Students

Students on the Heijkens occupation

'You can't just leave buildings empty'

Squatting is illegal. But for a lot of people, it’s the only way to put a roof over your head, say the students who recently occupied the Heijkens building. ‘Conflict is unavoidable sometimes.’
By Koen Marée / Translation Sarah van Steenderen

It’s dark outside. Inside, the room is dimly lit by a few candles burning on a table. Two students are draped across lawn chairs, clearly exhausted. Upstairs somewhere, someone uses a noisy electric drill to screw boards over holes in the floor.  

This is the Heijkens building, occupied this afternoon by a group of Dutch and international students, active squatters, and other sympathisers. Their occupation is an act of desperation, they say, to raise awareness of the student housing crisis. They’ve just been told that the police will not be evicting them tonight. The feeling of relief in the building is palpable.

But four days later, everything has changed. After a turbulent night – a window is broken; the building is egged – the police and the anti-riot squad knock on the door at 7 in the morning. The building is evacuated and ten squatters are arrested. The occupation is over.

Squatting locations

This isn’t the first time students have occupied a building. In spite of the squatting ban that went into effect in 2010, people are still squatting in Groningen. The city is aware of five such locations, but squatters themselves say there are ten – including Viola, a former Jewish boarding school in the Violenstraat, which was occupied three years ago.  

What motivates the squatters? Róisín, a 27-year-old master student of sociology, and Katja, a German student in her third year of psychology, agree to meet at Viola on a Saturday afternoon to tell their story. Katja is a pseudonym; she prefers to remain anonymous because people have been threatening the Heijkens squatters. 

The Viola residents have an agreement with the building’s owner, says Róisín. ‘Any occupation starts off with some conflict, and I get that. It’s an unpleasant surprise to find out that a group of people have invaded your building. But people usually manage to reach an agreement.’

Any occupation starts off with conflict, but you usually manage to reach an agreement

Otherwise, the building is evacuated. The process can be lengthy and usually involves judge. Emergency evacuations like the one at the Heijkens building are rare. 

‘Have you heard the broken window theory?’ resident Jan joins into the discussion. ‘Sooner or later, someone will throw a brick through the window of a vacant building. Eventually, the building starts looking so bad that it starts to depreciate the values of surrounding real estate. Letting people live there benefits both the building and the neighbourhood.’

Vacancy

The new Squatting and Vacancy Act that went into effect on October 1 is meant to tackle both issues. ‘But in our view they’re only doing something against squatting’, says Róisín. She doesn’t understand why so many buildings in Groningen are left vacant when there are people in need of housing – or why living here is so expensive.

‘It’s not as bad as in Amsterdam, of course’, says Róisín. ‘But people can only really afford a room if their parents are rich, or if they’re willing to start accruing debt at only eighteen or nineteen years old. They’re starting life at a disadvantage, especially when they have trouble finding a job after graduation.’

Katja moved to Groningen from Osnabrück two years ago. In Germany, she paid 200 euros for a room; the cheapest she could find here cost her 350 euros. ‘The room I got was much smaller than the one I used to have. There were mice, and the pipes leaked.’

Emergency debate

Last week, the municipal council held an emergency debate about the occupation of the Heijkens building. The Groningen faction of the Social Party (SP) argued for a vacancy regulation to put pressure on homeowners who are playing the market. 

But alderman Roeland van der Schaaf said the vacancy rate in Groningen isn’t that bad. When a building does become vacant, he said, new plans are often made for it quickly. Take for instance the large black building that used to house Social Services, at the Eendrachtskade, which will soon be converted into student housing. New buildings are also going up in quick succession: Paddepoel has seen the construction of several student flats over the past few years.  

Róisín and Katja don’t think these solutions are enough, though, since housing isn’t the only problem. ‘If you want to organise an event of any kind, you can’t really do that without renting a space somewhere’, Róisín explains. 

Students, families, people who work sixty hours a week: I’ve met them all

Katja gives an example: ‘Every Sunday, volunteers from Edanz cook a meal for approximately a hundred people. They can’t stay there, but they haven’t been able to find a new location yet. They don’t have a budget, because the meals are free. That’s something that can’t be changed, because that would stop homeless people from using the service.’ For a group like this, she says, squatting would be a solution.

‘There will always be people who need a place but who fall through the cracks in the system’, Róisín says. ‘It can be anyone: students, families, PhDs, people on welfare, people who work sixty hours a week, handicapped people. I’ve met them all.’

Stand up for your convictions

But the Heijkens occupation was specifically for students. The squatters organised informational meetings in Viola, which attracted various internationals who were living in emergency accommodation at the time. Together, they formed a plan made it happen.

Katja was one of the ten squatters arrested when the building was evacuated. She knew the risks. ‘I don’t like conflict at all. But if you want to stand up for your convictions, conflict is unavoidable sometimes.’

We need affordable housing, not just fancy apartments

Unfortunately, the occupation didn’t end the way the squatters hoped. They didn’t see the sudden evacuation coming. On Wednesday night, they had decided to relinquish the building back to owner Henk Heijkens, but because the hour was so late they agreed to wait until the morning to let him know. Then the police showed up.

The squatters quickly put out a statement online to show that they had already planned to leave the property, hoping it would have some effect on the evacuation. It didn’t. For the first time in her life, Katja was arrested. ‘It was pretty stressful.’

In light of a potential court case, she’d rather not say any more about it. But she still supports the idea behind the occupation. ‘Empty property like that should be used, but responsibly. We need affordable housing, not just fancy apartments.’

Róisín nods: ‘Squatting is a great solution that can solve people’s housing needs all over the world. That’s not going to change.’

Squatting in Groningen

Groningen has several squatting locations. There are people living on the former water-meadows near the Sugar Factory, and the Betonbos (Concrete Forest) at the Eemskanaal has been an oasis in the city for the past fifteen years. These locations also serve a social function. Viola regularly organises games and movie nights, which they announce on Facebook. 

Bambara, located at the former Raab Karcher complex in the east of the city, is known for its concerts featuring alternative bands. The complex is also home to approximately thirty workshops.

Located at the Koningsweg is the Weggeefwereld, there is a store where everything is free. And if you have any unused clothes or books you’ve finished? Bring them in so they can restock the shelves.

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