Student & Starter: 'We need to take action against temporary rental contracts'

Knowledge centre Kences calculated in its 2020 National Student Housing Monitor that there is a shortage of 22,000 student houses across the country. In the publication (in Dutch), Utrecht was mentioned as one of the cities with the highest pressure on tenants: the housing market is pretty tight for students there.

A few years earlier, in July 2016, it became legally possible to rent out rooms with a temporary lease of up to two or five years. The measure was taken in order to promote circulation and flexibility. As a result, (private) landlords are free to issue contracts of, say, one year without having to justify them. In addition, they can raise the rent substantially with each new contract, thus circumventing the annual rent increase set by the government for rental contracts for a longer term. Short-term contracts are primarily issued by private landlords. Corporations, such as student housing provider SSH, make use of campus contracts: the tenant's contract expires one year after their studies are completed.

Research required on number of short rental contracts
This situation has not gone unnoticed by municipal political party Student & Starter. Eva Oosters, the party's portfolio holder for housing, argues that, in recent years, temporary rental contracts have been used more often to the detriment of students. “Last year, together with national parties SP and PvdA, we asked questions about this issue in the city council”.

According to her, no concrete action has been taken so far because the alderman considers  the problem hard to investigate: after all, the contacts are between landlord and tenant. “However, we think the problem can be investigated by means of surveys. With survey results under our belts, we can take steps. We can examine whether temporary rental contracts can be restricted”.

One thing is certain, Oosters believes: “Temporary rental contracts cause stress and the frequency with which they are used is inexcusable. National research from February (link in Dutch) shows that half of the contracts offered are temporary, which is terrible. In addition, the problem is not even recognised in Utrecht. More concrete research is needed to be able to take steps against it”.

Such an investigation is also requested by party GroenLinks (Green Left) in the House of Representatives. Last month, Laura Bromet submitted written questions to Minister Ollongren of the Interior and Kingdom Relations about temporary rental contracts, in response to an article published by newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Her answer came on Monday, the 20th of April. Although the minister agrees that temporary contracts shouldn't become the norm, she can imagine that it does provide a suitable solution for people seeking emergency accommodation. Currently, the law concerning this issue, titled Circulation of the Rental Market Act, is being evaluated to examine, among other things, why temporary contracts for students are being used and which form of contract would be desirable for students. The results of the evaluation are expected at the end of May.

No security at all
Rental Team Utrecht knows the concerns of students with temporary contracts. One of the biggest disadvantages of such a rental agreement is that it offers tenants no security at all, says project leader Fleur van Leeuwen. “As a tenant, you are not guaranteed an extension or a new contract”. In combination with the crowded housing market, this generates a lot of stress for students. “When the landlord informs the tenant in time that the contract is about to expire, the contract ends by operation of law and the tenant is not able to object”.

Students or other tenants can turn to the rental team for questions or advice if they have problems with their rental agreement. “We give free, non-binding advice on rent protection and check whether the rent is too high, or whether maintenance is overdue, or whether the service costs are too expensive. If necessary, we can start a process to lower the rent”, explains Van Leeuwen.

Although Van Leeuwen has noticed that more people are turning to the rental team for questions in recent years, there is a considerable concession: “Tenants do not want to lose their housing, that is always the consideration they make before they call us in. The moment we start a process and the tenant starts paying less rent, there is almost a 100 percent chance that the tenant will not get a new contract”, says the project leader.

Nevertheless, she hopes that students will still contact the rental team if there are any problems, even if it is only for advice. “Most tenants in Utrecht are so happy once they have a home that they settle for many disadvantages. Know what you are renting, how much you should pay for it, and what your rights are,” she advises (future) tenants.

Rent reduction means no contract extension
ICT student Sander (22) has been living in a room in Utrecht for two and a half years: “I found my first room through Facebook, and after one introductory visit it was already a success. The room was 6.7 square metres, with a one-year contract and a price of 295 euros per month, but I was happy to have a place”.

Just before his contract expired, he was able to move into a 10 square-metre room, again with a one-year contract. “The previous occupant did not agree with the rent of 320 euros and called in the rental team. He won the case and then paid 195 per month for six months, but his contract was not renewed after that”, says the ICT student.

When Sander moved into his new room, the previous tenant gave him the report stating what his room was worth, so he also enforced the lower price. “My landlord at the time immediately said: ‘nice of you to do this, but we can already tell you that your contract will not be extended’. You fight for your right, but you are immediately punished for it. I find that quite hard”.

Not indefinite after all
HKU student Julia (23)* also succeeded after one introductory visit. Her first room had a contract for an indefinite period, but in practice things turned out to be much different. “For my first room, I paid 435 euros a month for 6 square metres, of which 200 euros was service fees. The landlord had cobbled together a second contract that said I had to pay him 200 euros in cash every month for service fees, which really didn't make sense”.

Although Julia knew that her contract was far from being in order, she dared not take action for fear of ending up on the street. “My former landlord was quite manipulative. He told me that the figures were correct. I really felt trapped. Travelling between Utrecht and my parents' place was not an option, they live too far away”.

Things got even weirder for the HKU student when her former landlord suddenly announced that he had bought a new house and was going to sell his current one. “He said I could move in with him (the landlord lived in the same house, ed.) but that I would have to pay 700 euros a month. If I didn't want to, I would be evicted. Very strange that he gave contracts for an indefinite period with the conditions of a temporary contract”.

Sander and Julia now both live in a place with more security. They couldn't help but notice that many young students are ignorant about their rights when renting a room. According to them, this problem could be solved if universities would provide these students with more information. “To me, that seems to be a central information point”, says Sander. “As a student, you could, for example, take a course before you rent a room. With the knowledge that I have now, I would have gone to the rental team much sooner”, says the HKU student.

We tried to get in touch with several landlords in Utrecht that we know offer short term rental contracts. After repeated attempts, we could not get in touch.

*Julia is a fictitious name, her real name is known by the editors.