The Netherlands' modern day Robin Hood helping tenants fight greedy landlords
An organization based in Arnhem has recently started to take a proactive approach to tackle unscrupulous behavior by Dutch landlords and rental agencies using the current housing crisis to their benefit by charging rental rates that are legally too high. Rent Buster NL alerts tenants who are moving into new apartments that their landlords may be overcharging them. The organization has sent hundreds of letters to tenants over the last few months, informing them about exploitative housing practices.
The person behind this is Shane White, a 37-year-old Irish physicist who moved to the Netherlands in 2011. It was during a search for a new home that he realized the extent to which some landlords were trying to cash in on the country's rental housing shortage. "Many landlords ignore regulations in the rental market," he observed. "They take advantage of tenants and charge them rent that is way over the maximum allowed."
In the Netherlands, there are rules in place to ensure that properties which are supposed to fall under a rent control scheme remain fair and affordable for tenants. These regulations are determined by the national government using a points system to consider several factors when evaluating a residence. These include the interior surface area, the size of private exterior and storage spaces, communal areas, the type of tiles in the kitchen and bathrooms, the property's energy label and the official assessed value of the property. The resulting score sets a maximum rental price for the apartment.
In recent years, the rental rates in the private sector have skyrocketed, leaving many tenants paying more than the property's actual maximum. Tenants who suspect their landlords of charging them above the legal limit can file a complaint with the Huurcommissie, or Rent Tribunal, an independent governmental body in the Netherlands. The Huurcommissie investigates the issue and determines if the rent is reasonable and fair. Depending on their decision, tenants may be eligible for a rent reduction or a refund.
White remarked that most tenants are unaware of their right to a rent reduction or are too afraid to take action for fear of eviction. "Most people never question this system."
He took matters into his own hands last September, and in his spare time he started to organize a list of rental homes that he suspected to be overpriced. He checked housing websites to collect information, and filled in the data manually using the Huurcommisse official calculator to get an estimate of the maximum rent price. He began posting his findings on the r/Rentbusters community on Reddit to draw attention to exploitative landlord practices. "But this year it really started to take off," he told NL Times.
He has since moved to a semi-automated system to flag any suspiciously high rental offers, and he then estimates what the maximum rental price should be. "It does require some detective skills, but all the information is available online," he noted.
He recently decided to start sending letters to tenants who might be overpaying, detailing the difference between his estimated rent price and the actual rent charged. In February, he dispatched 100 letters, and in March, he shared a photo on Reddit showing 217 letters he prepared that uncovered a total rent difference of over 1 million euros, according to his estimates. Tenants are free to approach their landlords for negotiation on the new rental price. In case of any negotiation deadlock, he offers to aid in the initial rent assessment with the Huurcommissie. All cases he handles are awaiting judgments. "It usually takes 3 to 5 months, so I’m still waiting."
White has found that expats are the most responsive to his letters. "They are vulnerable." He gave examples of expats being charged over 1,000 euros extra, or a landlord charging 700 euros per month on top of the rent for use of second-hand IKEA furniture. "And there are many more stories like these," he added.
His services are entirely free of charge, and he is not planning on asking for commissions. He only accepts donations. "If people want to pay me, it’s okay." He remarked that other organizations that provide similar services often demand a significant portion of the settlement for their assistance, sometimes up to 75 percent. "But I just don't feel comfortable asking for money," he said.
When asked if he is really a modern-day Robin Hood, he chuckled and said, "Everybody asks me that question." He emphasized that he is merely driven by his aversion toward landlords who take advantage of their tenants. "I have no love for them."
At the moment, he only posts single ads regarding overpriced rentals on the Reddit community, sometimes encouraging people to sign a lease for the property and then fight the landlord in front of the Huurcommissie to get a refund and a lower rental payment. However, his ultimate goal is to establish a large database accessible to everyone with a list of hundreds of such properties.
"That’s the dream."