The Poortgebouw is the name of an extraordinary 19th-century building, a national monument located on the south bank of the river Maas in Rotterdam. The name is equally connected to the collective of 30 inhabitants who set up the association the Vereniging Poortgebouw.
The recent history of the Poortgebouw (1980-2007) is a unique illustration of a self-managed social housing project in the Netherlands. The following text does not describe the (recent) realisation of a co-operative housing project. However, the themes and strategies described have distinct parallels with the “self-building” projects of international co-operatives and initiatives presented at the Autorecupero Autocostruzione conference in Rome, on 5 April 2007.
Central themes addressed in this article are:
- squatting and self-renovation in the 1980s
- self-management and living in group
- the transition from public to private ownership
- the struggle against (real-estate) market logic
- survival strategies for self-managed projects
At the time of publication, the future of the Vereniging Poortgebouw was uncertain. It currently remains to be seen if the efforts to keep the Poortgebouw project self-managed and (relatively) autonomous can stand up to the dominant practices in the Dutch housing market.
The Poortgebouw was designed to house the main administrative office of the Rotterdam Trading Association (Rotterdamsche Handelsvereniging). The building was completed in 1879, the year the founder, Lodewijk Pincoffs, went bankrupt, fled the country and settled in the United States. In the 120 years that followed, the building would be adapted to fit the needs of the various users and the ever-changing surroundings. The building’s occupants were the Holland America Lijn (a renowned passenger shipping company), a meteorological station, and for the longest period the Rotterdam Port Authority, amongst others. After the Authority had moved out in 1978, the abandoned house would have become an Eros Centre, if the inhabitants of Rotterdam had not protested emphatically against this municipal plan.
The Poortgebouw was squatted on 3 October 1980 during a national protest that denounced the shortage of affordable housing for youth. The Poortgebouw’s origin as a living space was part of the renowned Dutch squatting tradition. The owner was the City of Rotterdam. The squat was tolerated although the City had plans to redevelop the Poortgebouw into student housing. This plan would have resulted in a rent the squatters simply could not have afforded. Therefore, with the support of different organisations in the city, an alternative plan was made that met the goals of the squatting group. This plan was accepted by the City of Rotterdam and realised with the inhabitants participating in the rebuilding process – an integral factor in the plan to keep the rent affordable. Shared infrastructure like kitchens and bathrooms further kept the rebuilding costs down.
The Vereniging was set up in 1982 as a formal association of the inhabitants and the plan was finalised in 1984 when the official lease was signed. The lease was unique in that the owner was responsible for the maintenance of the structure and exterior and the occupants for interior maintenance. The contract exists to this very day and the Vereniging has always paid the rent.
The 2007 Inhabitants
The Vereniging Poortgebouw is a group that consists of 30 unrelated individuals whose ages range from 6 months up to 60 years. The current average period of residency is 3 years. One third of the residents have lived here between 4 and 17 years and one third have become residents in the past 3 years.
On average, 50% of the inhabitants are Dutch and the other residents are primarily from diverse EU nation states but also from countries such as Australia, Canada, Russia, Macedonia and Mozambique. The inhabitants are artists, musicians and cultural workers, students and teachers, social and construction workers, squatters, activists and more.
The Vereniging is also a tenants association that formally pays one rent sum to the owner. The 30 inhabitants each have an individual tenancy agreement with the Vereniging. This allows the community to choose their own parameters regarding rent collection as opposed to the usual real estate demands for proof of residency and monthly income. Currently, the Vereniging pays a monthly rent of 2,800 Euros. Including the additional costs of energy and utilities, this comes down to a monthly rent of 250 Euros per person.
The individual rooms are relatively small (on average 30m2) and are for personal use – sleeping, studying, etc. The equipment in the public spaces (i.e. household appliances, furniture, kitchen utensils, technical equipment, etc.) can be used by everyone and should be maintained by everybody.
The Vereniging Poortgebouw sees itself as a group house but also as a self-organised cultural centre that offers a regular programme of socio-cultural and political activities. This programme has always been based on the different interests, know-how and networks of the tenants. The tenants organise concerts, discussion forums, theatre performances for friends and the neighbourhood. The Poortgebouw also offers space for musicians, theatre and dance groups to practice – even single fathers come here to box! Through networking and collaborations with other projects and activities in Rotterdam and beyond, the Poortgebouw has established itself as a well-known centre for cultural activity.
Privatisation and Housing Corporations
In the early 1990s, the City of Rotterdam privatised its properties by selling them to housing corporations. These corporations had the responsibility to provide social housing, but they also had to make a profit. From this time onwards the Vereniging paid rent to the Rotterdam Housing Corporation (WBR).
