During my travels many of you asked about the place where I used to live in the Netherlands so I decided to write a blogpost about my home community. For three and a half years I lived in Delft, close to Rotterdam, in the living association ‘De Oude Nieuwelaan’. Commonly called the Nieuwelaan, this is a space for shared and affordable living for around 30 people in the city centre. The community started as a squat in the eighties, when the municipality had left several historical row houses abandoned and was planning to demolish them. Over time, the squatters formed a legal living association, the houses were renovated and nowadays the Nieuwelaan is a buzzing community of youngsters living divided over four households while sharing the garden and some communal spaces. Many activities like a diner table and concerts are organized by the inhabitants throughout the year. The Nieuwelaan was an amazing home for me where I shared space with like-minded, yet diverse people. There is a pride in our history of managing to establish a collectively owned living association in the beautiful, old buildings, and to this day the inhabitants all contribute to making the Nieuwelaan a warm place for living together.
At the Nieuwelaan we identified as a place for shared living and not so much as a community, although it can actually be seen as one. Living there you share many facilities and are, as member of the association, co-owner of the buildings, collectively managing and maintaining this. The Nieuwelaan is one big community, but the six row houses were split into four households in which the inhabitants share a kitchen and bathroom facilities. This makes living there a bit less overwhelming than some think when I say I had thirty roommates! The four households vary in size, two are bigger with about ten roommates, and two smaller with five roommates. The rooms are of sizes between 15 and 30 m2, and some inhabitants actually rent two rooms. In each of the households the current inhabitants determine their lifestyles together. Some houses have more communal diners than others, some are vegetarian, some hang out more together in the evenings.
The overall community is tight, despite the division into four households. There is one big shared kitchen meant for the whole community and used for the weekly diner table, meetings and gatherings. There is also a so-called ‘beamer room’ for watching movies and this is where the communal tools are stored. What really enables interaction between all inhabitants is the big garden that stretches behind all six row houses and connects them. Especially in summer this is a nice space where we would naturally meet each other and hang-out. The garden also makes it easy to go from one house to the other without going out onto the street. One of my former roommates once made the analysis that what really helps to have a lot of interaction between the four houses and have the feeling of being one big community, are the sightlines between the kitchens. Because all kitchens were completely renovated and attached to the back of the row houses, sticking out into the gardens, one can easily look from one kitchen into the other and see what community members in the other households are up to. This makes the threshold very low to just pop over to the other kitchens and hang out with roommates there, join them for food or go somewhere together.
Throughout the year a lot of fun, communal activities are organized at the Nieuwelaan. Livingroom- and garden concerts are organized about four times per year. At these events two acts are invited to make music and vegetarian diner is provided in between, with a bonfire with drinks afterwards. Besides the concerts, there is a big annual party with live music, DJs and about 200 guests roaming the garden and communal spaces throughout the night. Together we also often spontaneously watched movies together, held diners and brunches and went to parties and events together. There are also groups of roommates who practice yoga and meditation together, as well as an outdoor bootcamp group. The wide variety of occupations of the inhabitants makes that people are always inviting each other to different types of events and activities.
Squatting for shared, affordable housing
The row houses were originally squatted because it was seen as a waste to have good housing spaces abandoned in a town where many were looking for affordable housing. Also, it was seen as a waste to demolish the beautiful row houses build in 1912. Like some other squats in the Netherlands, the inhabitants at the Nieuwelaan soon decided that they wanted to establish a permanent shared living spaces using these buildings. For this reason they started an association and saved up money to be able to formally and legally start a living association. The municipality of Delft still rather wanted to demolish the buildings, as they were doing with the whole neighbourhood, to replace them with higher, modern apartment buildings. The squatters managed to convince the municipality with their plans for the living association in the end, and got a collective mortgage at the green bank in the Netherlands (Triodos). In 2004 the buildings were purchased and renovations were started to turn the six run-down row houses into four households.
Running the association
To this day, the living association is full owner of the buildings and garden. Once you move into the community, you become a member of the association and with that a part owner of the property. The collective mortgage is slowly paid-off through monthly contributions (similar to rent) by the inhabitants. Decisions are made by the general assembly (GA), which is held about four times a year, with a majority vote. The association is run by a board of inhabitants, which is installed by the GA. The maintenance and renovations of the buildings are managed by the inhabitants, through workgroups installed by the GA. The monthly contribution is also determined by the GA and is made up of what is needed to pay off the mortgage and some savings for renovations. This makes living at the Nieuwelaan very affordable, and costs are transparent. A couple of years back the GA decided to install solar panels on the roof to provide a part of our electricity consumption with renewable energy. For this an extra loan was taken which is also paid off through the monthly contributions. Each of the four households also have their own bank account and hold irregular meetings for small decisions just concerning their households. Each households also has their own monthly bill for gas, water and electricity consumption, as well as communal purchases such as toilet paper, coffee, olive oil, etcetera.
