Riots hit European cities as squatters protest housing shortage

A wave of violence spanwned by angry crowds seeking better housing has been sweeping northern Europe in recent weeks, forcing authorities to rethink their vision of the inner city and to acknowledge the seriousness of Europe's growing housing crisis.

Bloody clashes between police and squatters occupying abandoned buildings have occurred throughout Europe, with the gravest incidents hitting the wealthy countries: West Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The squatting phenomenon began in the mid-1970s when it was mainly a peaceful means of focusing attention on a social problem. Squatters would set up housekeeping in empty quarters -- sometimes for months, and sometimes signing a lease in the end.

Then, about a year ago, things took a turn for the violent, and few observers believe there can be any turning back.

In April 1980 -- in what is seen as a watershed in the movement -- thousands of Dutch riot police equipped with tear gas and tanks were needed to keep stone-throwing mobs from the investiture ceremonies for Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam.

Now squatter-led, rock-tossing rampages in downtown shopping districts have become an almost nightly occurrence in Europe. Hardest hit have been Zurich, Amsterdam, West Berlin, and Nuremberg.

The causes of what has become a well-organized movement (squatters in the Netherlands have their own pirate radio station) are many, and they obviously vary in specifics from city to city.

But the thrust of the action has been uniform and direct -- against a planning policy that has permitted inner cities to decay, prompting wealthier residents to flee to the suburbs and leaving behind the poorer citizens who cannot afford to move out.

Three aggressive entrepreneurs have compounded the problem by convincing city authorities to demolish some old buildings, including apartment complexes, to make way for office buildings, shopping centers, and parking lots. Record high unemployment has added people with time (and no money) to the mix.

Officially, a housing shortage exists throughout Europe. Unofficially, it is much worse than most governments care to admit.

It is critical in the Netherlands, the Western world's most densely populated country. The Housing Ministry puts the shortage at 109,000 dwellings. In Amsterdam alone (population 738,000), 53,000 people are said to be in need of acceptable accommodation. Meanwhile, as the government wrings its hands, legislation against squatting is working its way through the Dutch parliament.

In West Germany, where the number made homeless by unemployment and related social problems is increasing every year, waiting lists for emergency housing are bulging. In Stuttgart, where squatting banners read, "It's better to squat than to freeze and rot," there are 4,500 names on the list.

Even in Britain, which so far has been spared widespread squatting violence, fears are mounting that the country could become "the slum of Europe." Public and private-sector housing starts last year hit their lowest levels in the postwar period. The seeds are being sown for a major housing crisis this decade , some analysts argue.

Few solutions appear imminent. There is talk in European capitals of inner-city rejuvenation projects. But they seem to be more public-relations exercises than substantive. Belt-tightening governments simply lack cash.

"It may seem farfetched now," says an official at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has said that the European housing crisis is likely to continue and spread despite stagnating and declining growth rates in urban populations, "but the squatter movement could become the 1980s equivalent of the violent leftist street demonstrations that took place in the late 1960s.

"Even the politicians are becoming concerned."

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