Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is offering up to $26,000 to store owners to convert empty rooms into homes.
Starved for living space amid a growing population, Amsterdam has a long tradition of creating homes in less obvious places. Some warehouses along its canals were converted to homes as far back as the 19th century, while after the war it populated its canals with mock “houseboats” actually built on concrete moorings. Since the millennium, the city has gone as far as building artificial islands for new homes (and still more are on the way). Now the city has turned its sights on an untapped urban space: the rooms above and behind stores.
Starting in February, Amsterdam will offer a grant of up to €25,000 (around $26,600) to store owners who want to convert unused space on their premises into homes. It’s not only landlords that can apply for the fund: With permission from the landlord, store tenants can also apply for the funds, though their rent would likely be increased to account for their new source of income. This could unlock a potentially large area of living space for the city. (Exactly how much room is still to be determined, with a report detailing the location and potential number of unused retail spaces due sometime around the end of February.) In the meantime, last year’s pilot version of the project in the downtown Amsterdam Centrum borough brought 850 more apartments onto the market, many of them created on the second floor above stores on the busy shopping streets at Nieuwendijk and Damrak.
In older European cities, living above a store is far from uncommon. Until the concept of strict zoning became dominant in the Netherlands in the 1940s, many Amsterdam tenement houses for lower middle- and working-class residents were built above stores, rising yard-less directly abutting the sidewalk. If you look closely along a parade of stores in Amsterdam today, you’ll notice that the shop fronts are often interspersed with many private doorways, leaving to staircases or narrow passages toward the back of the building. Provided they are not on extremely busy roads, the upper floors of such buildings have often remained residential, but with a buffer floor between homes and store space reserved by the owners of the store in question.
Such spaces aren’t hard to find, but barriers to converting storage space to living space can be difficult to overcome. Often the spaces are left unused because store owners are worried about noise and nuisance complaints. When wealthier residents purchase such homes, it’s not uncommon for them to indulge in a form of backdated nimbyism, fighting to reduce noise nuisance even though these issues existed in the area while they were making the decision to buy.
Renters and buyers can be wary of these housing units for much the same reasons. It’s not much fun trying to sleep above, say, a place offering all night take-out food to drunk people, while many daytime-only stores frequently unload stock during the early hours, their rattling trolleys making it easy to wake up the neighbors. When it comes to buying such properties, lenders can also be reluctant to agree to loans. In the U.K., buying a home like this requires a more thorough inspection, and success is not guaranteed at the end of the process.
In Amsterdam, there’s another specific issue. In order to maximise space in stores, many buildings have over the past 50 or so years removed doors and staircases that lead directly from the streetfront to the floor above. It’s not really feasible to have residents accessing their home by traipsing through a store. One of the reasons the potential subsidy is so generous is that in some cases actual construction is necessary to make the upper floor spaces accessible once more.
But just because some businesses make unsuitable housemates doesn’t mean that all are. Indeed, some businesses actually profit by having new customers right on their doorsteps, and living above a store can often be perfectly pleasant, even handy.
Hopefully, by swallowing the forward costs of making these unused spaces comfortable to love in, Amsterdam’s new bursary will encourage more commercial landlords to try conversion. If we want to make sure that city streets aren’t lively and well-frequented solely during business hours, this is the sort of cohabitation we need to see.