Quite unique for a living association in the Netherlands, the founders decided that by being part owner of the buildings, the inhabitants should be able to get something back from this investment over time. Similar to how buying a private house as a family serves as an investment. One big moment that is coming up in the future is when the mortgage has been paid-off. It was agreed that it would not be fair that inhabitants in the future would have to pay much less rent once the mortgage was paid-off. The idea therefor arose to start paying back inhabitants some percentage of money, depending on their time spend at the Nieuwelaan and the amount of square metres rented, using the monthly contribution that will still be paid by current residents. Lately some ideas arose whether it would not also be possible to use the capital of the association to help start other living associations that have a difficulty receiving a mortgage from a regular bank. No decision has been made about this yet.
Contributing to the community work
The squatters deliberately wanted to do most renovations and maintenance work themselves, partly to save money, but mostly because it provides a good learning opportunity for youngsters wanting to learn about construction work. To this day, all members are invited and stimulated to take on renovation works they have little experience with to learn and share skills. To have an oversight of the efforts put into the collective buildings by inhabitants, a system was installed registering community hours. All inhabitants have to contribute a certain amount of hours to the community every month. To this day this system is in place, although there is much less renovation and maintenance work to be done nowadays. Now, not just hours for construction work can be written, but also hours for organizing the diner table, the concerts, the parties and hours for meetings in the various committees and the board are seen as community hours. The amount of hours needed to be invested by the inhabitants has gone down over time from about eight hours per week, to now four hours per month. An online system is in place where you have to fill out how much hours you have spent on what tasks. Inhabitants get fined for when they have not contributed enough hours. There are many different committees installed by the GA that plan and execute different aspect of the community work. Examples of the committees are the garden, concert, diner table and maintenance committees.
Choosing new community members
At the Nieuwelaan there is also an extensive process in place for choosing new community members. This was done with the knowledge and experience that every individual has a big influence on the community vibe. Also, because the inhabitants become co-owners of the building, you want to make sure that you can trust the intentions of new members. When a room becomes available there is a four month period in which a new community member is chosen. Candidates are all separately invited for two diners in the household that has a free room, to get to know each other. Once chosen, the new candidate is introduced to the entire community and if they agree, the candidate becomes a test-member of the association for three months. During this time it is still possible for both parties to end the arrangement and choose a different candidate. Most people easily make it through this period though, so then they become a full member. Once a full member, you have to notify the community four months in advance when you want to leave to give them time for the process off finding a suitable replacement and the association doesn’t suffer from empty rooms. To make sure we stay a young and mixed group of individuals, some precautions are taken when deciding on new members. We also always ask whether they have experience with shared living and try to look for people with different interests and occupations. On top of this, the community has the rule that children are not allowed, since the Nieuwelaan is not a place for starting a family.
I enjoyed living at the Nieuwelaan for many reasons. For example the beautiful buildings, the flourishing garden and the idealistic history of the community, but mostly because of the nice mixture of people. The wonderful things about shared living have for me always been the opportunity to always have conversations, to not have to plan fun activities in advance, to have shared diners and take turns cooking, to inspire each other, to take each other along for new activities and events, to host concerts, diners and parties and to be surrounded also by some types of people who you might not have in your friend group, yet that can give you valuable insights on life. Also, living together with people can really stimulate personal growth: learning to share, listen, collaborate and resolve conflict. As one roommate would often remind us of: any frustration you feel for someone else, actually teaches you something about yourself. On top of this, collectively owning a building rather than renting from a housing company or the state, can create more attachment to the place and make people more motivated to make it a nice home. It offers experience with managing and maintaining houses and it can ensure transparent and low housing prices.
The Nieuwelaan is a unique place, where the dreams of people envisioning affordable and shared living became a reality. Now, the community vibe is slowly changing and evolving over time. One might notice that since the history of squatting becomes longer ago, the inhabitants tend to have less association with this idealistic movement, and are mostly just interested in shared living rather than being activists or associating with the left movement themselves. This is a characteristic of many community projects I come across; the people it attracts and thereby the vibe and culture of living together changes over time with different phases of a project. I have lived in shared settings all my life, and my time at the Nieuwelaan further confirmed my wish to keep living in community and exploring its potential.
Check out the website (in Dutch only): http://nieuwelaan.nl/
Or drop by one of our living room concerts: https://m.facebook.com/Nieuwelaan/