La Chambre des Représentants de Belgique
The Corona-pandemic, which originated about half a year ago, has inflicted a great amount of upheaval across the globe.
Besides the obvious toll in human life and the health effects the virus has extracted, the measures to combat the virus have also inflicted a tremendous economic damage. According to the Belgian National Bank the economy will contract by a drastic percentage, putting it back to where it was in 2009 and erasing up to 20 billion euros in economic value.
Although both the national and regional government have taken welcome measures to combat the economic fallout, these measures have disproportionately benefited a number of interest groups, who excel at lobbying, such as the polluting airline industry.
Nowhere is this discrepancy more glaring than on the housing market.
An economic crisis that could see thousands of tenants evicted in the months to come due to delinquencies brought on by COVID-19, has been met with an anemic moratorium on evictions in Brussels, set to expire on the 31st of August, leaving thousands of tenants facing possible eviction and homelessness during an unprecedented health crisis and during autumn and winter. In Wallonia, a 0% interest loan is offered only for 6 months, and it must be paid back within 36 months when economists are already predicting that the economic fallout will drastically impact the next .
A particularly vulnerable group, which has been left out in the cold by the Belgian legislators, are tenants. As has been noted by the Huurdersbond, the moratorium on evictions will expire earlier than in numerous surrounding countries and does not nearly suffice to protect tenants.
Not only are the lack of measures grossly unjust in itself, considering the vast sums that have been lavished on less deserving beneficiaries, but it also infringes on citizens’ elementary right to housing, which is guaranteed by both the Belgian Constitution and the European Convention on Human rights.
After all, as has been repeatedly emphasized by the European Court on Human Rights, in particular, the fact that an eviction is valid under national law because, for instance, the tenant is delinquent does not suffice to legitimize an eviction. Under article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Belgium is a party, the eviction of tenants who have defaulted on their rent payments needs to be proportional and reasonable. Particular attention needs to be paid to the plight of the (delinquent) tenant and whether he has the possibility to find a different place to stay before evicting him.
According to the undersigned, there is not the slightest doubt that large-scale evictions of delinquent tenants, who have lost their income in the wake of the Lockdown would therefore constitute a violation of article 8 ECHR.
The Belgian government is under the obligation to respect the basic rights of its nationals, including delinquent tenants. To comply with their obligations under both international law and national constitutional law, both the Federal government and the regional governments should take concerted action to balance the rights of tenants and small landlords.
Although the federal level is no longer competent for (Woninghuurovereenkomsten/Conventions de bail de résidence principale), it remains solely competent for all written contracts entered into before 1 January 2019. In the light of the above the undersigned wish to petition parliament to enact the following measures regarding these contracts, which would safeguard both tenants and landlords and would assure the Belgian government’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights:
The coronavirus has exacerbated existing class and regional divisions in Belgium, and will continue to do so throughout the crisis if drastic action is not taken. Property-owners have been able to delay rent payments to the bank, but other tenants will not be able to postpone it once they reach moratorium or loan deadlines. This could mean that Belgium will foster a growing population of families facing insecure housing.
Although regional governments must take action, disparate decisions on housing throughout the country by region have the risk of creating more disparity between the different regions of Belgium -- whereby some sectors of the population are more indebted or evicted at higher rates than others. The federal government must therefore propose federal solutions to the issue of housing throughout the pandemic that offer tenant relief. It must implement a moratorium for evictions of all delinquent tenants for contracts entered into before 1 January 2019.
Cancel all Rent Debt
The risk with an ongoing moratorium, however, is that Belgian citizens who have lost income or their jobs will, once the moratorium ends, be in large amounts of debt and possibly homeless. In order to curb this, we are advocating for a cancelling of all rent debt.
The government imposed lockdown, although necessary, has created a drastic loss of income for most Belgians. This income will most likely take years to recover, especially since the economic crisis is only just on the horizon. Belgians that have rent debt should have their debt cancelled rather than postponed.
Reduce Utility Bills
Workers’ utility bills have risen as most of their incomes have drastically fallen. While Belgians have had to pay increased utility bills due to recommended working-from-home measures, employers have saved on their usual office bills. Companies should cover the increase in utility bills of their workers throughout the period of teleworking. Any company bailout or government subsidy should include a clause that enforces companies to cover the increase in their workers’ bills due to the government-recommended teleworking.
As a step toward levelling the increasing wealth inequality that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated, we call for a radical decrease in taxes on electricity bills. According to a 2019 study from Eurostat, Belgium is one of the EU countries with the steepest electricity bill including one of the highest taxes, at 21% -- a tax bracket usually reserved for luxury goods. Utilities, however, are a necessity.
