Fewer evictions in 2020, but serious housing problems remain

Fewer evictions in 2020, but serious housing problems remain
Some apartments are not suitable for families, or are simply insalubrious. © Daphne Lamens for Unsplash

Last year saw evictions take place for 10,072 tenants of rented accommodation in Flanders, according to a poll by the VVSG, the Flemish association of cities and municipalities, among its members.

The year 2020 was an exception for evictions: because of the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, local authorities imposed a moratorium on evictions, in the knowledge that many people were suffering economic hardship.

Those in jobs who were placed in temporary unemployment saw an immediate 30% cut in earnings, not to mention the loss of overtime and unsocial hours benefits. Others who worked in retail or hospitality on a casual basis may not have been paid at all.

Even workers who carried on as usual – a minority – may have had to find extra money for child care when the schools were closed.

In comparison, in 2019 there were 11,183 evictions, around 1,000 more than last year. But the special situation in 2020 should not hide the gravity of the housing situation, the VVSG said.

The housing market faces a number of structural problems. Firstly, a shortage of affordable and quality rental properties suitable for everyone from single people to families with children. Secondly, developers have a tendency to discriminate against low-income tenants or those coming out of social housing.

A number of issues lead landlords of private rental properties to seek legal redress, typically from the local justice of the peace. These include rent arrears, failure to maintain the property, low income, other debts.

In many cases the property is simply not fit for purpose. Housing advocates could fill volumes of examples of housing offered at exorbitant rents in the presence of infestations, damp, fungus, inadequate security or properties that fail even on the basic requirements of being wind- and water-tight.

Mediation is possible with the local social aid agency (CPAS), but often comes too late in the process, by which time the debtors have tried to rectify their situation without success, and the arrears have built up.

The problems are often already too big and have escalated before the landlord initiates a lawsuit,” said Nathalie Debast of the VVSG. “CPAS then have a hard time working out an acceptable solution.”

The VVSG is now asking cities and municipalities to take measures to ensure there is an adequate supply of social rental housing – something that could take years to accomplish, even if the funding were available.

Housing associations could provide a solution. They can have social housing built, renovate existing homes or rent homes on the private rental market to rent out to social tenants.

The VVSG is also arguing for an expansion of the system of rent subsidies and rent premiums with which social tenants can find a rental home  on the private rental market.

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