A first-year European Law School student enters the office, visibly tense and ill at ease. It’s the first day of December and alum Rick Blezer and law student Firi Boukhris are on hand for the consultation hour. The student, from Italy, is keen to get a big word off her chest: “Threatened; I’m feeling threatened.” Her story comes out in disjointed form, but amounts, in essence, to the following: she has been renting a room in Meerssen since September, in a house shared with the landlord’s daughter. But she neither trusts the landlord nor his daughter.
“In November I agreed with the landlord to move out as of 1 December. But now he’s going back on our agreement; he denies that we agreed on this and wants me to pay for this month.” She is about to take her things to a new room in Maastricht.
“Could I see your old contract?” Blezer asks. She shows him a digital version, saying “I don’t think it’s legal.” Blezer has to disappoint her. “I’m afraid it is. You signed for 36 weeks.” “But it’s so badly written – doesn’t he have to stick to certain rules?” Blezer: “It doesn’t matter whether the contract is nice and neat or written on scrap paper. There are so many poorly written contracts out there that are nonetheless legal.” The student sighs. “Well, if he doesn’t pay back the €350 deposit, I’ll keep the key.” Blezer advises strenuously against this. “If you have the key, you have access to the house and it’s easier for him to say you still have a contract. Send him an email and be sure to give back the keys as soon as possible. Write that you don’t feel comfortable about all this and that you agreed with him on this and this day – do you remember the date? – to leave on 1 December 2015.”
Later, she says: “I’m scared; I don’t know what he’ll do when I give him the keys.” She thinks of going to the police. “What’s my worst-case scenario?” she asks before leaving. “That you have two contracts and two lots of rent to pay.” Given that the student wants to terminate her contract before it runs out, the landlord will lose revenue and he intends to be compensated for that in some way or another. There’s a big chance, according to Blezer, that she will lose her deposit.
How it all worked out, Blezer doesn’t know; the student didn’t show up again.
Pest control expert
Maastricht University started trialling the Housing Helpdesk in February 2015, following the example in other Dutch university towns of what are known as rental teams. Students can approach them during their consultation hours for help and assistance with housing-related legal and financial issues.
The Housing Helpdesk now has around 180 cases, mainly concerning termination of leases, exorbitant rents, agency fees and deposit refunds. In addition to those students who drop by the office in the Student Services Centre in person, many post questions on the Facebook page: What are my rights if the heating goes off for a week? How do I let my landlord know if I want to terminate my contract – is a phone call or email sufficient? Does the university have an official blacklist for landlords? Whose responsibility are the mice in our apartment – does the landlord have to arrange for a pest control expert? My apartment has had a horrible smell ever since I moved in, what should I do?
A notable proportion of the people who make use of the Facebook page and consultation hour come from abroad. “Maastricht University obviously has many foreign students, and often they’re unfamiliar with Dutch regulations”, explains Blezer. “For example, the fact that there’s a point system that allows you to objectively measure the amount of rent you should be paying, that a rental committee can be called in in the case of a dispute, or that the law bans rental agencies from charging handling fees to the tenant. Foreign students often aren’t able to stick up for themselves like Dutch people do, and sometimes they turn up in Maastricht at the last minute and just take the first room on offer.”
It seems to be these foreign students in particular – “you can’t prove it, and I don’t know whether they specially seek them out” – who fall prey to unscrupulous landlords who charge exorbitant amounts for a ‘closet’ well outside the city centre. “We have a case of a student who lives in a house in Heer with six other students. He was paying €625 without bills. Based on the point-score system we came up with a figure of €280. Yes, sad. We initially sent the landlord a letter and then called him. He agreed to reduce the rent and to refund the student for the overpaid rent from the previous months. He also agreed to lower the rent for two of the other housemates.”
According to Blezer the landlord has two other houses in Maastricht – imagine his profits. But what if this student leaves Maastricht in July and a new tenant shows up? “There’s nothing stopping him from charging €625 again.” Shouldn’t he be on some sort of blacklist? “There’s no official list, but you can find some initiatives on the internet. It’s not our intention to make a list like that. We’re not here to track down slumlords. The purpose of the Housing Helpdesk is to help students get better housing in terms of safety, upkeep and price.” What about tipping off the city council, so it can look into taking action? “That’s not our job either, but maybe we should do that in extreme cases.”
Blezer thinks what they are seeing is the tip of the iceberg. “I’m sure there are very many students who are paying too much. According to the National Student Housing Monitor people in Maastricht pay an average of €20 too much per month. I think that’s probably on the low side. No, landlords are rarely happy when they receive a complaint. But I also know ones who don’t make a fuss, who even apologise.”
On the street
An Italian International Business student is not that fortunate. After a letter from the Housing Helpdesk requesting that the student’s rent be reduced from €370 without bills to €230, the landlord threatens to throw him out. The student is renting an attic in the centre of Maastricht. “I saw an advert on the Maastricht Housing site and I thought, just take it. I was already pretty late”, he explains on a Tuesday afternoon in November to Blezer and Boukhris. He thinks the rent should be lowered. “My neighbour pays €100 less than I do.”
