Originally written in Dutch for Veto by Daan Delespaul
Translated to English & adapted for The Voice by Gwynne van Kaauwen (Section Editor)
Originally published on 5 October 2020
‘Ahmad’ or ‘Willem-Jan’, a name still makes a difference. Under the aliases Ahmad Boulas and Willem-Jan Paridaens, Veto sent twenty emails to the same landlords, alternating as first or second. Willem-Jan received fourteen replies, Ahmad only eleven.
Furthermore, the content of these replies differed greatly based on the sender. Ahmad heard multiple times that the rooms were already rented out. Only four times he effectively got an invitation for a showing. Compared to that Willem-Jan turned out to be more successful: after his first email he received eleven invitations.
Mainly the second score gives an impression of ethnical discrimination, states Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe, sociologist at the VUB and Flemish expert in real-life experiments. ‘Often landlords will reply formally, but they will blow off visits from a tenant with a migration background.’ Ahmad was told multiple times that the rooms were not available anymore, while the ad would remain online for days.
'Are you really a student?'
Certain landlords do not hide their preferences. A landlord from the Prelatenstraat told Willem-Jan to be looking for ‘a calm student whose parents live in Belgium’. Even though Ahmad later on sent her an email in Dutch, he never received an answer.
'The problem is proof: you will rarely hear a landlord directly say that he discriminates against you'
Rejecting a tenant based on their skin colour, gender or even language is in principle not allowed, says Jogchum Vrielink, professor discrimination law at the Université Saint-Louis. ‘The problem is proof: you will rarely hear a landlord directly say that he discriminates against you. You often have to do half of a real-life experiment to get a somewhat substantiated suspicion of the potential discriminatory reason for that rejection.’
Also Laura*, a student with African roots, recognizes such hidden discrimination: ‘My mother and I had an appointment for a kot showing. Although the landlord knew that we would wait in front of the door, she walked by gazingly. When she called us soon after, she seemed surprised that we were the ones for the appointment.’
During the effective visit to the kot the landlord hardly gave information and she constantly kept an eye on Laura and her mother. ‘She absolutely wanted to know if I was really a student and kept asking as if she didn’t trust me.’ The landlord may not have said anything explicitly discriminatory, but ‘due to her behaviour, we felt very unwelcome’.
Incidents like Laura’s contain insufficient evidence for a complaint. Exactly that makes the issue invisible for policy makers. ‘One of the classic solutions to that are real-life tests. In cities where that was implemented, it seems to make a difference,’ according to Vrielink.
'We grant the kotlabel to landlords who are student friendly. Obviously discrimination is in violation of that'
Real-life experiments are also on the agenda in Leuven, but these would not be implemented for kots. Leuven deputy of Living and Equal Chances Lies Corneillie (Groen) recognizes that students are not the priority of the testing policy, ‘but’, says Corneillie, ‘the action plan that will follow from these tests, could be extended to the student housing market as well.’
City Leuven created the kotlabel together with the KU Leuven, an instrument that checks safety, quality and conformity of rental agreements. ‘Do not discriminate’ is one of the core principles a landlord with a kotlabel has to ensure. Nonetheless all kots used in our experiment were in possession of the label.
‘We grant the kotlabel to landlords who are student friendly,’ Ludo Clonen explains, head of the Housing Service of the KU Leuven. ‘Obviously discrimination is in violation of that.’ In case of complaints, a violation of that requirement can lead to a halt to the collaboration. ‘But proactive checks are missing,’ he admits.
Corneillie as well as Clonen reacted worried to the numbers. ‘As a city we are not really responsible for student housing like this,’ Corneillie states, ‘but we could strive for a diversity criterion at the kotlabel. The green kotlabel should actually guarantee everything; discrimination would run counter to the philosophy of the certificate.’
On behalf of the Housing Service, Clonen mainly sees issues for international students. ‘It has happened that landlords rejected international students on the idea to ensure a healthy ‘mix’ of Belgian and international students.’ Vrielink recognizes another problem specifically for international tenants: ‘They are often here for at most a year, while a lot of landlords would prefer tenants for longer periods.’
'Unfortunately there is still stereotyping, such as Spaniards who would party too much'
Though not all incidents are equally innocent. Two independent witnesses remember conversations with landlords who spontaneously ‘reassured’ them not to rent to Chinese students because they would not integrate well or would not be hygienic. Even an administrator of a KU Leuven-residence made a statement to ‘rather avoid’ Chinese students for that reason.
Multiple witnesses connect discrimination against Chinese students in particular to rental office Studentencomfort. A former employee explained to Veto last year that he got the advice not to rent to Chinese people, because they ‘shit in the shower’. Back then, landlord Javedani rejected these allegations.
However, a second former employee confirms that image: ‘One time there was a Chinese student at the reception who was interested in a kot. After we filled in the form, I brought it to my boss. She looked at the name and asked the heritage of the student. When I said that I thought she was Chinese, I received the instruction to tell her she was not allowed to rent.’
Verhaeghe is not surprised that Chinese tenants struggle in Leuven: ‘The worldwide stereotypes about them increased due to COVID-19. We notice that because of this they struggle more on the housing market.’ So far, Clonen noticed no impact on the housing market for Asians specifically: ‘Although unfortunately general stereotypes still exist, for example of Spaniards who party too much.’
'At the moment, landlords ask for more information beforehand. More and more often these are inappropriate questions with concealed discrimination'
Vrielink confirms that a tenant can be refused on objective, individual grounds, ‘but these can simply not be based on them belonging to a group. This can be done through an intake conversation for example.’
Within the Leuven rental market, the knowledge about such appropriate reasons turns out to be substandard. Again under the alias of Willem-Jan, this time as a landlord who asks for help renting kots, we sent a message to three Leuven rental offices. Willem-Jan as a landlord has an explicit preference for students with Belgian roots, because ‘that is easier for communication’.
That criterion is legally insufficient to justify discrimination. Language issues are an infamous grey zone, but are only justified in case the landlord lives at the rental place himself and surely not on the basis of ‘heritage’. Nonetheless, two out of three offices respond positively to the question. The third rental office points directly to its professional deontology.
Also in this case the Corona crisis does not help. Corneillie notices that landlords can hide more easily behind preconceptions due to the communication at distance: ‘At the moment, landlords ask for more information beforehand. More and more often these are inappropriate questions with concealed discrimination.’
*Laura is a fictitious name. The name of the person concerned is only known to the editors.
Addition compared to the original article:
A recent ruling:
The rental office has to pay a compensation of 1300 euros to the candidate-tenant and 500 euros to every other person who would be discriminated against. Unia views this ruling as ‘a significant progress in the fight against discrimination at the rental housing market.’
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