“Just packing my last stuff and then I’m gone.” Tenant Arjen Annema is leaving his home in the Lutkenieuwstraat in Groningen. He won his case at the Tenant committee, but has been intimidated by his landlord. “A handyman threatened me and my girlfriend with a hammer”, says Arjen. He sees himself forced to leave the apartment.
Note: This article was written for an assignment of the premaster programme of the University of Groningen for the Master Journalism. This article is based on an actual item I produced in the end of December 2017 for RTV Noord for online, television, social media and radio. I expanded it with using notes that I did not use for the article on RTV Noord and my general knowledge of the topic. The link is here:
Arjen is not the only tenant who successfully made a case at the Tenant committee. In the past two years, it’s handled about 1.400 cases in Groningen alone. This is more than a doubling compared to the five years before. The increase in cases also means that it takes longer before cases are handled and closed.
The Tenant committee is a government run national organization and negotiates in conflicts between tenants and landlords. Verdicts of the Tenant committee are legally binding and published on its website for all to see. Judges in The Netherlands generally follow the verdicts of the Tenant Committee.
Towards the end of 2015, Dagblad van het Noorden and city blog Sikkom published a couple of stories on the tenant and landlord situation in Groningen. These stories showed that landlords wield a certain power in the city and, according to the Tenant Committee, ask too much rent. This has generated both public and political awareness on the issue.
Two years later, RTV Noord took another look at the cases that were published by the Tenant committee. We see that the amount of cases in the two years since the investigation of Dagblad van het Noorden and Sikkom is the same as the five years before. The types of case are about the same as in the investigation in 2015, yet the total amount doubled.
The primary concerns are the rent price and service costs. The latter relates not only to the costs for gas, water and electricity but also for other services offered by the landlord. In its verdicts, the committee lowers these costs by half, about 500 euro each year.
Rent is also lowered because of defects. If, for example, there is a broken shower or boiler, a tenant has to pay less rent. After repairing the defects, the landlord can notify the Tenant committee and the normal renting price is restored.
About 90% of the cases handled by the Tenant committee in Groningen are won by the tenant. The graphic below shows the reduction of rents and service costs. The amounts are per month and in euro.
Arjen Annema in his apartment – photo RTV Noord
Arjen Annema invited us to his rented apartment on the third floor of a building in the Lutkenieuwstraat. It’s a new building, delivered in January this year. The hallways are narrow and, in places, dark. The stairs are steep, making it a bit difficult for the cameraman to carry his equipment.
Arjen opens the door of his apartment. “Good afternoon,” he says. “Sorry for the mess.” The room is almost empty, with a couple of house moving boxes, a table and a couch. The walls of the room have been painted with what looks like good quality paint.
“It looks like a fine apartment,” I say to Arjen. “Yeah, it sure looks like that on first glance,” he says as he points to the ceiling. “Do you see those small cracks? They leaked in the first months I lived here. I asked an engineer, who said that it was because the builders didn’t give the building enough time to rest and cure the concrete.”
“The builders were in quite a rush and were sloppy on some other things,” Arjen continues. “For example, my bedroom contains no window or air vents. I looked it up in the law book and it said that the room can only be used for storage.”
“I discovered that I paid too much rent. That is why I started a procedure at the Tenant committee.”
A procedure can be started with or without a legal consultant. The website of the Tenant committee contains a form per topic which must be filled out. The party that starts the procedure then has to pay a 25 euro fee in order for the case to be handled.
An inspector from the Tenant committee then comes to inspect the house. For example, the surface of the rooms are measured, presence of tiles in the bathroom, windows and many other factors. The inspector makes a report, which is discussed at a hearing. The Tenant committee then delivers its final report.
Procedures take longer
Denise Zonnebeld – photo RTV Noord
Denise Zonnebeld was studying law in 2010 when she discovered that she was also paying too much rent. She started a procedure, and later helped friends and acquaintances who were having the same problem. Zonnebeld became so busy with this alone that she decided to make it her work, and started her legal counseling company Frently.
“In the last two years, we see that it takes longer for the Tenant committee to come to a verdict, but also before a hearing takes place,” says Zonnebeld. “The Tenant committee is legally bound to deliver a verdict within four months after a procedure is started, but we see it takes longer than that. It generally takes between six to twelve months, before a verdict is delivered.”