During the consultation hour he gives the measurements of his room, bathroom and kitchen. “I don’t have a tape measure though, so they’re not exact.” The pair decide to measure his room themselves so that they can score it accurately. The rental price check is a tool that calculates the maximum rent that is legally permissible based on the surface area of the room, amenities and other things.
“But it doesn’t take into account whether you live in a clean, safe house in a top location or in some kind of ghetto hovel”, Blezer says. The student’s room is around 15 square metres, the window smaller than 0.75 square metres. He shares the bathroom with six housemates. “Will the landlord make things hard for me? Say I leave for the summer, will he claim I’ve broken things or didn’t leave the place clean in order to keep my deposit?”
Blezer is honest: “The contract runs till July. He’s not going to like it, but there’s no reason to tear up the contract. He could make a fuss about the deposit though; we see that a lot.”
The landlord, indeed, does not take the news well. The student is just complaining, he writes in a letter – the room is ample in terms of comfort and service, the house is in a top location and it even comes with a housekeeper. Because the student once paid his rent five days too late, the landlord calls him a ‘difficult payer’.
“Madness”, says Blezer. He sends a response, sticking to the position that the rent should be reduced and there is no reason to terminate the contract. “The contract has a penalty clause, which means that if the contract is terminated prematurely both landlord and tenant have to pay a penalty – in this case more than €3000.”
Nonetheless, the landlord, advised by a lawyer, wants the student to pack his bags by 1 March. In exchange he is to receive €500 in moving costs. The case was still pending at the time Observant went to press, but what is clear is that the student does not want to leave the room. If necessary, the Housing Helpdesk will call in the rental committee, an independent, national organisation that mediates in disputes and issues binding verdicts.
Its 36,000 verdicts can be found online; a search query shows that 2,000 of these in recent years concerned ‘a reduction in rent on the grounds of the scoring system’. Only eight of these cases have been heard in Maastricht since 2010, and in half of these cases the price was indeed adjusted downwards.
As a result of a recent verdict by the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in the Netherlands, quite some students approach the Housing Helpdesk, complaining about mediation fees. On 16 October 2015 the judge ruled that a rental agency can’t have it both ways: they can’t charge mediation fees to both the landlord and the tenant. The business model of many agencies is therefore illegal. They advertise housing on their sites, and potential tenants have no way of getting around them. Then, when they draw up a contract, they charge a fee that typically amounts to one month’s rent.
A sixth-year medicine student moved into a three-room apartment in Wyck with two friends. A national housing agency based in Maastricht charged them €1400 in mediation fees. “We did leave our details at the office one time, but never specifically gave them the go-ahead to find something for us. She wants to know whether she is entitled to ask for a refund. She signed the contract in March 2015. “Absolutely. You have three years from the date on which you paid. But being in the right in principle and in practice are two different things.” This is something Blezer says often. “It’s a tricky situation. The tenant is in a weak position. Those who make a fuss about the fee don’t wind up with the key – the agency just finds someone else.”
Inquiries with three agencies in Maastricht reveal that Housing XL no longer charges mediation fees to tenants; instead the landlords pay the lion’s share. But they do charge tenants contract and administration fees of €247.50. 123Wonen charges €125 for this, while Pro Housing makes clear both on its website and by phone that “at no stage” do they charge fees to the tenant.
Strongly worded letter
Alum Feye Zwart, who clashed with a housing agency because of this mediation fees, wrote an e-mail to Observant because he thinks “many current and future students could benefit from my experience”. After completing the Master in International Business, Strategy & Innovation, two years ago (when there wasn’t any Housing Helpdesk), Zwart moved into a studio on the Brusselsestraat that he found through a Maastricht rental agency. It was his mother who alerted him to the unlawful nature of the mediation costs of almost €700.
Zwart went to the Juridisch Loket (Legal Helpdesk) and sent the agency a standard letter. The response? “A long, strongly worded letter to the effect of: you signed a contract with us, you know there are mediation costs, now you’re on the hook for them.”
Zwart can imagine that this is the moment when people feel intimidated and throw in the towel. Not him. After several months and a great deal of correspondence between the agency’s lawyer and Zwart’s, who threatened to sue them, the money was refunded. “All of a sudden it just appeared in my bank account”, says Zwart. One of his housemates also went through with the case, together with lawyer Thijs Cuppen, a friend of Zwart’s, and he too got his money back.
“You can’t help but wonder what these agencies do for all that money”, says Cuppen. “Drawing up a lease, informing the landlord, arranging a viewing: that surely doesn’t cost €665? It’s also strange that the price is dependent on the amount of the rent. Some people pay €300, others up to €1000 – for the exact same work. I think it’s a good thing this is being reined in once and for all.”
As the cases referred to in this piece are ongoing, all students, landlords and rental agencies therefore remain anonymous.