"They’re taking advantage of us"

Uncertainty about housing allowance for international students

Are international students entitled to housing allowance? The question has led to much confusion, tax demands and court cases. “Does it make any sense at all?”

(Het Nederlandstalige origineel van dit artikel staat hier)
“I freaked out!” recalls Julia Heuritsch; she had found a letter from the Tax Administration on her doormat. “I had to pay back my housing allowance – 1,500 Euros!”
She arrived in Leiden from Austria two years ago to do a Master’s in Astronomy. Because she was an international student, she could rent a studio on Hooigracht in the former Elizabeth Hospital, from DUWO, arranged by Leiden University’s SEA Housing.
“I read, in a Facebook group for international students, that everyone would tell me that I wouldn’t get a housing allowance, but I should apply for it anyway and not tell anyone about it. So I thought: OK … complicated.”
DUWO does not actively mention that option to its tenants. “We have noticed that, actually, it raises discussions”, says Michiel Ensink, DUWO Leiden’s location manager. To apply, a tenant needs a breakdown of the rent and service costs from the landlord but Ensink sees it as “something betweem the tenant and the Tax Administration; it doesn’t involve us.”
“Everyone in my block, at least, everyone who had heard of the allowance, got a demand”, says Heuritsch. She sent a letter of objection but the Tax Administration maintained that her flat did not qualify for housing allowance according to her landlord. “Apparently, it’s not an independent dwelling. Our Facebook group, which soon had eighty fellow tenants as members, collected pictures of our kitchens, toilets and front doors to show to the Tax Administration.”
The Tax Administration would not budge “on the grounds of information from both the landlord and the Landlords Records at the Allowances Office.”
Heuritsch turned to the university and DUWO for help. “They gave me a completely different reason: evidently I wouldn’t receive any housing allowance because I have a short-stay contract. I asked them: ‘Have you ever asked yourselves whether that makes any legal sense at all?’ I might as well argue that you should clean my house every week, but that doesn’t make it a law.”
The Housing Allowance Act makes one exception: “Unless the lease or letting contract pertains to the use of a dwelling which is short-term by nature.”
“Short-stay contracts are subject to that ‘unless’,” explains Ensink, for DUWO. “It’s written in the legislation and case-law confirms it: you don’t qualify for housing allowance in a temporary living situation, whether it’s a caravan or something else.”
But doesn’t that apply to all DUWO campus contracts? After all, they all terminate when the course ends. “No, not those. It really only applies to terms of six months, like international students’ short-stay contracts.”
Leiden lawyer Rogier Kamphuis has frequently helped out international students with housing allowance issues. “But it’s odd that several students from the same block on Hooigracht were confronted with the same problem within a short space of time.”
Heuritsch remarks: “I was terrified of every next letter from the Tax Administration. Meanwhile, I was trying to finish my thesis. I could hardly sleep for worry.”
Kamphuis was not worried, however. The Dutch courts have frequently ruled that, in these cases, such contracts are normal leases.”
But Ensink said precisely the opposite?
“Case-law varies quite a bit”, explains Elout Korevaar, a lawyer and the Civil-Law lecturer who teaches “Tenancy Law” at Leiden University. “If I were to move into a friend’s house for three months after a fight at home because I can’t stand to be near my partner for a while – that’s a short-term contract by nature.”
“The law hasn’t changed since the seventies”, says Albert de Vries, the Member of the Lower House for PvdA in charge of housing. “It was actually intended for holiday cottages, so that no one could apply for a housing allowance for one.”
“’Short-term by nature’ is a flexible description”, agrees Adriaan Ros, the Tax Administration’s press officer. “It’s not assessed in terms of quantity – it’s not an X number of months.”
In this case, a court case was narrowly avoided. Heuritsch recalls: “DUWO finally sent me the breakdown I needed the day before it went to court.” “The Tax Administration changed their minds without a proper explanation”, says Kamphuis. He is convinced that the short-stay argument was decisive. “Even once they had decided that most occupants lived in independent dwellings, the Tax Administration raised the short-stay contract as a new reason. Our objection was the only information that had been added to the case in the meantime.”
Jantien Delwel, Leiden University’s international student advisor, is familiar with the issue. She has a contact at the Tax Administration with whom she attempts to solve students’ problems. “I have an actual hotline to her”, Delwel says. According to her contact, there is another complication. “The Elizabeth Hospital has had separate units since it was converted into a student-housing complex. But they haven’t been registered as independent dwelling units yet. DUWO has always claimed they’re short-stay and with such conviction that I believed it. I don’t know why they say that, perhaps there’s a difference in tax deductions between short-stay tenants and long-stay tenants.” Kamphuis corrects her: “You can’t claim security of tenure if you have a temporary contract but the landlord will not gain or lose by it.”
There’s no financial advantage for us, agrees Ensink. “But I would have thought that allocating housing allowance would be easier for us, as the students would have more money.” Nonetheless, he wonders whether, in this case, the housing allowance was justified. “You could ask the Tax Administration. Perhaps there was an error. But look here: if the lawyer produced a good argument, it worked for him and it has become a legal precedent, then that’s fantastic.”
“My case is the precedent for fellow tenants now”, says Heuritsch. And as for being a real legal precedent: Kamphuis will be in court for another student on 26 November, so maybe that case will produce more certainty on the status of short-stay contracts.
Because, as Mr De Vries, M.P., says, “It’s a bit strange that one court should rule in favour of the short-term contract while another disagrees.” Perhaps the line “short term by nature” should be formulated more clearly?
Press Officer Ros from the Tax Administration replies: “I’m not trying to shift the blame, but the Ministry of the Interior writes the laws.”
Minister Stef Blok is in charge of Housing and has been working on a bill on temporary lease which should protect tenants with temporary contracts. The umbrella organisation for student accommodation Kences, to which DUWO belongs, is not happy with the initial draft. Kences had proposed “a formal record of the present practice” in which leases for international students are defined as “short-term by nature”.
“There’s a focus-group meeting with the Minister later this month,” says De Vries. “So I’ll ask him to make it clearer.”
“They’re taking advantage of international students”, says Heuritsch, looking back on the episode. “We don’t speak the language, we don’t know how the system works and we haven’t the time to do anything about it.” But still, it worked out for her – or nearly. “The amount on the decision granting reassessment is wrong, but I’m sure that we can sort it.” MvW

Things tend to go wrong

The conditions for a housing allowance include a rent (before tax) of no more than 403 Euros (€710 if you’re over 23), an income of no more than €21,950 a year, Dutch nationality or a resident permit and an independent dwelling. Single rooms generally don’t qualify.
Things tend to go wrong, especially for international students and so Leiden University now organises housing-allowance sessions. “Julia was by no means the first”, says international student advisor Jantien Delwel. “But since her case, we have listed all the accommodation eligible for housing allowance. There are hundreds of flats.” About eighty international students turned up at the last session to which tenants were invited; many students’ cases involved “impossible exceptions”.
“For instance, a student is married in her own country and her partner still lives there. She ticked the box ‘married’ on her application, but at the very end, she had to submit her partner’s DigiD. But as he doesn’t live in the Netherlands, she couldn’t claim an allowance.
“Others meet all the conditions but the former occupants of their flat haven’t de-registered from that address – so zilch. And what about non-EU students who have had a resident permit for ages but the Immigration and Naturalisation Service haven’t ticked the “legally in the Netherlands” box yet?”

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