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Racism, ripoffs and ruthless landlords: housing market in Amsterdam is a nightmare

By PanDam and Mihaela Breabin

Published Sat Mar 21 2020

Numbers released by Statistics Netherlands revealed that, in 2018, the number of foreigners who registered at a Dutch municipality exceeded the number of people who left by 69.5 thousand. In 2018, between January and March, 186 thousand immigrants moved to the Netherlands; 4.5k more than during the same period in 2017. Amsterdam is known to be a truly liberal city, tolerant, welcoming and with a high quality of life, which is why the number of foreigners settling here is not likely to decrease anytime soon. The result? A huge and unprecedented housing crisis, one which is forcing people to pay fortunes and live in unbearable conditions. Here are some of their stories.

A room in Amsterdam? Bye bye rights

Jerika is an American expat. She still vividly remembers the racist reaction of her landlady when she revealed her boyfriend was Romanian: “I’m telling you right now: him and his family can't live here”. Not willing to cope with such an attitude, the couple moved to a new accommodation: a jail cell in the former Bijmer prison that Jerike describes as “the size of a bathroom”. Yes, a cell. Bijmer prison was permanently closed in 2016 and turned into a temporary housing project. Not really the sweetest memory of her life: to protect their food from being stolen, her roommates and her appointed ‘a watchdog’ who would stay up all night and patrol the common rooms. At least 3 to 4 times per week, the fire alarm would go off in the middle of the night because of people smoking weed. Monthly rent, exclusive, was 420 euros per month. The situation became unbearable and the couple felt lost in despair: “We are both PhD students, none of us has a criminal record. 90% of the places would just say ‘no internationals’ or ‘no students’”.

Jessi lives in an anti-kraak (anti-squat) with her boyfriend, and speaks of a similar experience. In anti-squats, tenants pay their rent to special real estates whose aim is to fill vacant buildings before squatters do. Rent is way cheaper compared to the market price, but this privilege comes at the expense of many of your rights: “we have no rights here, and we do not have heating or hot water, as it broke down and they are not obliged to fix it”. On a reverse charge dynamic, you end up working for the owner, as you replace the surveillance company but you don’t just work for free: you pay for it. House hunters go through unmeasurable struggles looking on the internet for a roof to put on their head. Top issue is the sky high monthly rent, but also the unrealistic income requirements. Agencies ask for one month rent as a non-refundable service fee, which is illegal, and some landlords ask for 2 or even 3 months rent as deposit. A deposit to which they hold on savagely once the contract expires. There is a more disturbing trend: often internationals get discriminated on the housing market because of their nationalities. Some landlords, many room hunters say, tell Slovak, Greek and Romanian that they are “too poor to afford a room in Amsterdam”. Males admit that many landlords prefer females, and sometimes those who don’t smoke weed or drink alcohol are rejected from student flats because potential flatmates considered them antisocial.

Psychologically Draining

Desperation, frustration and loss of hope are some of the most common feelings that room hunters experience. However, for some of them the psychological draining continues even after finding an accommodation. Alex remembers the night his landlord threatened to kick him out the very next morning for smoking a cigarette outside the window: “That night, sleeping alone on that bare mattress, was one of the longest of my life. Having absolutely no idea whether I would have a home in the morning. It was genuinely scary. I felt at his mercy and didn’t know what to do”. Despite multiple apologies, Alex ended up losing his accommodation.

In more extreme circumstances, emotional harassment is present in the daily life of the tenants. A current renter in Amsterdam, who asked not be named, copes with this abuse every second: “I am being paid to be a caretaker of the house and also a listener; this situation makes me waste a crazy amount of time (2/3h daily) and I do not feel that it is representing a good situation for my own mental health and career”. Another current renter in Amsterdam, who also doesn’t want to be named, speaks of sexual intimidation from her landlord, who lived in the apartment. He would make inappropriate comments about her body and soon she realized that her flatmates and her had no lock on their doors. “He entered our rooms without permission, or sublet them without letting us know while we were gone for the weekend. In return for a discount on the rent, I had to clean the whole house every day”. This ‘discount’, she says, was because of his attraction to her.

Struggles with registration

Among the most common complaints from flat hunters in Amsterdam is that landlords often do not give them the chance to register. Registration, however, is crucial if you want to work, have a Dutch health insurance or a Dutch bank account in the Netherlands. As grotesque as it might sound, it is the tenants who risk to be fined if they are caught unregistered. Jerika recalls approaching the gemeente several times for help, and getting nothing but a 315 euro fine in response. “I had to cancel a work contract because it required me be registered to a Dutch address, but there is nowhere to rent where you can register. It’s absolutely impossible”, she says. In this jungle, budget tenants have no choice but turning to the black market: many pay -illegally- extra fees to register to an address where they don’t live. To be in the place to be, Amsterdam, people are ready to adapt to anything. A renter whose anonymity will be kept remembers sleeping on the floor of her friend’s tiny attic for 6 months. She eventually found a place with registration, but the situation there wasn’t much brighter: “my gay friend and I pretended to be a couple for a year to the landlord. We made a deal where I slept in the bedroom area with the en suite bathroom, he slept in the living room where the kitchen was, and we illegally sublet the small box room to a friend for 1 year”

What do landlords think

Amid frustration, most of the blame is put on the landlords. However, they don't have it too easy either. Landlords need to apply the ‘verkamering’ rules: they can only rent their place to two, non-related individuals, regardless of the size of the house. Before, a 100 m2 place could be rented to up to 6 independent house-hunters. Now only 2. This policy has however proven to be troublesome, and authorities are working on a new one. Marnix is a Dutch landlord. He disagrees that rental prices are crazy: “I don’t mean that it is not a lot of money, but in terms of percentages it is not such a great investment. For example, if a landlord owns a house worth 500.000 euros and charges 800 euros per room (excluding electricity, internet, water and gas) then he earns 19.200 euros a year. After taxes (VvE costs and the city taxes ), the income from the property falls to about 15.000 euros. That’s roughly a 3% return. In the Netherlands, you have to pay a 1.5% wealth tax every year, so that leaves a landlord with a 1.5% ‘profit’. That’s not much for all the hassle and work.”

Magdalena, also a landlord in the Netherlands, agrees with Marnix: “Yes, we earn money by renting out our properties, but please keep in mind that it is a job like any other, in a heavily regulated environment, where tenants have strong rights, and profit ranges between 0.5% to 2%.

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