On Thursday, Rotterdam city council will vote on whether to replace 20,000 affordable homes with 36,000 properties for middle- and upper-income households.
The vote is the latest step in the city’s focus on “improving” neighbourhoods, by combining gentrification with rules preventing some low-income households from moving into poorer neighbourhoods.
Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ second city, is an increasingly divided one: while many neighbourhoods around the centre are gentrifying and the city is a rising star on the international tourist map, it is also home to some of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Late last year, a diverse grassroots movement emerged to oppose the city’s housing plans. A petition calling for a referendum obtained more than 13,000 signatures, resulting in a vote on 30 November.
But the odds were stacked against the referendum. While organisers wanted a vote on the potential disappearance of the 20,000 affordable housing units, the question they posed to Rotterdammers wasn’t clear. the vague nature of the question: “Are you in favour or against Rotterdam’s housing vision?” was likely to have discouraged many people from voting, because they didn’t fully understand what they were voting for.
The city also stipulated a 30% turnout to validate the referendum. Because those in favour of the housing vision could win based on a low turnout, there was little incentive for the yes campaign, including the city’s government, to encourage people to vote.
In the end, 72% voted against the housing vision. However, only 17% of the electorate voted, well below the required 30%. The council vote this Thursday, 15 December, is expected to ignore the referendum and find in favour of adopting the housing plans as official policy.
The grassroots campaign offers several insights for those dealing with gentrification in cities around the world. Tenants’ associations, while active in initiating campaigns, need to do more to engage with people in their communities. Participation levels in these associations are very low in Rotterdam and a primary objective for this movement is better organisation of residents, particularly tenants in social rented housing.