In response the Tenant committee says it is making an effort to come to a verdict “as soon as possible”. “There are many factors that have an influence on a case. That is why we cannot draw general conclusions about the treatment times in a certain area”, the Tenant committee concludes.
“Unfortunately, it often happens that a landlord starts to become difficult towards a tenant if they start a procedure at the Tenant committee,” Zonnebeld continues. “With most landlords, things luckily don’t get out of hand. But there are a few landlords who we know we have to pay extra attention to if a procedure is started against him or her. In those cases we also contact the police.”
“One particular landlord we know enters the room of the tenant without permission. He asks the tenant to withdraw the procedure and puts pressure on some tenants to settle the case outside of the Tenant committee for a lower amount that the tenant has a right to.”
The blog Sikkom’s earlier investigation showed some other examples of harassment by landlords. In one case, a tenant (who wants to remain anonymous) found that his laptop was stolen. There were no signs of breaking and entering. During a confrontation, which was secretly recorded, the landlord admitted the laptop was stolen by one of his handyman on his command, as well as a couple of other items. The tenant had to buy back the laptop from the landlord for a couple of hundred euros.
Following Sikkom’s publication , there was a debate in Groningen’s city council. It was decided there would be a contact point for tenants who experience problems and harassment from their landlords. This started in March 2016 and has had about 60 reports over the following eighteen months.
But Zonnebeld is skeptical of this contact point. “To me, it doesn’t look like they take things very seriously. Anonymity of the tenant is not guaranteed and I do not see what the local government is doing with the reports.” Zonnebeld thinks that if the contact point was better, there would be more reports.
Groningen police made a statement at the end of November that they are in contact with the city council and department of Justice about how they can deal with landlords that intimidate tenants. “I’ve been hearing this for the last two years,” Zonnebeld says. “But still, nothing happens. Nothing.”
Arjen has also been facing harassment from his landlord. “My landlord responded quite aggressively, when he found out that I started a procedure at the Tenant committee. He was intimidating, tried to swap the locks a couple of times and disconnected the electricity supply.”
“Another thing is that when I started renting the room, the conditions and dividing of rent costs were in a way that you can get a subsidy from the government for renting. After the landlord became aware that I started the procedure, he suddenly changed the conditions, in a way that the subsidy no longer applies for me. This means that I have to pay back the subsidy, which is a couple of hundred euros.”
“Things really got out of hand with the handyman,” Arjen continues. “He started to intimidate me and raised a hammer to me and my girlfriend. Those practices are very annoying when al you’re trying to do is get what the law says you have the right to.”
Response of landlord
Arjen’s landlord, HNA Vastgoed, says in a response: “The owners of the apartment complex do not recognize themselves in the image that any aggression or intimidation has taken place. In fact; there never was any face-to-face contact with Arjen Annema. The owners also do not recognize the story that the electricity supply had been cut.”
The company emphasizes that it is the right of each person to get what they are entitled to. “We sincerely regret this inconvenient situation. At our company, a good relationship between tenant and landlord comes first”, the company concludes.
A new problem that tenants face in the Netherlands is a new law called ‘doorstroming huurmarkt – the flow of the rental market’ which was implemented on first of July 2016. This new law means that it is legal to sign temporary tenant contracts of one year. The second contract has to be for an indefinite time. Before this new law, tenant contracts were always for immediately for an indefinite period.
This new law causes problems for tenants who want to make a case at the Tenant committee. In the old situation, they had the guarantee that the landlord could not terminate the contract. In the new situation, a landlord might think differently on offering a permanent contract if the tenant started and perhaps won a procedure.
At the end of 2016, Arjen signed a contract for one year. After the verdict of the Tenant committee, he was not offered a new contract. This means that he has to leave the apartment at the end of December.
Despite winning the procedure, Arjen lost about 142 euros . “Because of the losing of the subsidy, I basically lost more than I gained. I also paid about 2.000 euros for a deposit, which I knew I would not get back. I compensated for this by not paying rent for the last few months.”
“I am now very busy with packing my stuff,” Arjen says. “After all these incidents and hassle, I am quite through with it. By the end of the month I move to another apartment in the south of the city. It was difficult to find an apartment, but I am happy I succeeded.”