The role of Housing Corporations in the Dutch housing services is quite unique, compared to other EU member countries. Housing Corporations have a long tradition in the Netherlands that dates back to the middle of the 19th century. As independent non-governmental organisations, they received subsidies from the State to build and manage social housing as long as they followed the housing policy stated by the government.
The 1990s saw a radical shift in Dutch housing policy. The Housing Corporations were privatised and were no longer entitled to receive the housing subsidies from the government. The corporations, that manage both private and social housing stocks, now had to become self-sufficient and more market-oriented. Also the municipal governments, like the City of Rotterdam, handed their housing stock over to newly established Housing Corporations to manage these properties. This included the Poortgebouw.
Today, social housing is entirely managed by the Housing Corporations. The City Governments have become managers, drawing up the guidelines and policies the housing corporations have to comply with and supervising their performance. At 34.6% of the total housing available, the Netherlands have the largest amount of social housing in the EU. However, today there is massive protest against the shortage of affordable housing.
Since the middle of the 1990s, Housing Corporations have bjoined the list of the most profitable abusinesses in the country, with assets estimated at 34 billion Euros. There are strong suspicions about the way the Housing Corporations are taking up their social housing responsibilities and how well the municipal governments are supervising their performance. It is not clear what their exact tasks are or what the differentiation is between profit and non-profit activities. There’s been some questioning regarding this by EU Commission members.
2001: Crisis for the Poortgebouw
This privatisation process, which resulted in the Housing Corporation becoming the owner, did not pose an immediate threat to the Poortgebouw. In 1995, the rent was simply transferred to the account of the Rotterdam Housing Corporation, and the existing lease was respected. However, under the new ownership, the contractual maintenance of the Poortgebouw was neglected and the house increasingly fell in disrepair.
Meanwhile, the surroundings of formerly abandoned harbour terrain were rapidly transforming. The City had drawn up a master plan and a new city centre was to arise on the south bank of the river. These developments, similar to the harbour redevelopments in Hamburg, London or Barcelona, would bring lofts, expensive housing and office districts to the area. The Poortgebouw, a national monument since 1986, suddenly became a very interesting piece of property.
In June 2001, the inhabitants read in a newspaper article that the Poortgebouw had been sold to a private developer. For 400,000 Euros, the price of a single family home, the housing corporation had sold the house to an owner who operated only according to the free-market logic. He did not act under the supervision or control of the municipal government. It was a crisis situation for the inhabitants.
The change of ownership has to be illuminated: the present crisis was part and parcel of the possibility that municipal property could become private property. This implies that any defence strategy can be less based on municipal political responsibility and democratic rights. Consequently, politicians can easily let the mechanisms of the free market rule in this case.
The “social paragraph” in the sales document stated that for the next 3 years the owner could not take any action to evict. In this time, meetings were set up between the inhabitants and the new owner. The owner made clear that it was his business interest to develop the monument. In his opinion, a feasible renovation and exploitation of the house could only be achieved when the group of tenants moved out. The rent would sky rocket. The owner further thought the manner of inhabiting the Poortgebouw “outdated”; it would not fit into the prestigious new urban area. To finance the renovation, the Poortgebouw would have to become up-market office space. The right-wing municipal government (2002-2006) supported the developers.
Three years later, in the summer of 2004, the inhabitants received the official cancellation of tenancy. They rejected this and shortly after received a subpoena from the Rotterdam municipal court. The private owners declared “urgent need for renovation”, a common legal strategy in the Netherlands used by owners to evict the tenants claiming their right as owners to make urgent renovations.
The court case itself refers mostly to the general rights of tenants, as opposed to the political responsibility of Housing Corporations. Now, the “need” of an owner for economic profit is an eligible argument in this case.
In the defence, the Vereniging Poortgebouw disputed the private owner’s “urgent” need for renovation, stating that the owner had not put in any money for maintenance since he bought the house in 2001. The tenants also countered the owner’s arguments by arguing that the financial feasibility of the renovation plan sprang from a desire to generate profits from the property. The inhabitants provided evidence that a “feasible” renovation can happen under different circumstances.
The Vereniging Poortgebouw lost the case before the Rotterdam Municipal Court in February 2006. The verdict was however non-executable if the case went into appeal (an uncommon verdict). As of June 2007, the case was brought before the Higher Appeal Court in The Hague.
A Vision for a New Poortgebouw
Parallel to the court case, it was decided to take an active role in proposing a concrete vision of the future Poortgebouw. Since the owner saw no possibility of collaborating with the inhabitants, other partners had to be attracted. In workshops in 2005, dedicated residents together with professional external advisors in real estate, city planning, architecture and politics established the project group Future Poortgebouw to achieve this goal.
