Student renters bullied
Landlords from hell
Research by the Groninger Studentenbond and SP youth organisation Rood reveals that many Groningen landlords are crooks. ‘People are being systematically screwed over’, Sjoerd Kalisvaart with the student union says. ‘They’re charged too much rent, have to pay bogus service costs, properties are badly maintained, and repairs are not being done.’
GSb and Rood received many complaints of landlords or handymen entering houses without permission or changing locks without warning. There were several bizarre cases as well. ‘One landlord rented a room in the house out to a junkie’, says Kalisvaart. ‘Another set a radio to receive only white noise, and then locked it in an empty room.’
These acts of aggression didn’t come out of nowhere. The bullying usually followed renter complaints about high rent or the need for repairs. Instead of addressing the issues, the landlords decided to get rid of their tenants.
Lucked into it
This is exactly how it happened for a group of friends in 2014. They all rented rooms in the same house. ‘We lucked into that’, says one of them, a 22-year-old student. He and his friends prefer to stay anonymous. They are currently in a legal battle with their old landlord; their ‘luck’ at the house didn’t last.
It didn’t take long for the friends to discover their rent was way too high. They based their findings on a points system used by rental committees to determine the maximum reasonable rent for any given property. The committee assigns points based on surface area and the number of rooms. ’The rent was almost twice as high as was permitted’, the student says. ‘There were also several things at the house that needed fixing.’
The friends went to the rental committee, which confirmed their assessment and lowered the rental price from 350 euros to 150 euro per person per month. The students were also awarded a 40 percent discount because the dwelling was in disrepair. ‘Windows didn’t close properly, and the house hadn’t been properly kept up.’
Then their problems really began. There were two break-ins at the house, back to back. Oddly, nothing was actually broken. ‘We suspect it might have had something to do with the lower rent.’
During that time the real estate agent confronted one of the housemates in the street, threatened him, and called him names. ‘He said we shouldn’t be surprised to find a couple of Poles with bats at our door.’
Soon after, the friends got a new landlord. This one showed up on their doorstep with three ‘handymen’ in tow. ‘He came over to tell us that if we didn’t honour the old contract and the old rent, those three would come by every month to collect the difference in cash.’
Apparently, outrageous behaviour is normal in the world of shady landlords. According to student union president Kalisvaart, these landlords use these ‘very cunning methods’ systematically. ‘They have whole plans on how to mess with their tenants’, he wrote in an op-ed last year. ‘They’ve created this situation where tenants who complain are made to feel the repercussions of that’, he says. ‘That’s what the culture has become.’
Landlords have been badly behaved for years, and the city has never done anything to stop it. Professor of public order Michiel Vols is an expert in shady landlords, and has been advising the city on rent legislation. ‘Groningen has a lot of social housing, but not nearly enough to give every student a room. The city can’t just make social housing magically appear. They are dependent on private landlords.’ So, the city works in ‘collaboration mode’ with property owners.
On top of that, the executive board of the municipality does not have sufficient authority to intervene when landlords go bad. A normal house can become designated student housing with a simple conversion permit, but abuses of the permit don’t have consequences. The permit cannot be revoked.
‘In the city council, only the SP has continued to address the issue. A year ago, the city finally acquiesced’, Vols says. ‘Everything started happening really fast because Sikkom was on the case, and because of the fight between Tim Hofman and a landlord. That is when it gained momentum.’ Vols is referring to an episode of Hofman’s YouTube series, Boos, in which Hofman confronts the Groningen landlord Wim Bulten.
Finally, there might be a solution. PvdA alderman Roeland van der Schaaf, who is responsible for housing policy, says he will soon be able circumvent national legislation that protects crooked landlords. He is aiming for an entirely new system of permits. ‘Everyone who is currently letting out rooms or who will be doing so will need this new ‘room letting permit’, the board writes in a proposal to the city council. People applying for this permit will be subjected to new conditions, and if they don’t abide by the permit’s rules, they will lose it.
Van der Schaaf disagrees with complaints that the city waited too long to get involved. ‘We have been working on this for a long time. The SP was on the board for eight years and didn’t do anything the entire time.’
The new permit idea is unique in the Netherlands, and tenuous. ‘I think it’s a good thing the city is doing’, says Vols. ‘But whether or not it is legally feasible depends on how the legislation is worded.’
Still, he thinks the city should try it. Even if the judge strikes it down, it sends a strong message that municipalities should have this kind of power, he says.
The question remains: why did it take so long to develop a proposal like this? Especially when waiting for changes in national politics wasn’t necessary to make improvements? ‘I don’t know’, Van der Schaaf says. ‘I think we’re the first to come up with this. People should be happy we’re doing this.’
The city council will discuss the permit plan this spring, as well as how to provide better information to students. ‘We also want to improve the housing market’, says Van der Schaaf. ‘The pressure from the market is immense. Students are stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s one of the reasons the rent is so high. Over the past few years, four thousand new houses have been built. Another three thousand will be constructed over the new couple of years.’
The group of friends who became housemates back in 2014 eventually moved. ‘We were like, this is serious’, the student says about the intimidation from their landlords. ‘We did not want to deal with it anymore. So we all left the house to go live somewhere else. We wanted to study and enjoy our time as students.’
They were unable to find another place together. In the end, it was okay. ‘We’d all lived together for two years. It was nice to live somewhere else for a change.’