By Massimiliano Sfregola
Translation by Giulia Tiriticco
If you have been living in the Netherlands for some time you will have certainly heard of the huurcommissie. The huurcommissie is very special court that in the land of tulips is responsible for settling disputes between tenants and house-owners, disputes such as “who is going to pay for reparations” or “how much the monthly rent should cost”. The “rental committee” was established in 1917 in order to stem the housing crisis at that time.
Nowadays its main task is to rebalance the housing market in order to keep it open also for those with a lower income. The fundamental tool of this housing tribunal is a points-based calculation mechanism of the rent (WWS), a system that relates the rental price of a property with a range of parameters which are set by law: size, location, energy certification and more. The score assigned to each of these elements contributes to a final score, which expresses the economic value of the property. Once this final score is calculated, the huurcommissie comes into play. If the score is above the threshold of 140 points, then the property is to be placed in the so called “vrije sector”, i.e. the free market. In this case the price shall be determined by a negotiation between owner and tenant. Instead, if the score is under that threshold, the property is to be placed within a controlled group of houses and the rent cannot exceed 710,68 euro per month. The tenant has a maximum of six months to submit a request to the committee. After this time frame, the price that had been stated in the contract between owner and tenant is considered fair by law.
So here we see a cumbersome system that aims to free up the market and, in so doing, to prevent the speculation on apartments which are too small or in poor condition; in practice, it nurtures a forced coexistence between the ideas of rights-based and market-based ownership. Guust Augustijn coordinates the WijksteunpuntWonen of Amsterdam Centrum.
Founded by the municipality, this organisation provides legal advice and assistance to tenants when in dispute with their house-owners.
“In the ’90s, with the liberalisation of the housing market, the overall situation has changed radically”. In the Netherlands, 32% of the tenants live in houses with regulated rent; in Amsterdam, more than 50%. Despite the rosy picture, the situation is much more complex: “In recent years the average social rent for an apartment in Amsterdam has risen considerably” continues Augustijn.
How much is it nowadays?
“We are talking about a figure of about 600 euro per month, very close to the free market price. In the early 2000s it was between 200 and 300 euro per month.”
Is there a risk that in a few years the social houses will disappear, at least in the city center?
“Yes, there is a risk. House-owners prefer to rent their houses at very high prices to the foreigners, who often don’t know their rights and are not aware of the points system.”
Despite the raise of regulated-rent threshold up to 710 euro, the average cost of apartments continues to increase. But the “enemy” of tenants comes often from far away: “With the boom in the tourism sector, the demand for temporary housing has increased dramatically” says Guust. “Many owners realised how more profitable it is to rent for very short periods, for instance through websites like Airbnb, rather than to conform to the rules of the traditional long term rent, which aims to protect the tenants.”
In short, Amsterdam has become a huge open-air hotel.
“Exactly”, confirms the Wijkstenpunt coordinator, “the situation in the city center has become unbearable for the residents. Unfortunately we cannot do much, because the sublease through websites like Airbnb is regulated. The municipality imposes a limit to the days of sublease, but it’s not easy to verify whether this limit is respected. The best solution would be to forbid Airbnb, at least in the central area. The municipal administration is keeping on building hotels, so accommodation shouldn’t represent a problem”, he cuts short.
The privatisation of public housing stock concerns more than 50% of buildings in Amsterdam. According to the municipal administration it should be the antidote to the chronic shortage of housing that afflicts the city, but actually it is just changing the connotation of the problem: we have still long waiting lists for public houses and for the huurcommissie it becomes more and more difficult to balance the market.