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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.