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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.