Patrick Janssen is “attached to Amsterdam”. The entrepreneur from the Betuwe often visits the capital: for business, for the bars and restaurants, and also because he is on the board of the Koninklijke Groote Industrial Club, a society with a society on Dam Square. Amsterdam, says Janssen, is ‘number one’ for him and his family. More beautiful than London, more vibrant than Milan, more exciting than Valencia – where their sailing yacht is.
So when Janssen sold his theme park in ‘obstacle courses’ two years ago, he quickly knew where he wanted to invest part of his millions: real estate in Amsterdam. He bought three apartments in a new complex to be built in Oostenburg, on the eastern edge of the center. Two studios with loft, one maisonette – both on the ground floor. Janssen had lost “about one and a half million euros”. It has turned out to be a fantastic investment, he says – already now. “I did some calculations recently. The value of my apartments has increased by 26 percent. You can’t work against that.”
Janssen and his family do not move to Amsterdam. They continue to live in Beusichem, the villa village next to Culemborg, where they are enjoying themselves. The apartment in Amsterdam becomes a pied-à-terre, a second home. He and his wife will use it as a training location for the weight loss counseling company they started. And to spend the night themselves when they are in Amsterdam. “I’m at the Groote Industrieele Club several times a week. Then I park my car here and just go there on my bike. Can I drink a glass of wine and I don’t have to go all the way back home in the evening.”
VvE meeting in English
His apartments are really ‘next level’, says Janssen, a particularly fit-looking fifty-year-old, over a cup of tea in one of his newly completed studios. The eight-storey complex on the water is beautifully finished, innovative and sustainable. Now Oostenburg is still one big construction site, but “if you look through it”, he says, you can see how beautiful and vibrant it will become. “You can still feel the rugged, industrial character of the old Oostenburg.”
Tough and industrial – that is Oostenburg absolutely. A hidden part of the city center, sandwiched between the railway slope, the Czaar Peterbuurt and the other two Eastern Islands, Kattenburg and Wittenburg. Once the shipyards of the Dutch East India Company were located here, later the machine factories of Stork and Werkspoor were built. Since the industry left the island in the 1990s, Oostenburg has been abandoned. But after decades of futile planning, the last piece of wasteland in the city center is being built up at a rapid pace. Once all thirteen lots have been built, Oostenburg will provide space for approximately 1,800 new homes, a hotel and fourteen catering establishments. The former Van Gendthallen will house businesses, studios and homes.
The new construction in Oostenburg largely consists of owner-occupied houses and rental apartments from the expensive or very expensive segment. Here you can easily pay more than ten thousand euros per square meter for an owner-occupied home – not unusual in the metropolitan housing market. ‘Ordinary’ Amsterdammers don’t stand a chance here. The future residents of Oostenburg are people with a good job, their own company or wealthy family. And expats, lots and lots of expats.
At first sight, the population of De Keizer, the building complex where Janssen has bought apartments, completely meets this profile. The 44 four-room apartments are mainly in their thirties and forties without children, so an afternoon teaches us to ring the bell. On the fifth floor, two different doors are opened by a student whose wealthy parents are the homeowners. The apartment is mainly “an investment”, says one of the two, who does not want his name in the newspaper. His parents, who live near Zwolle, “don’t really have a plan for it yet.”
“You have to earn a lot to be able to live here,” agrees Janssen, who knows almost everyone in the building as chairman of the owners’ association. The buyers come from all over the world, he says: Spain, Pakistan, United Kingdom, United States. He estimates that “at least 60 percent” of the residents come from abroad. “We hold the general members’ meeting of the VvE in English.”
End of the world
So it seems that Oostenburg is becoming an enclave for the rich. For a rental property in the free sector (the largest part of the supply) at least 1,500 euros per month must be paid here – and these are the smallest apartments. The ‘mid-market rent’ category (maximum EUR 1,041) covers only 6 percent of the floor area of Oostenburg.
The share of social rental housing in the new Oostenburg is 20 percent – well below the Amsterdam average of 50 percent. Some of these homes are especially intended for young people or the elderly – in one complex, teachers, care workers and police officers are given priority. But those homes are no bigger than forty square meters. Amsterdammers with a family and a modest grant have nowhere to go here.
That is remarkable – especially if you look at the history of Oostenburg. On the southern part of the island, the city’s very first decent, affordable rental housing was built in 1853 by a company that had been set up especially for this purpose: the Vereeniging for the benefit of the Working Class in Amsterdam (VAK). Another complex, with beautiful workers’ houses from 1874, still stands. It was in Oostenburg that Amsterdam’s long tradition of social housing was born – a tradition that brought the city international fame in the twentieth century.