The federal government should also act to prevent any suspension of utilities due to non-payment or delayed payment until January 2021.
Rent Adjustment for Belgians who have Lost their Income
Due to the coronavirus crisis constituting a force majeure on tenants’ income, and the long-term economic impact of the pandemic on households, we advocate for a proportionate re-adjustment of rent according to their current loss of income.
This initiative aims to re-establish pre-COVID levels of income for every family and to supply rent relief for those that have lost their income through the crisis.
Emergency Relief Fund for Small Landlords
Small landlords should not be left without income. Small landlords (2 properties or less) that are impacted by moratorium and any rent adjustment due to COVID-19 should be eligible for an emergency relief fund.
Implementing Wealth Tax
Fernand Huts, who is now investing in real estate in Antwerp, has been named in the Bahama leaks -- a notorious report on shell companies and tax evasions. While companies such as Brussels Airlines have benefitted from a bailout of several million Euros, tenants have not received additional financial support throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
A wealth tax can be used to fund the rent adjustment and emergency relief fund for small landlords. Belgium is one of the only countries that doesn’t currently have a wealth tax; despite ¾ of Belgians supporting the initiative. According to the Hoge Raad voor financiën a wealth tax of merely 10% would yield an additional 1,2 billion euros a year in taxes.
Preventing massive evictions would serve this purpose. Small landlords could be indemnified through an emergency relief fund, which could be financed through the implementation of a wealth tax, as well as an equitable tax on large companies, particularly in the financial sector.
Respecting the civil rights of its citizens requires the Belgian government to make these basic, long overdue economic choices.
Apart from implementing moratoriums on legal action concerning the non-payment of rents or offering 0% interest loans, Belgium has done little to tackle housing insecurity during the coronavirus crisis. In comparison to France, Belgium did not suspend utility or rent payments. The Brussels parliament has also confirmed that there will be a support payment of 214.68 €, but this payment does not cover the drastic loss of income of the majority of tenants.
The cost of living has been rising in Belgium. Most specifically, the cost of rent is rising exponentially in the Brussels region and other cities such as Antwerp. In Flanders, the price of rent increased by 3.7% in just one year between 2018 and 2019. Such an increase in rent prices is being observed all over the country. This has evidently not been accompanied by a rise in wages.
Indeed, the member states of the European Union -- including Belgium -- have seen a drastic increase in precarious short contracts, and false independent contracting. In Belgium, 4.2% have a contract of 3 months or less, in comparison with Germany’s 0.4 %, and the Netherland’s 1 %. Belgium has seen a slower increase in flexible labour overall in comparison to other European such as the Netherlands. Nonetheless, there remains a steady increase in flexible labor, mostly due to the previous government (Michel I Government) who was a pro-interim labour government promoting 'flexijobs'. As stated in a 2018 article in DeWereldMorgen, the number of freelancers in the Flanders region drastically “increased by 53% between the year 2004 and 2013." We know that the consequences of an increase in flexible labour are: more profit for companies, and less pay and security for employees that constantly have to compete for their next source of income.
Under such contracts, the majority of workers do not have the ability to have the financial security to weather crises such as a pandemic. In cases where they would have access to benefits, workers have still been laid off, or their contracts not renewed, leaving them with little to no income and a very limited opportunity to find work.
The right to affordable housing
People living in Belgium have a right to affordable housing, with the Belgian government being under a legal obligation to ensure that the average cost of housing corresponds to average income and that the burden on the most disadvantaged households is in line with the resources at their disposal. However, the competent governments in Belgium have not made the slightest effort in this regard of late.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, the government response has not met the basic requirements of the ECHR. Even absent a moratorium, delinquent tenants should not be evicted during a pandemic.
The governmental response must meet the scale of the crisis.
The regions of Belgium have implemented different initiatives to cope with COVID-19. This has created a country in which Belgians do not receive the same amount of resources and care throughout a period of crisis. The federal government must take leadership in implementing federal reforms that acknowledge the economic impact of the lockdown on Belgian citizens in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.
The effects of this health and economic crisis will last for many years to come.
In Belgium, renters cannot refer to a force majeure before a judge in cases of non-payment. However, we argue that a force majeure should be able to be used concerning cases of non-payment occurring during -- and due to -- the pandemic and subsequent government lockdown.
A delinquency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic overhang thereof would not meet these basic requirements and therefore does not suffice for an eviction.