A mailbox. Just a letterbox. With a lock on it. And a name. His own name. “That’s a very special feeling,” says 42-year-old M. Sabban, looking proudly at the mailbox in the hall of the porch flat. It’s his first. In all the years he lived at – “let’s see” – one, two, three, four, five different addresses, the letterbox always had a different name. Such as from a 25-year-old student who rented out his apartment through Woningnet to people like him. And don’t misunderstand Sabban. He himself was a student of physics at the VU, and everyone has the right to a rental home. But why not him? When he responds to Woningnet, at 42, married and registered for twelve years, he is still “one of the hundreds”.
Life turned out for him, as it sometimes happens, differently than he had expected. In his twenties his then relationship ended and he was on the street. Without a house there is no solid ground under your feet. He dropped out of his studies, came to work in the hospitality industry and was sentenced to sublet life. Poor sleep because you don’t know where you will live next week. Do not dare to open the door when the doorbell rings. “You feel like a criminal,” says Sabban in slippers in the hall. “Like you’re doing something wrong. While, you just try to live, a basic right.”
So that’s why he’s so happy now. That he was eligible for temporary occupancy, a flat in Zaandam that is nominated for demolition, felt like a lottery ticket. And not just for him. Since the beginning of last year, eighty starters have lived in the flat, mostly in their thirties with excellent jobs for those who have no place on the housing market. They were already selected from a thousand applications by the vacancy manager. Sabban, smiling: “I never thought I could arrange this house.”
Italian guest workers
The building they live in is known as the ‘Spaghetti Flat’. An L-shaped flat with 117 apartments, four floors high. In the early 1960s, Italian guest workers lived there who came to work in the shipyards around Amsterdam – hence the name. Later, mainly Turkish families lived there, the men who worked in the factories on the Zaan.
It was the age of pillarization, when life was predictable. Housing as an objective science, each group has its own place. In the Zaanse Poelenburg, where the Spaghettiflat is located, you can see this reflected in the construction of the district: high-rise buildings on the edges, for guest workers, low-rise buildings in the middle, for the – Dutch – office staff of the factories.
But soon reality no longer conformed to the planners. Prosperity increased and some of the guest workers managed to escape the Spaghetti Flat. They sealed the hard work with an owner-occupied home in the middle of the district. Turkish Dutch in particular, they have massively placed an extra floor on top of their terraced house. And a single Italian, recognizable by a statue of Mary in front of the door.
And the Spaghetti Flat? The people that the planners once conceived in the middle of the district now live there. The secondary and highly educated, no longer working in the offices of the factories, but in education, care or the police. Mostly people with a social function, who were given priority by the municipality – and by Alvast – to live there. Because there is a shortage of that in the Randstad.
They now live in the same flat where once the people were placed who did the work that the Dutch did not want to do. Although the circumstances are different now. The flat is outdated, poorly insulated, and the residents could be evicted at any time. In some houses, a hole has been broken in the floor by the housing construction to see if there is no asbestos. A few live among the mosquitoes, because of standing water in the basement. And they are all happy that there is a house.
“I heard from a girl next door that it will take at least half a year before we have to leave,” says Roos (35), while she is making a cup of coffee barefoot in her apartment. “Just sit down.” It’s the middle of the day and she doesn’t have much time. “I have to go into the Zoom later.”
Roos – who because of her work does not want to put her last name in the newspaper – had also imagined this time differently. In May 2019, she quit her job in a homeless shelter and her home to go on a two-year trip around the world. She returned earlier because of the corona time and became homeless herself. She stayed with friends for a month, then in a studio in Amstelveen where she could hear the neighbour’s spoon fall, so noisy, that was impossible, and then again with friends.
Small booths at 1,200 euros
She cannot buy a house. And at Woonmatch, where she has also been registered for almost nine years, she cannot intervene. Roos registered on numerous websites for private rent and there is still quite a lot to be found. But those are all small boxes at 1,200 euros per month. She refuses to participate in it. “I’d rather be on the street.”
So now she lives in the Spaghetti Flat and that is “great, absolutely great!” She has a spacious three-room apartment with a view of the greenery. On her own! A shame too, she thinks, because why don’t we just move closer to each other in the Netherlands? Then there is at least room for everyone. We have become spoiled, she found out on her many travels.
