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How to occupy a building: the Dutch example

Artjoms Konohovs
Occupy protests in San Francisco

This Saturday, the Occupy Oakland movement plans to take over an empty building to create a center for like-minded people. Whether or not the movement can hold onto the space is up in the air, but one need only look to the Netherlands for a possible glimpse of things to come.

In the '50s, squatters or krakers (as they are called in Dutch) began occupying empty houses while demanding their right to a place to live. Those days, the housing shortage in the Netherlands was extreme – even though there were many empty buildings. On April 30, 1980, while many celebrated the beginning of Queen Beatrix’s reign, riots also took place on the streets of Amsterdam as thousands of young people came out to protest and demand housing. The movement peaked in the following years when the number of squatters swelled to approximately 20,000. In fact, the movement grew so large that in the '70s, a Dutch court ruled that it was actually legal to occupy an empty building that wasn't used by its owner.

It’s a story that many Occupy demonstrators would be glad to hear – but one that’s still unfolding.

Since the late '80s, the movement in the Netherlands has significantly declined, and only a few houses are still occupied by squatters in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and other Dutch cities. So in 2010, the new Dutch government, led by the so-called pro-business Liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), declared that it would pass new legislation making squatting illegal. Despite protests in several Dutch cities, the ban was officially introduced and squatters evicted. (One small victory for the occupiers came in the form of a court ruling that left evictions to the decision of a judge.)

The ban hasn’t stopped many from taking over empty houses, however. Prosecuting such cases is complicated, and city councils that are entitled to enforce the ban do not have it on their priority list. Thus, de facto squatting continues despite the ban.

It's not likely that Oakland officials will allow the takeover of the yet-to-be-announced building to continue for very long. Still, Saturday's events could stimulate the conversation about housing and homelessness in the Bay Area during a time of great need.