January 22, 2008

The Amsterdam housing market (for renters)

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.

Altijd Wonen
Amsterdam Craigslist
Students for Students

Housing organizations that can fill you in on housing rules and regulations:
Dienst Wonen
Huurders Vereniging
Studentwoningenweb (for student housing)


frumiousb said...

Well, the Amsterdam weekly is kind of full of shit. So don't take that too seriously. The housing corporations are a kind of public housing that an expat would never ever ever be eligible for anyhow. The wait list is years, and the prize is often the coveted "small apartment on the canal for 300 euros a month". Those seriously exist. But not for you or I. Expats who sign up are offered a lovely apartment in the bijlmer. Maybe.

The point system is reality, which is why so many apartment owners only rent to expats, and only on on year contracts. I've never heard that the point system is in place to create social mixes, although that is why the housing corporations exist. For instance, we're having a new apartment built, and in that complex four of the apartments are social housing and administered through one of the housing corporations.

The point system effectively guarantees that there is virtually no flourishing private rental market in Amsterdam, which is really what makes it difficult. For instance, when we move to our new apartment, I would actually prefer to keep this apartment. But in order to make costs, I'd have to charge 950 p/m plus expenses. (80 square meters, two bedrooms) I could probably find someone willing to pay it, but I could be legally challenged under the point system because it is in a high immigrant (and therefore unattractive) neighborhood. And if someone challenges me and the court decides that I lose and lowers the rent that I get paid to 400 p/m, then I'm completely screwed. The green left and the SP control the city right now, and they oppose removing it. It's all part of a history in the bad old days of absentee landlords who let the city fall to rack and ruin.

Virtually all private rentals then are available through people who move abroad for a year or two and who rent to expats through special agencies. Otherwise they go black through a "housesitting" deal and rent it via via.

This said, I have moved four times within Amsterdam. It never took me more than a few months to find an apartment. Granted, I'm not too terribly fussy. I've live in neighborhoods that a Dutch person would never consider. I *like* multicultural. It's often felt expensive, but it has never been that hard. Generally what I did is run an ad in Via Via that I was looking for a room to rent. People called me, and that was that. The market is much tighter in general now (the economy is growing gangbusters) and house prices are insane by Amsterdam standards. The price for our new apartment was set two years ago when we did the lottery to buy it (don't ask), but if we were to buy the same amount of space now, it would cost 150,000 more. That's a bubble, not reality.

Another American Expat said...

thank you so much for this comment!! I'm not terribly fussy either, I like multicultural, and I mean christ, right now I live in a tiny bedroom without windows. can you recommend some of these less-desirable neighborhoods in Amsterdam that are still within the city? I certainly don't need to live next to the park or in Jordaan or anything.

I really find all this stuff incredibly fascinating. Thanks so much for your input! I hope you let me take you out for coffee when I arrive to say thank you.

Anonymous said...

You're forgetting that:
a) as a foreigner you don't even qualify to get on the list for those 'housing corporation' apartments
b) Dutch landlords are crooks

I'm a foreigner who used to live in the Netherlands. Even though I didn't live in or near Amsterdam, it was still nearly impossible to find a place to live.

Most places rejected me outright because I didn't yet have a residence permit (but of course, I couldn't get one until I had a place to live...)
I had more than one rental agency reject me because I couldn't show a work contract proving that I would make at least *five times* the monthly rent + charges
Those who would speak to me generally wanted money to have access to their listings and/or to view apartments

When I finally DID find someone willing to rent to me, I knew right off the bat that they were going to be a sleazy landlord, and I was right.

In theory, my rent was €375/month
Then came the €325/month charge for furnishings (mostly broken!) and 'service charges'
And then €130/month for gas/water/electricity

So that's suddenly €830/month for a small apartment, not in Amsterdam. And for the 'privilege' of living there, I had to pay a €830 'finders fee', plus a deposit of nearly €100, plus the first months' rent + charges. Sure, none of this is really legal, but when nobody's willing to rent to you...

The roof leaked for almost half the time that I lived there, and the landlords did nothing about it. The laundry 'facilities' were almost always broken. The apartment wasn't even entirely legal; the city thought that there was one house/apartment at that address, even though it was then split into four.

And then there are the xenophobic Dutch people, and the vandalism, and the damage to our cars, and the time we were broken in to...

Let's just say that I was very, very happy to leave that hellhole of a country.

Visiting is one thing, living there is another thing entirely.

Another American Expat said...

Well, thanks for reading and leaving a comment, but nothing you said really puts me off. Sorry you didn't have a great experience, but everything you said above - from living in an illegal apartment to dealing with robberies and broken utilities - is all stuff I deal with constantly right here in New York.

Still, I don't mind getting feedback like this - the more I can learn, the better. I hope you're happier wherever you ended up!

frumiousb said...

I'm always happy to meet for coffee.

I like the Indischebuurt a lot. There's a great street market very close and it's close to the center. It's possible to find rentable apartments out here for much less than other places. The apartments are often Not Charming (a lot of unfortunate urban renewal) and like I said, lots of Dutch don't want to live here because of the heavily multiculti nature.

The Baarsjes, Noord and Geuzenveld are other less-than-fashionable neighborhoods wehre housing can still be had.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm American living in NYC and thinking of moving to Amsterdamn. I'm currently sending my CV to ad. agencies to see if I can get sponsorhip or some sort. What and how is the best to approach this? Should I apply for a visa myself and move there then find work? I don't want to blow off my savings on rent for a few months then having to move back. Any feedback is appreciated. Thanks!