‘People are taking their city back’

Groningen is the first city in the country to introduce a new renters permit protecting tenants against malicious landlords. UKrant posed five questions to RUG professor Michel Vols, on whose research the new permit is based.
By Thereza Langeler / Photo Edwin van de Graaf / translation by Sarah van Steenderen
Why hasn’t the city come up with strict measures against these landlords before?

‘Your guess is as good as mine. In 2015, I asked fifty municipalities whether they had any renters that were circumventing the law in order to make as much money as possible. Groningen was the only city that said they were fine. But I studied here, and I live here, and I knew that couldn’t be right.

Then the issue started gaining public momentum: the Social Party suddenly had the topic on its agenda, BNN’s Tim Hofman had a run-in with landlord Wim Bulten, and Sikkom confronted Joshua Camera, with the agency SpotIn. Suddenly the entire municipal council agreed that something had to happen. So I provided the municipality with advice, such as what to look out for and what they should and shouldn’t do.’

And what should they do?

‘The main thing is to approach landlords as though they were business owners. They must stick to the rules or they won’t be allowed to continue running their company. Take pub owners, for example. They have to ensure that the noise level stays down. And anyone who runs a prostitution business can’t be involved in human trafficking.

But there aren’t any regulations for landlords. Anyone with a building and a conversion permit (ed.: which converts the building into a unit suitable for renting) was allowed to rent to students. But the reality is that these landlords are business owners just like pub owners and pimps.

And so I advised the municipality to look at the kinds of permits in place for the hospitality and prostitution industries and to design a new renters permit on the basis of that. That way, they have something to revoke when landlords misbehave. It basically means they have to stick to the law and not do anything illegal.’

Now that the law is here, do you think it will help?

‘We have to keep a close eye on the consequences, but I think it’s a great law. I think it’s especially great that the law also applies to existing situations: all landlords have to apply for the permit, and not just new ones. It’s also a good thing that initially, everyone is automatically given a permit, and that they are only in danger of losing it when they misbehave.’

Do you foresee any negative consequences from the new system? Do people renting from private landlords become homeless when their landlord loses their permit?

‘Of course not. The rental contract will continue to apply, and so the landlord is responsible for providing his tenants with a different place to live. The city has said that it’s not their intention for tenants to suffer the negative consequences of the rule, so I’m confident they won’t be.

I also expect the permit to mainly have a preventative effect. And it’s not like we have to go nuclear on them at the first sign of misconduct. The municipality can just penalise them at first. They just need some time to figure out how to enforce the new law, since it’s all so experimental at this point.’

So how does professor of public order law feel about this kind of experiment?

‘I’m fascinated. And I think it’s important for me, an academic, to do something for my city, to have an impact. Of course it’s much easier for me to have an impact than it is for say, a physicist. But still.

What’s happening here is that the general public taking back their city from those few big players who control everything. The question is: will it work? And if it works in Groningen, will it work in other cities as well? We’ll have to wait and see.’



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