Given estimates of the combined costs of buying the Poortgebouw from the owner (circa 1 million Euros) and the additional renovation sum (circa 2.5 million Euros), it was not realistic for the inhabitants to buy the house themselves. The strategy was to attract a more socially responsible housing corporation willing to work together with the inhabitants on the plan and ‘encourage’ the private developer to sell. Given the profit-oriented housing market, it was necessary to find an owner who would be politically accountable to the government and would accept its social task.
To negotiate with such financially powerful corporations, it was necessary to formally describe the inhabitants’ alternative view. In 2006, the project group worked out a ‘vision document’ containing the basic guidelines for a successful partnership.
They saw the future Poortgebouw as a multi-functional place with space for the community and for more professional and publicly accessible socio-cultural activities. The plan emphasises the fact that the Poortgebouw can contribute to the Rotterdam cultural scene by giving (creative) people affordable space to live and work together.
Four central and overlapping ideas define this plan:
1. living as a group
2. cultural breeding ground
Important in the plan is the organisational model that clearly communicates the desired relationship of tenants and future owner. There would be two separate groups: one of those living and one of those working in the Poortgebouw. They would be organised by two separate Associations (Vereniging). Each association would be responsible for collecting a single rent sum to be paid to an 'umbrella' Administrative Association (Stichting). This sustains a central aspect of self-management at a more personal level where individual members can decide various models of rent payment. The Administrative Association would then be the partner responsible for direct communication with the owner.
On an architectural level, the 1800 m2 functional space at the Poortgebouw can be divided into socio-cultural and living functions with a clear division between private and public space. For the future inhabitants, there would be 15 living units with an average of 35m2 located primarily on the upper floors of the building. Communal kitchens, bathrooms and other shared spaces are important places of social interaction for the community and help save energy. The socio-cultural functions include artist’s studios, small offices and shops, rehearsal space and a cafÚ located primarily on the ground floor.
The plan is seen as both a compromise and a progress. On the one hand, the current group of 30 inhabitants would decrease to about 15 to 20. There is the risk that the 2 parties will have serious conflicts of interest, which may lead to disputes about the lease. There would be more control of the activities, i.e. government oversight. On the other hand, it would be an opportunity to rethink dated organisational problems, both spatially and on the level of group communication. Work invested in the house by individuals above defined “norms” could possibly be compensated and not depend on self-exploitation.
Summary of Current Issues
At the time of publication, the inhabitants’ vision for the future of the Poortgebouw is still a work-in-progress. Various survival strategies must continue to be invented and explored. Although no final decision has been reached about the future of the house, some central factors in this process – which often proved chaotic – are evident.
Through the “Vision Document”, partners have been attracted to work with the inhabitants. The Housing Corporation is attracted by the idea of self-management in our plan. Since the tenants would take on administration and maintenance tasks in the building, the owner has fewer costs. However, one must be realistic about the future inhabitants’ dedication to self-management. Currently the obligation that the tenant ‘has work or reducational commitments’ is an eligible argument to reduce the available time for self-management. Indeed, the understanding and practice of self-organisation within today's societal conditions must be addressed.
The private owner has not yet agreed to sell or stated an amount. Official real-estate assessments suggest a property value of 1 million Euros.The Vereniging Poortgebouw’s partners have twice made an offer based on these figures which were rejected by De Groene Groep, although they initially only paid half of this sum. Attempts to acquire the property through lobbying alone have not been successful to this date. The owner is only willing to sell the Poortgebouw for an additional profit that greatly exceeds its investment. Otherwise, it would seem that the owner is confident that the Appeal Court will favour its juridical arguments and rights as private developer to exploit its properties for profit.
The owner potentially can be ‘pressured’ to sell at the request of the City Council. In 2006, the traditional Worker’s Party came back into power. The inhabitants have the support of various politicians in the council primarily because of the social and cultural role the Poortgebouw has played in the past. However the (private) investment in real-estate development is a clear priority. The City Council must clearly state its preference for social ands cultural functions over office space. In the past, the City Council was unwilling to take a position or responsibility, dismissing it as a case of private ownership and development. At the same time, they ironically try hard to brand Rotterdam as a Creative City. Statistics have shown that Rotterdam has an excessive amount of empty office space, a statistic which could also work in the favor of the inhabitants’ vision.
Presently, a national monument is in a state of decay in the centre of Rotterdam due to the contractual neglect and greed of the owners. The conflict that the Poortgebouw is involved in is a case study in Holland for the consequences of careless privatisation of public housing. It remains to be seen if the Poortgebouw will continue to be an example of the benefits of self-management and provide a vital resource any culturally dynamic city depends on.
For the latest information visit: www.poortgebouw.nl
Peter Blakeney & Christine Sch÷ffler
Rotterdam, 26 May 2007