, is considering covering the brothel windows, or moving them to a less popular area entirely, to prevent objectifying the workers in the window.

However, part of Halsema’s rhetoric is concerning, as she focuses on ‘trafficking’. Russell writes in the article: “When I spoke with a longtime sex worker in Amsterdam recently, she noted, more bluntly, that the government is increasingly hostile to her business. ‘It’s getting chilly for sex workers,’ she said.”

If you’re familiar with American policy on sex work, this rings very similar to the rhetoric around SESTA-FOSTA, which supposedly targeted trafficking, but practically had a negative impact on sex workers instead.

The article includes quotes from sex worker and sex work advocate Jacqy. She said that Amsterdam’s policy is teetering from protecting sex workers from photographers, gawkers, and shouters, to treating sex workers with a sense of shame, trying to hide them, and treating them as if they have no agency.

British Finance Capital

Changing pace, but related in some ways, Amsterdam is experiencing an influx of finance capital, and similar industries, who are fleeing the UK, to do business in continental Europe.

Vivienne Walt writes in a Fortune article “In the Wake of Brexit, Amsterdam Is the New London“:

“Major media entities and big life-sciences companies have recently expanded into Amsterdam. But nowhere is this change felt as sharply as in the financial services industry. For decades, finance’s European identity has centered on one square mile of London called simply The City, as though there were none other. That is no longer the case. Since the Brexit referendum, the industry has splintered across the Continent, in a shift that could ultimately be profound and permanent.”

Ultimately, even if Brexit wasn’t going to happen, I think finance capitalism, should, and will, desire to move capital to continental Europe. With Boris Johnson’s massive win, Brexit probably will go through, making the movement of finance capital seem likely to continue.

The truth is, Brexit isn’t a strengthening of the UK as a nation-state, or restoring it to its previous empire. It’s moving the UK further out of Europe’s sphere of capitalist interest and further into America’s sphere of capitalist interest. Pro-Brexit people don’t present it this way, because right-wing pro-Brexiters emphasize nationalism, and left-wing pro-Brexiters emphasize the EU’s neoliberalism. However, finance capital rightfully sees Brexit as a movement towards the US, so if they want to do finance capitalism in Europe, they will continue to move away from the UK.

But, of course, it’s not without consequences. Walt continues:

“For Amsterdam, the migration has been an undeniable boon. But for many in the city, celebration feels premature. New residents are straining a market where affordable housing is in short supply. And it’s hardly certain that the Dutch will gain more than they lose from Brexit. About 225,000 jobs in the Netherlands are related to trade with Britain. Exports alone are worth about 25.5 billion euros ($28.3 billion) a year—an economic artery now at risk.”

Amsterdam is a small city, compared to somewhere like London, both in terms of population and geographic size. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to be a finance capital of Europe. This creates new issues on a more micro-economic level, like shifts in the industries in the city, and consequently, layoffs, as well as major fluxes in rent.

Housing in Amsterdam

The former article alludes to this, but Amsterdam is experiencing an issue with housing shortages. To get around this, many people live illegally with multiple unrelated people to one home. Amsterdam is looking to legalize some of these living situations, to alleviate the housing shortage.

Robin Pascoe writes for Dutch News on Dec. 6th:

“Amsterdam councillors are due to vote later this month on plans to amend the licencing system for shared accommodation and to bring in individual contracts, with maximum rents, for people who share a home. The new rules also introduce quotas for how many houses in a given area can be rented out to groups, which officials stay will stop some parts of town becoming student ghettos.

“‘Eight in 10 people who currently share a house do so without the proper legal papers, and that makes them vulnerable to eviction,’ Van Dantzig said. The new rules, he said, are ‘by no means meant to decrease the number of flats for students and young workers. They are to legalise these living situations.’”

This sounds nice and all. However, the city is legalizing shared housing for some, and cracking down on others.

Pascoe continues:

“In Amsterdam and several other Dutch cities, it is illegal to share a home with more than two adults who are not related without a city council permit but the practice is widespread.

“Amsterdam has now said it will get tough on illegal flat sharing, although it has weakened the rules for flat shares involving three adults slightly. The new rules are due to come into effect in January, if the city council votes in favour.”

In other words, this makes it easier for specifically three unrelated people to live together. But what about five people? Six people?

Ultimately, this might seem good because it allows more people to legally live in a specific way. But really, it’s tightening the restrictions of how people live. If people were illegally living five to a home before, they may be at risk of being evicted, which is bad.

But with this policy, the city legalizes some of those dwellings, but cracks down on others. This means, while less dwellings are technically illegal, more illegal dwellings will be legally pursued.

Dutch News wrote another article about this on Dec. 12th. This one elaborates on the policy:

“Housing alderman Laurens Ivens told councillors on Wednesday that the new rules will better protect students. ‘We need to have the guts to say “we won’t accept this any longer”,’ he said. ‘We cannot leave youngsters to their lot and make them dependent on what landlords want.’”

That sounds great right? We shouldn’t be dependent on what landlords want! Let’s see how this plays out. Later in the article:

“Opposition parties, housing corporations and private landlords have called on the council to rethink, saying that the rules will lead to a sharp drop in the amount of shared housing in the capital.”

Sounds even better right? If landlords aren’t happy about it, it must be weakening their economic power. Well, let’s dig into this even more:

“The rules require landlords to have a licence to rent a property to more than three adults. They will also have to give each tenant their own contract with a rent cap, working out at around €350 to €430 for a bedroom and shared sitting room, kitchen and bathroom.”

This seems ominous. By requiring landlords to rent a licence to have more than three adults, and then enforcing a rent cap on top of that, they’re functionally forcing landlords to not rent to groups of more than three people.

Landlords are always motivated by profit. Or else they wouldn’t be landlords. By increasing the cost to rent to larger groups, and by limiting the profit, they’re functionally soft-banning group rentals, but presenting it as if they’re helping the group renters.

This will exacerbate the housing problems that already exist in Amsterdam.

Dutch News continues:

“Amsterdam’s housing corporations have already said they are phasing out the use of ‘friends’ contracts for flat sharers. In particular, the plan to make sure landlords up sound-proofing standards and rent properties on a room by room basis are making it impossible to continue, the association says.

“DutchNews.nl is also aware of several landlords in the city who have stopped renting to groups. They are concerned not only about the cost of anti-noise insulation but the introduction of individual contracts which will add to paperwork and cut their income sharply.”

And there it is.

This is a great lesson in neoliberal “progressive” reforms. On the surface, this policy is nominally helpful to renters. But the issue with market-based policy is it’s like whack-a-mole.

As long as the market exists, it will, like water, flow into new spaces that can be capitalized. By restricting capitalist flow in one way, the capital has to flow in another way.

In this case, the government is putting barriers for landlords to flow capital into collective housing. Because of this, they will flow their money elsewhere. This results in reducing, and criminalizing collective housing. It also results in developers and landlords investing more into singe person, single family housing, which will further strain the Amsterdam housing situation.

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