In Amsterdam, most rents are capped, revenge evictions illegal and affordable housing quotas are enforced

All this and you get a canal, too. Image: Patrick Clenet/Wikimedia Commons.

Renters in the Netherlands are some of the most protected tenants in the world: most rents are capped, revenge evictions are illegal, affordable housing quotas are enforced. While renters in the UK are filling holes in their ceilings with chewed-up paper, Dutch renters are settling down for a friendly chat with their government supplied housing lawyers. It’s a utopia.

But of course, it isn’t, really. And once I’ve finished spaffing on about all the Dutch laws the UK should adopt, I’ll explain the loophole that is making the whole thing fall apart.

The Netherlands is truly committed to affordable housing

Nearly 50 per cent of the housing in Amsterdam is social rented housing, managed by housing associations and the government. Nearly half.

And it gets better: by 2020, 30 per cent of new builds are going to be social housing. Low income families can live near to the city centre, neighbourhoods retain a diverse mix of people and they’ve neatly sidestepped the ghost towns currently populating France..

Rents are capped on a points system

The Dutch system assigns a certain number of points to each property in the social rented sector, which determines how much rent you have to pay. It’s based on things like number of windows, storage space, and how high up the apartment is.

What this means is that the property's owners can’t make surface changes to an apartment, and then use them to justify hiking the rent. If a tenant moves into an apartment and realises they are paying too much based on the point system, they can also claim the excess rent back.

(Editor's note: It's been brought to our attention that there are properties in the private rental sector which aren't subject to this cap. But a) this liberalisation only applies to the largest and most expensive properties, and b) the social rented sector makes up around three-quarters of all Dutch rental homes, anyway.)

There are no revenge evictions

The only ways a Dutch landlord can evict a tenant is if they have multiple, police registered, noise complaints from the neighbours, or if they are demonstrably damaging the apartment.

The only exceptions are if the landlord suddenly needs to move back into the property (that still needs to go through the courts, and they have to live there for one year after the tenants leave); or if the landlord registered the tenancy as a short term rental before the tenants moved in. A short term rental can only be registered if the landlord is actively trying to sell the property; the tenants must be informed of this before they move in.


There’s free legal support for tenants

Wijksteunpunt Wonen is a government funded organisation that provides free legal advice to tenants. That includes filing charges on their behalf, subsidising any legal fees and negotiating with the landlord.

When it comes to housing, the Dutch have a cheery little saying that

“Expats are the suckers of the world”, so WW is particularly good at helping non-Dutch speakers navigate the intricacy of Dutch law. The current housing slump has seen a lot of landlords attempting to squeeze ever more income out of the one bed apartments they bought in their 20s, only to be told by WW that they have to reimburse the tenants.

Now for the bad news.

Estate agents suck

Estate agents in The Netherlands occupy the same position that they do in the UK. They are the middle men, and landlords are increasingly relying on estate agents to rent their homes in an attempt to simplify the process.

What many landlords don’t realise is that, when they hand over their properties to estate agents, they are basically allowing them to hold tenants hostage. Estate agents will often not disclose to tenants that a property is a short-term let – because they still get their signing fee, even if the tenant ends up taking the landlord to court.

Speaking of signing fees, one of the great things about the Netherlands is that only one party has to pay an estate agents fee; most of the time that’s the landlord. If the tenant finds the property themselves (online, say), then they don’t have to pay as the estate agent hasn’t done anything for them, other than maybe turn up at a building and open a door.

But – there is no law in place to stop estate agents blocking communication between tenants and landlords. And some tell tenants that they have to pay fees that can run into the thousands of euros, if they want the landlords to know they’re interested in renting an apartment.

This effectively prices lower income tenants out of certain neighbourhoods as relatively few people can afford to be blackmailed at €1,000+ a pop.

There are many, many, many good things about Dutch housing law that the UK could learn from, starting with Wijksteunpunt Wonen. But until the Netherlands passes laws to keep estate agents in line, tenants will still be vulnerable to exploitation.

This article was amended on 13 March 2015 to clarify that some private properties are outside the rent capping system.

 
 
 
 

Ottawa-Gatineau, the national capital which language differences nearly split into two countries

The Canadian parliament, Ottawa.

There are many single urban areas with multiple, competing local identities: from the rivalry of Newcastle and Sunderland in Tyne & Wear, to the Wolverhampton residents who resolutely deny that they are part of Birmingham, despite being in the same urban conurbation and sharing a mayor.

However, no division is quite as stark as that of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area in Canada. Often referred to as the National Capital Region, Ottawa and Gatineau lie directly opposite each other on either side of the Ottawa River, a hundred miles from Montreal, the nearest other significant population centre. Because the conurbation straddles a provincial boundary, the two cities literally speak a different language, with Ottawa in predominantly Anglophone Ontario and Gatineau in Francophone Quebec.

This is reflected in their populations. According to the 2011 census, French was the mother tongue of 77 per cent of those in Gatineau, a percentage maintained by policies intended to keep French as Quebec’s dominant language. Similarly, although Ottawa provides some bilingual services, 68 per cent of its residents are predominantly Anglophone; Franco-Ontarians frequently complain that the city is not officially bilingual.

Although there are similar divided cities, such as the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, Ottawa-Gatineau is unique in that the city was not divided by a war or major political event: its two halves have been part of the same political territory since the British defeated the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, before either of the cities were even established. Indeed, the oldest part of Gatineau is actually an Anglophone settlement with the name of Hull (it was merged into the Gatineau municipality in 2002).


Today, the two cities facing each other across the Ottawa river have separate services, and elect difference mayors to run them: OC Transpo serves Ottawa, the Société de Transport de l’Outaouais (STO) serves  Gatineau, and few tickets are transferrable between the two systems.

OC Transpo is currently constructing a light rail system to many parts of Ottawa; but proposals to expand the route into Gatineau, or to merge the two transport systems have been fraught with obstacles. The City of Ottawa owns a disused railway bridge, connecting the two cities, but arguments about funding and political differences have so far prevented it from being used as part of the light rail extension project.

The divisions between Ottawa and Gatineau are made all the more unusual by the fact that Ottawa is the federal capital of Canada – a country where bilingualism is entrenched in the Charter of Rights & Freedom as a bedrock principle of the Canadian constitution. As a result, while all proceedings within the Canadian legislature are bilingual, this principle of bilingualism is not reflected on the streets surrounding the building.

The inevitable map. Image: Google.

These linguistic, as well as political, differences have been a long-running theme in Canadian politics. Quebec held independence referendums in both 1980 and 1995; in the latter, the separatists were defeated by a margin of less than 0.6 per cent. Quebecois independence would be made all the more humiliating for Canada by the fact it would be losing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, while its parliament was forced to look out across the river at its new neighbours.

While Quebec as a whole only narrowly rejected independence in 1995, 72 per cent of Gatineau residents voted against the separatist proposal. The presence of many federal employees living in the city, who commute to Ottawa, meant that the city was rather unenthusiastic about the prospect of independence.

So, with Quebec nationalism currently at a low ebb, Gatineau seems set to remain a part of Canada – albeit while retaining its independent from the other half of its conurbation, across the river. While recent challenges such as flooding may have been better tackled by a unitary authority, the National Capital Region seems set to remain a tale of two cities.

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