Residents of Rotterdam will vote at the end of November in a referendum on the demolition of twenty thousand low-cost homes. According to urban geographer Brian Doucet this is a signal saying the poor are not welcome in the city.

Brian Doucet Brian Doucet is an urban geographer who conducts research on topics such as urban development, gentrification and inequality. He obtained his doctorate with his thesis on comparative research into the effects of urban redevelopment projects in Rotterdam and Glasgow. He has carried out research in various cities including Toronto and Detroit, and he is affiliated with Erasmus University College. Doucet is from Canada and he has been working in the Netherlands for the past twelve years. Doucet lives in The Hague.

Residents of Rotterdam can vote on 30 November. What’s the issue at hand?

“The municipality has prepared a residential vision for the city including plans for the coming years. Residents’ organisations have requested a referendum regarding this proposed vision. For these organisations, the greatest stumbling block is the downsizing of the amount of subsidised social housing available. Rotterdam wants to attract more middle class and high income residents to the city. To do this, twenty thousand low-income housing units will be demolished or sold.”

Is twenty thousand a lot?

“It’s a not insignificant percentage in a city where you sometimes have to wait for eight years for a council house in the subsidised rental sector. Add to that the thirty thousand homes demolished in so-called deprived districts over the past ten years. These homes have been replaced with more expensive rental homes or owner-occupied homes. And perhaps even more important: demolition implies that there are too many poor people in the city and they have to make way for a more highly educated middle class. You can see this gentrification process in cities all over the world. It’s often explained away as a natural process, but it’s the result of deliberate policy. One example is the fixer-upper homes where ‘pioneers’ are invited to come in and ‘improve’ a neighbourhood.”

What problems does the Municipal Executive intend to resolve with this plan?

“It’s about two related issues. There is high unemployment, coupled with poverty and high crime rates in Rotterdam. In some of the neighbourhoods in Zuid the majority of the population is part of the poorest forty percent of the Netherlands. That’s a serious problem. The second issue is more about perception. Rotterdam has attracted a great deal of positive interest over the past five years and has convinced itself it is a dynamic post-industrial city that runs on tourism, services and the creative industries. The current type of resident doesn’t fit in that perception of the city.”

I actually think it’s a good thing that more highly educated people are coming to live in Rotterdam. Even if it means more coffee bars and carrier bikes that some people loathe

”I can see why you would. All these developments focus on people like us. Take a look at the Nieuwe Binnenweg, a textbook example of gentrification in Rotterdam. The entertainment options, cafés, restaurants and shops are slowly making their way to Delfshaven. But someone who has to live off an income of 1200 euro has absolutely no need of a business where you can buy a four-euro cup of coffee. And for these new businesses to establish themselves, many of the places where the original residents did their shopping have to disappear.”

But then we’re talking about call shops and kebab shops. That’s not such a bad thing is it?

“That’s exactly the kind of attitude reflected in the policy. Policy-makers are given a choice: chic cafés or call shops. Gentrification or deterioration. But that choice is based on a false contrast. There are different ways of developing a city. If you really believe in the idea of mixed neighbourhoods, why is it always facilities for the poor that are displaced for the preferences of the upper class? Why is the working class not admitted in districts like Kralingen or Blijdorp? Research shows that what are referred to as the ‘problem districts’ are where people actually form tightknit local communities. There, people have their family, school, friends, shops and facilities. You can’t just come in and disrupt that. You don’t often hear anyone speaking about this because this group – as opposed to the articulate and empowered middle class – doesn’t possess the social, economic and political capital to resist.”

Is there an ideal mix of highly educated and less educated people, wealthy and poor?

“No. And that’s why instead of thinking about the right percentages of highly educated and less educated, we need to ask ourselves why poverty is so prevalent in this city. And how we can reduce it. The old working class neighbourhoods in Zuid in the fifties weren’t rich, but almost everyone was employed – the men in any case. But automation of work in the port has resulted in job losses. In this sense, Rotterdam is comparable to cities such as Glasgow, Detroit, Charleroi and Dortmund. Construction of more expensive homes can change a neighbourhood within a few years, but it’s not a solution for the existing poverty, unemployment and inequality. You only shift the problem elsewhere and this issue needs to be dealt with using a nationwide approach.”

One ambition is to attract more capital to the city. Doesn’t that mean that everyone reaps the benefits, including poor people?

“There’s not much evidence of this. I’m very critical about the concept of trickledown economics: the idea that if the Markthal attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists, this will generate numerous jobs for cleaners, bartenders and cashiers. Look at Eye, the new film museum that a few years ago was meant to be a catalyst for the development of the Amsterdam-Noord district (comparable to Rotterdam-Zuid, ed.). Currently, most people working there – including the serving and cleaning staff – come from affluent areas of the city. I’m against these types of investments claiming to be the solution to poverty and unemployment.”

Some claim that Rotterdam is following in Amsterdam’s footsteps. In ten years’ time will the city-centre only be for the wealthy?

“Not right away. But the same kind of gentrification process where poverty is pushed out of the city will also take place here. In the nineties in Amsterdam you only had to wait two years for a council house in the subsidised rental sector. Now it’s more than ten years. That didn’t happen out of the blue. It’s the direct result of the fact that in Amsterdam they also believed there was too much subsidised council housing.”

According to the Rotterdam-based landscape architect Adriaan Geuze, there’s ample space in the city for new homes. Is this a way of getting well-educated people to the city without scrapping homes in the subsidised rental sector?

“Of course. There’s enough space in the former city port area, or, if it absolutely has to be in the city-centre, high-rise construction. There’s nothing wrong with attracting new, affluent residents, as long it doesn’t displace the current residents.”

Is there a city that has dealt effectively with these kinds of issues?

“Not a city as such, but there are various initiatives we can learn from. Rental prices are under pressure in major French cities such as Paris, Lyon and Montpellier due to new regulations and residents have the option of comparing rates. Similar initiatives in Berlin prevent landlords from setting rental prices at more than ten percent above the average rent in their neighbourhood. These initiatives deal with more than just housing. In Glasgow they’ve implemented a living wage: it stipulates anyone employed by the municipality or one of its contractors must receive a wage that allows them to live comfortably. Many American cities are considering this as well.”

Can you give a voting recommendation for this referendum?

“This is about who the city belongs to. Or in the words of David Harvey, one of the founders of social geography: who should decide what happens to the city. If you want the city to be a place that offers opportunity and remains accessible for all, then vote ‘no’”.