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Dutch lawmakers consider standing up to squatters

So your rent is getting you down and you decide to become a squatter. How to begin?

“You will need some tools: a crowbar, a double-headed hammer and a large screwdriver to break open the door. A battering ram can also do the job,” the Amsterdam squat assistance group Kraakspreekurin advises in one of the widely available guides to squatting in the Netherlands, which has elevated the practice of living rent-free (or just about free) to an art.

OK, you’re inside. Now what do you do?

If you’re a law-abiding squatter, you inform the police, and then you call the owner.

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“You say, ‘Hi,’ ” said Aetzel Griffioen, 28, laughing. “ ‘Umm, strange news, but we occupied your place. And we hope we can come to some kind of agreement.’ We always talk to the owner.”

The politically active philosophy student, who wants to keep squatting legal, lives with eight other people in a squatted office building “full of artists.”

“The places that we are running are a big part of the urban subculture, and without squatting we’d still try to do all these things. We’d still make paintings, we’d still make music, but it would be a lot harder,” he said.

In the Netherlands, years of squatter-friendly laws have nourished a unique parallel society befitting a country where shops sell marijuana with cups of joe and prostitutes are invited to pay social security fees on declared earnings.

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But that could be about to change. Riding a wave of conservative sentiment in this famously tolerant country, lawmakers are pondering whether to put a stop to the roughly 40-year-old pro-squatter policy that has enabled thousands to live in buildings belonging to someone else.

(Despite guides suggesting the use of battering rams, breaking into a building is illegal; if you get inside without getting caught, however, you’re not guilty of a crime for occupying the place, as long as it’s been vacant for at least a year.)

The lower House of Representatives has approved the bill, which would make squatting illegal at any time. It’s not clear when the Senate will cast the determining, final vote.

A cheerful home

A night spent in a Rotterdam squat erased any preconceived images of unheated, rat-infested warehouses for partied-out anarchists.

Standing flush against the southern bank of the wind-swept Maas River, the Poortgebouw is an impressive 19th century brick building with white gingerbread trim, large arched windows and lighthouse-style views of passing ships and the glowing white Erasmus Bridge.

After sitting vacant for a few years, the Poortgebouw, which translates roughly as “gate building,” was squatted in 1980 when a group of people decided to sneak into the city-owned space and settle in.

They built a warm, bright and cheerful home. Vines and overgrown potted plants frame the high walls. Kitchens (four in all) are painted yellow or blue. The 28 residents, many students and musicians, live in spacious bedrooms outfitted with wooden lofts and more hanging greenery.

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Also defying stereotypes, the squatters aren’t out to wage war against the bourgeoisie. Some study classical music; others pursue higher degrees in science and liberal arts. Many are foreigners from elsewhere in Europe, ranging in age from 20 to 50.

Where are the radical anti-establishment types in heavy black boots and matching tight turtlenecks? And why are the bedrooms so warm?

For one, they pay a heating bill. Second, this is a legalized squat-turned-leased residency, meaning the city lets the squatters stay for minimal rent later paid to a private owner who bought the building. (Rent is about $380 a month, including utilities and some shared costs such as toilet paper.)

The Poortgebouw is a typical legacy of Dutch tolerance toward squats. In clear terms that even a capitalist American could understand, the residents and other squatters sat down to a cup of organic bedtime tea and explained how it all worked.

Not just radicalism

Many Dutch squatters are interested in low-cost housing and adapting unused buildings rather than just radical political activism. The turn toward conventionalism is largely the result of a law, amended from 1970s legislation, allowing squatters to live in a building that has been empty for at least a year, plus an ever-sharp demand for low-cost housing. (Waiting lists for government-subsidized housing can be three to seven years, depending on the market.)

A property owner with “urgent plans” for a space can go to court, and a judge can evict the squatters.

Ron Van Gelder, head of Woonstad, Rotterdam’s largest nonprofit housing developer, said he has $7,000 to $14,000 in court and other fees to get squatters off his property. Sometimes they cause damage before leaving, and are rarely held responsible for the repairs, he said.

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“That’s a real nuisance,” he said.

Van Gelder was especially put off by repeated cases of squatters who refused to leave even after he offered them contracts to stay free as long as they left when the contract ended.

“The squatters think of owners as semi-criminal, who only want to make profits and don’t have a human heart and soul,” Van Gelder said. “Whereas the other side, the people who work in companies that own houses, think of squatters as aggressive, illegal, negative things.”

Brigitte van der Burg is a member of parliament for the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and coauthor of the bill to make squatting a crime, as it is in most other Western countries. She and her colleagues say the laws allowing squatting are an example of “the world turned upside down.”

“Other businesses want to give people the opportunity to listen to music or look at art, but they have to pay rent for it, and these people are just paying nothing,” she said. “It’s not a level playing field for other firms who have to pay rent.”

She said she is merely echoing the views of an increasingly conservative movement in the Netherlands that is “fed up” with many of the nation’s lax policies -- some of the world’s most tolerant laws on marijuana use, for example.

The 2002 assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn by an animal rights activist, the 2004 slaying of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist and an influx of immigrants over the last 30 years have helped boost conservative -- often anti-immigrant -- views in the country, said Godfried Engbersen, a sociologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

“I think it’s a reaction to a very liberal period,” Engbersen said. “Maybe a period that was sometimes too permissive.”

A mix of cultures

At the Poortgebouw’s public cafe on a recent Sunday evening, foreign cultures mixed easily as residents and people from the neighborhood gathered for a $5.50 meal cooked by a rotating group of volunteers. Tonight’s menu was Slovak.

Everyone ate cabbage soup and hearty potato crepes around a long table in a room covered in band posters. Two large windows, almost at water level, looked out at the river and city lights.

“This is what is so nice. People are friendly here, and they talk to you. It’s not like that in other places,” said one Turkish resident, a 27-year-old classical music student at the Rotterdam Conservatory who didn’t want to be identified.

As the night wore on, a Dutch song that was a hit in the ‘60s, “Laat Me” (Let Me), played over the bar stereo.

The room erupted as everyone -- Turkish, Spanish, British, Dutch and others -- sang the chorus.

“Let me, let me, let me do it my own way!” they bellowed in Dutch.

The Turkish student stood up to sing, holding out his arms, smiling. He knew all the words.

Lauter is a special correspondent.


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