Since opening in 2010, Groningen-based housing law bureau Frently has been slashing unlawful rental charges for tenants. With around 1,000 clients at any given time, the agency has become so popular that they recently had to move into a bigger office on the Nieuwe Ebbingestraat.
Did you know that Dutch rental prices are capped? Denise Zonnebeld, now the head of Frently, didn’t when she came to Groningen as a student. “I’m originally from the East of the Netherlands, and chose to come to study here in the North. When I arrived, I found that the rental market in Groningen already had some issues – and that was 10 years ago.”
Having been presented with a room at the northern end of Vinkhuizen with the promise that it was “five minutes from the centre” (it’s actually closer to 15 minutes), Denise then moved around the city continuously, trying to find somewhere decent to live. After sharing a 16 meters squared room with a friend and even considering squatting, Denise finally found somewhere at the top of her budget at that time, around 300 euros per month (all inclusive).
“After living there for a short while, my housemates told me that we had to pay service costs, which pushed my rent way above what I could afford.” Sick of being mis-sold promises around renting, Denise scoured Dutch legal advice and found out about the Huurcommissie.
|Huurcommissie (Rent Tribunal) and Points System
The Rent Tribunal is an impartial organisation that can make legally binding rulings for both tenants and landlords. Whilst the tribunal exists for many different forms of tenant/landlord conflict, it often works to adjust rent to a legally-defined ceiling. This is calculated using a points system: the size of an apartment carries a certain number of points, as do outside space, how old the building is, energy efficiency, and so on (different rules apply for short stay accommodations). “Serious Faults” such as mould, broken door locks, leaky roofs or poor ventilation are also taken into account. Frently’s website has a rental checker, so you can check for yourself – for maximum accuracy, Frently advises arranging for a free visit with their team.
“I first presented a suggestion of a small rent reduction to my landlord. He didn’t take it well, so I went to the Huurcommissie myself. I found out about the points system and various rulings around “Serious Faults”. After going to the Huurcommissie, and because my room didn’t have a door lock, and the living room leaked, my rent was reduced retroactively to 35 euros per month.”
Friends asked if Denise could provide them with the same service, and though she initially refused to accept payment, it eventually took too much of her time to work for free and study for a law degree at the same time. Eventually, one friend suggested that she take a small slice of the post-ruling rent, rather than a payment, and an idea was born.
Now, Frently has thousands of successful cases under its belt. It formally opened in 2010, and has a team of five people and about 1,000 pending cases at any given time. Aside from helping with bring down excessively high rent fees, the bureau can also help with wrongly-charged agency fees (bemiddelingskosten, which are illegal to charge if the realtor did not find the room for the tenant). While there are other agencies that work on a national basis, the bureau is still fairly unique in Groningen. “In the entire city, there are only a couple of housing-specialist lawyers, and they generally work on really big projects, rather than individual tenant cases.”
Even though she has been at it for years now, Denise can still be caught off guard by just how big a difference a Huurcommissie ruling can make. “In one case, we worked with someone living in an apartment, paying 1,600 euros per month. We immediately knew that was too much in our rent check, but we didn’t realise that there were also significant problems with the apartment. The ruling eventually brought the monthly rent down to 225 euros and even we were surprised with that result”.
Denise is quick to point out that cases like this (and its opposite, where one ruling only reduced the rent by 50 cents a month) are rare. Frently’s marketing material suggests that the average saving is about 75 euros per month, which can still be the difference between making it to the end of the month with some money, or not.
Whilst Denise and Frently have experienced some beastly landlords – “one emptied rubbish into the house and sprayed graffiti on the walls to make the tenants look as negligent as possible” – many cases brought to Frently never make it to a court ruling. “Most landlords simplyagree with the decision made by the Huurcommissie and therefore pay back the overpaid rent when asked to do so.Tenants have rights, and they are very much protected here.”
Although they are based in Groningen, Frently is available to help tenants from across the Northern Netherlands. Since Denise has been living in the north, she has seen the situation improve somewhat. “Whilst quality has grown, there are still problems. The most important thing is not to be scared if you aren’t happy with where you live. The law is on your side.”
Frently’s office is located at Nieuwe Ebbingestraat 69, 9712 NG, Groningen. For more information, call +31 (0) 50 321 00 02, or visit www.frently.nl
|Frently walk-in sessions at the International Welcome Center North (IWCN)
Since January, Frently has beeb holding walk-in sessions at the IWCN, where you can meet with a Frently advisor and ask any questions you may have about housing, rights, or rental value. A follow-up appointment can then be booked, or a ‘rent check’ can then be arranged, if needed. For more information, see the IWCN and Frently websites.
Thomas Ansell is the Internationalization Co-ordinator at the International Welcome Center North (IWCN). For more information about the IWCN, visit www.iwcn.nl