A friend of mine recently passed along last week's very educational issue of Amsterdam Weekly to me. I think anyone who is thinking about moving to Amsterdam should immediately read Volume 5, Issue 2, 10-16 January 2008 - just brace yourself first. This blog post references some of the "highlights," and this link will bring you to the page where you can download the PDF. If they stop archiving back issues, contact me and I will email it to you. The topic: Mapping the Rental Housing Market. On page three, the reader is greeted by the friendly words, "If you are a visitor and in the midst of being charmed by this easy going ol' town and are beginning like many before you to entertain the idea of moving here, don’t fucking bother. We don't want you here. Just sod off."
The author's point is that there is no housing available in all of Amsterdam.
Of course, he or she is writing for the Amsterdam Weekly, which leads me to believe that he or she is living in Amsterdam, which means it can be done. That's how my brain works... nothing is impossible! But this article certainly helps put things in perspective - it's not going to be easy. At all.
On page six, the introduction starts with "Finding a place to live in Amsterdam can be mind-boggling and expensive, whether you’re a native Amsterdammer, a newcomer or a student. To have success, you need networking skills, plenty of insider info, and the patience of a saint... or a boat-load of money."
I found what I hope are well-researched facts about the housing market, because I love facts. Once I have facts, I can deal with the situation. Here are a few of my favorite:
There are 376,233 houses in Amsterdam for about 743,000 residents, according to the city’s housing department.
In 2006, almost 82,000 people applied once or more for the 11,000 apartments housing corporations put on the market.
Amsterdam's housing shortage is worse than any other city in the Netherlands, and demand for units is only increasing.
I realize that none of this sounds incredibly optimistic, but it doesn't make me want to give up. First of all, I have never considered looking for my own apartment in Amsterdam – I want to rent out a room and live with roommates. I am positive that will also be a very challenging task and will require tons of patience and a lot of luck, but it's not like I'm attempting to get into my own apartment that people have been on a 7-year-long waiting list to get.
Secondly, I was able to learn a little about why rent is so low in Amsterdam. Again, when I say the "the rent is so low," understand that I’m comparing cost and sizes of Amsterdam apartments to New York City and Paris apartments, since those are the last two cities that I called home. If you were to compare Amsterdam to Berlin or Austin, Texas, it might not seem as affordable. However, in NYC it is perfectly common for people to spend more than half their monthly income just on rent alone. In Paris, 9 square meters is a very standard studio apartment size. Now, the current housing law in Amsterdam "creates a disincentive for owners who want to rent to someone else, for example, if they go out of town for a few years. While property costs go up an average of five to ten percent every year, owners can only (legally) charge rent based on a point system that is tied to the inflation rate, which increases about one to two percents annually." That's the reason there are so many illegal rentals in Amsterdam – why would you rent out your apartment under cost? The article continues, "The city's policy... is designed to create neighborhoods with a mixture of rich and poor residents. If we would let the market dictate the prices, they would be sky-high. We don't want ghettos and we don’t want a city centre only for the rich."
That concept is the polar opposite of everything super-capitalist "let's just push the poor out to the ocean as the rich get richer" New York City is about. 57% of Amsterdam’s housing stock is classified as cheap (rents of up to 520 Euros a month), but only "35% of Amsterdam residents are categorized as low income - that is, earning a household income of no more than €1,633, after taxes." So while it's a lovely idea to think that the city wants to keep the neighborhoods mixed with rich and poor, it does seem that the system needs a bit of a tweak. As a tourist in Amsterdam, it was pretty obvious to me when I was in a richer neighborhood – though I have to admit, I don't recall ever feeling like I stumbled into a low-income area. The entire city seemed pretty nice, so if I was in a low-income area, I never really knew. If you were to walk down my street in Brooklyn, there's no mistaking the fact that it's low-income. Besides the huge housing projects, there's just a general feeling - the empty lots covered in barb wire and broken down trucks, the trash everywhere, the run-down buildings... New York City does not, in any way, shape, or form, try to mix up the neighborhoods, and I don’t think it ever has.
Now let me compare Amsterdam to Paris: Almost everyone I knew who rented in Paris (which includes two-income families), lived in 40 square meters or less. One of the families I babysat for was a single mom and two kids, and they had about 30 sq meters. The other family was mom, dad, and a 2-year old, and they had about 40 sq meters. I knew professionals – teachers with advanced degrees and good jobs – that lived in about 25 square meters. The cost of a 25 sq meter studio apartment in the 10th district of Paris (not the "hippest" area of the city at all) was about 750 Euros a month, and that was a couple years ago. The people I knew with the cheapest rents lived in 9 square meters and paid between 450-550 Euros, depending on the neighborhood. I have yet to find an ad for a 9-sq-meter apartment in Amsterdam.
Back to New York: when people move to New York City and look for apartments (and I have heard of people who have come here, tried, failed, and left for Jersey), that is that. You do nothing else. When I moved here, friends that that were so happy to finally have me in the same city would finally get me out to a bar and say "so, what’s up? how are you doing?" and I would reply "do you really think the Myrtle stop on the J train counts as Williamsburg?" or "I saw a place advertised as a 3-bedroom that really had 1 bedroom, no closets, and cost $2600 a month plus a $3500 broker fee, is that normal?" The second time I looked for a place to live, I tried to just refuse to talk about it. Friends would say "what's up?" and my answer would be "I'm looking for a room. I have nothing else to say." And honestly, I really did have nothing else to talk about. It was all-consuming.
My point is: every city presents its own challenges. Whether it's tiny sizes, lack of availability, absurdly high rents, bribing brokers or landlords, if there are people living there than there's a way. Here's my very simple apartment-hunting tip that applies to every city in the world: do the research and arm yourself with as much information as humanly possible. If Amsterdam really does defeat me, I'll be the first to admit I was wrong... but since I really hate doing that, I'll just have to not be defeated.
I have been wanting to start a collection of helpful Amsterdam links for a while now, so by all means, let me know if I left anything out.
Students for Students
Housing organizations that can fill you in on housing rules and regulations:
Studentwoningenweb (for student housing)