How is it possible that hardly any houses are being built here for the ‘ordinary’ Amsterdammer? Sybrand Hekking also wonders. He has lived on the outskirts of Oostenburg for over forty years, in a former military bakery. He started out as a squatter, at a time when nobody wanted to live here. “The heroin hookers walked through the street,” he says in his house with a view of the construction cranes of Oostenburg-Noord. “The nickname of our street was ‘the turd path’.” In the sheds next to Hekking there was a clothing warehouse and an army firing range and later a factory for Chinese counterfeit paintings. “It felt like the end of the world here.”
In the beginning, residents of Oostenburg, Wittenburg and Kattenburg were allowed to participate in discussions about the plans for Oostenburg, Hekking says. Later, according to him, the municipality and the project developers were less open to their advice and ideas. “Our aim has always been: a mix of living and working. And affordable housing.”
That mixed function of living and working is coming. But the other ambition, affordable housing, has been lost somewhere. Anyone who hears Hekking talk about the development of the new Oostenburg will understand why. All the factors that have contributed to the housing crisis over the past ten or fifteen years are discussed: malaise in the construction sector, liberal housing policy from The Hague and a municipality that has little choice.
House for artists
From 1998, the largest part of Oostenburg-North was in the hands of Heijmans, a large project developer. He got into trouble and sold the site in 2008 to the Stadgenoot housing association. Then came the credit crisis, followed by an almost complete standstill in construction. By the time Stadgenoot had completed the initial plans for Oostenburg, the housing associations had fallen out of favor due to scandals and financial mismanagement. The Rutte II cabinet ‘punished’ the corporations by severely curtailing their freedom of movement and financial space.
Stadgenoot had no choice but to sell most of the lots to project developers and investors. That happened from 2016, at a rapid pace. Spekkoper was Vorm, a company from Papendrecht that is rapidly acquiring a strong position in the Amsterdam housing market. It is unknown how much Vorm paid Stadgenoot for the plots. The fact that it is probably a lot of money can be deduced from another transaction: in 2018 the company, together with the Groningen project developer Steenwell, paid 64 million euros for the 36,500 square meters of building land on Oostenburg that was in the hands of the Central Government Real Estate Agency. The ideal way for project developers to recoup those investments: building expensive owner-occupied and rental apartments.
And the municipality? He thought it was fine. The council had approved the zoning plan for Oostenburg in 2016, glad that after all these years of standstill, considerable construction was finally going to start. That so few affordable homes were built was no problem: the percentage of social rent in the surrounding neighborhoods is traditionally high, the municipality reasoned.
Sybrand Hekking does not want to call the new Oostenburg a defeat for the neighbourhood. The residents did get a few things done, he says, such as a house for artists with intensive care needs. A group of active local residents has set up a foundation that strives for ‘connection’ between the residents of Oostenburg-South and the newcomers to Oostenburg-North.
Furthermore, Hekking is left untouched. The neighborhood that is being built thirty meters from his house, he says, is the logical consequence of decades of liberal government policy: “Apparently, housing is no longer a right. It has become an investment.”
‘The VOC feeling’
In the building on the VOC quay, Patrick Janssen has taken the elevator to the communal roof terrace. The view is phenomenal: the city center, the IJ, in the distance the Zuidas. Yes, says Janssen, he realizes that “the housing market is being a bit screwed up by people like me”. But as an entrepreneur he simply has ‘that VOC feeling’. “You see the house price charts going up and you want something with your money.”
In Amsterdam you are recently no longer allowed to own houses that you do not live in yourself: since this year there is a so-called ‘self-residential obligation’ for houses under 512.00 euros. Janssen escapes the risk: he bought his real estate ‘just in time’. So he is going to rent out at least one of his three apartments to expats (“an interesting market”) and the second may be for his children – should they go to study in Amsterdam. He can use the third, the pied-à-terre, as he sees fit: there is no rule in Amsterdam that owners must live in their house permanently.
He knows the stories about ordinary Amsterdammers who can no longer stay in their own city. But does that make him antisocial? “I am also a Dutchman. I have just as much right to live in Amsterdam.” Amsterdam, says Janssen, is ‘increasingly a kind of Manhattan’: highly sought after and extremely expensive. “If you can’t afford that, that sucks, but then you have to look for something else. Just like a nice car that doesn’t fit in your budget.” There is “a lot of beautiful things in the Netherlands”, he says. “And people who leave also give others a chance. Like me.”
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