“It’s okay to take a step back,” says Roos with her feet on the couch. After her return, she worked in the supermarket for a while, and that was okay too. She now has a job in the social sector again, at HBO level. But this means that her annual income will soon be too high to be eligible for the temporary rental of Alvast. Oh well, she’ll find something. She has become accustomed to adjusting her requirements. “And maybe I’ll pack my bags again. For a trip.”
Temporary is the norm, structural is unaffordable. That is how the new residents of the Spaghettiflat see their opportunities on the housing market. And it is also how Tobit Elling, who worked for Alvast for ten years and managed the project, saw the housing market change. In the past, it was mainly students who came to the temporary housing in vacant flats, shops, schools and offices. Now a significant part is starter with a job. “The middle segment,” says Elling. “Buying is impossible. But also renting, because almost nothing becomes available.”
Also at Alvast you don’t just have a house. The temporary vacancy manager does not own any real estate and is dependent on the supply. Property owners decide what will happen to their properties and Alvast looks for a suitable candidate. Registration is via the website. No viewings, because then the building will be empty for an unnecessarily long time. And sometimes, as in the Spaghetti Flat, the client has additional requirements: a maximum income requirement, police screening. No families, because the rent is temporary and although he does his best, the vacancy manager cannot guarantee a next home. “The need is also great among families, we know that,” says Elling. “But the rule is also there to protect themselves. We don’t want to put a family on the street.”
“I’ve been stalking them,” says 33-year-old Maries Vredeveld, who lives on the first floor of the Spaghetti Flat. “Signed up on the website, emailed, called three times in a row.” He is glad it worked, because otherwise he would still be subletting for 800 euros a month in a room of sixteen square meters in Osdorp, with three roommates in the other rooms. “Not exactly comfortable, especially not with working from home behind your laptop.”
Vredeveld is an account manager and lived in the east of the country until three years ago. There he had his own company in 3D printers. When it went bankrupt, he left his rented house behind and moved to the Randstad for employment opportunities. There he saw the problem in the Netherlands: where there are jobs, there are no houses, and vice versa. Vredeveld responded to forty or fifty private sector homes, “but I never got a response”. With his new job in sales, he earned too little for a private sector home. The only solution he saw: earn even more money, so that he has an even better chance of a private sector home. That is why he changed jobs on 1 December. “I’m lucky enough to have that chance.”
The Spaghetti Flat will be demolished next summer. This will result in a larger apartment complex with mainly owner-occupied homes and rental apartments in the more expensive segment. Everyone has to get out before then. And then?
Don’t look ahead
Sabban, the 42-year-old in his slippers in the hall, shrugs and spreads his hands. “I try not to look too far ahead. Enjoy while it lasts.” He knows that there is always something to be found in the sublet. You call someone once, and they know someone again, and that’s how you get a room. Sometimes they are friends, sometimes people with commercial intentions. Then you pay the main prize. “And you always have to convince. That you are a serious sublet person, that you don’t cause any problems.”
Sabban got to know dozens of people at his sublet addresses, “all in the same situation as me”. College students, workers, junkies, married people, everything. A few without residency status, but most were born in the Netherlands. And being close to each other sometimes causes arguments, even over “ridiculous things,” such as someone touching someone else’s shampoo. “There is so much frustration.”
That permanent uncertainty, that gnaws. Sabban wants children. But it hasn’t happened yet, because he always thought: first a permanent home. As a subtenant, he twice had to pack his things immediately because a bailiff with police was at the door. Turns out the landlord hadn’t paid the rent. Look, he says: you can always arrange work. And clothes too. But a house? Yes, temporarily. In sublet. But if you pay 70 percent of your income on housing, how do you get around the rest of your life? Sabban, leaning against the wall: “Like I’m sprinting, but everyone passes me.”
Only now, in the Spaghetti Flat, does he sleep well again. “I am really grateful for this opportunity,” says Sabban, who hopes that the flat will remain standing for the time being. Looking around: “I think it’s really all right. Yes right? He’s perfect man! Come on!”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 8 January 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 8, 2022
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