In conversation with Joy Verstichele

  • March 16, 2021

To get everyone involved in the story of energy efficient renovation, you need to know their specific problems. This also applies to the rental sector. What needs to be done to get this ever-growing sector to renovate? And what is the current situation? BE-REEL! had a conversation with Joy Verstichele, coordinator of the Flemish Tenants Platform (Vlaams Huurdersplatform).

joyJoy Verstichele is a sociologist by training and has also studied political communication sciences. He started as a coordinator at the social rental office in Waregem, where he first came into contact with landlords, prospective tenants and authorities. He soon noticed the tremendous pressure on the housing market and the ever-growing waiting lists. That is why he wanted to help tenants on a larger scale by proposing structural solutions at regional level to deal with the ongoing housing crisis.

What exactly does your job entail?

“I am the coordinator of the Vlaams Huurdersplatform, a non-profit organisation with a threefold mission recognised by the Flemish Government. Firstly, we support the operation of the five tenant unions (= organisations that provide individual legal rental advice). Secondly, we support VIVAS, the Flemish network of social tenants. This is a group of committed social tenants from all over Flanders who try to make a difference by making recommendations at a higher policy level based on their experiential knowledge. Third, we represent tenants' interests with a focus on the most vulnerable ones. This ranges from participating in research and reporting on policy developments to participating in consultations and giving lectures. ”

Is your work project-based?

“Usually not. We think collaboration is very important, because you cannot do everything on your own. We mainly work on specific themes and look for the appropriate partners. An example of such a theme is resident participation: we think it is normal for a school to have a parent council and a student council that think along about the operation of the school, but with social renting there is no such framework, even though the demand for it is high. ”
 

FLEMISH TENANT PLATFORM

You have already largely answered above what the Flemish Tenant Platform does, but can you explain more about how it works?

“We are a fairly small non-profit organisation that is legally and policy-inspired and always tries to pick up signals from the field and translate them into policy. We employ 5 people. Together we organise ourselves in such a way that we can perform our assignments optimally. We are a small team where the range of tasks is clearly defined, but because there are so many interfaces between those tasks good coordination is essential.

Just under half of the buildings do not meet the minimum quality requirements.

Formally we have ten organisations that are members of the Flemish Tenants Platform, but in practice we work closely with many more organisations. In this way we ensure that we can really translate what is going on in the field. Because we are also a valued voice in rental issues, we easily find each other. ”

What is the current situation on the rental market in terms of energy efficient renovation and how does the Flemish Tenants Platform feel about this?

“The housing quality on the private market is very substandard. Just under half of the buildings do not meet the minimum quality requirements. Apparently we cannot obtain a sufficiently high-quality housing stock. Any improvement in housing quality can be attributed to new construction. By the way, this is about minimal requirements and not about the latest construction technologies. When we talk about energy, we have to be careful not to narrow the debate too quickly to only energy quality, but instead guarantee comprehensive housing quality.

This does not alter the fact that energy is a separate challenge. Because let me be clear, renovation is a huge priority for us. When you see how some tenants have to live, it is pure horror. Just think of the harrowing Panorama (= a Flemish television program) report from recently. It is a daily concern for our tenants, especially in times of lockdown. So yes, housing quality is a particularly big concern for our tenants, and therefore also for us. ”
 

To what extent do you encourage tenants to think about energy efficient renovation?

“Keep in mind that the impact of a tenant on the choice for energy efficient renovation is very limited. He cannot make any changes to the rented property. By the way, it would not be logical for a tenant to bear such costs since it is not his home. You have a big split incentive. Investments by landlords primarily benefit tenants. Although we should also not forget that these investments also generate extra value for the property. For tenants, housing quality is a basic right, for many landlords it is primarily an investment.
 
It is therefore very unfortunate that the government does not give renovation premiums to landlords. It is perfectly justifiable to give them renovation premiums, if some conditions are attached to protect the tenant, such as a guaranteed long-term lease at reasonable prices and a home that scores well in terms of energy efficiency. With possibly an extra allowance as the house performs better energetically. When you know that the tenants' need is so great, it is incomprehensible that this does not already happen., Every home is rented out, even those of substandard quality. Because supply and demand are so skewed, it is logical that landlords do not feel the need to renovate and can rent low-quality homes at a fairly high price. ”

OPINION QUESTIONS

Imagine: as a policymaker you are allowed to change / draw up 1 policy measure to help achieve your objectives. Which one do you choose and why do you choose it? (You can choose the policy level yourself)

“That is actually easy to answer: the expansion of a high-quality social rental offer is the number one priority. That recipe has already proven its worth. In principle, this could also let us respond more quickly to innovative challenges such as the energy transition. In a social rental market you have more options to respond to this. You will find yourself in a situation where you should be able to offer people a high-quality affordable home and in which a government takes on innovative challenges with policy. It is important to keep in mind that money in social housing is primarily an investment and barely a cost. If you invest in land and homes for the social rental market, the government gets a clear return. That money is not lost and in the meantime we can guarantee the constitutional right to housing for more people. ”

About which hypothesis / theme about energy efficient renovation would you want a study or concrete action to appear and why?

“There is certainly already a lot of knowledge available. One topic where there is still some room for further research is the link between effective investments and the resulting behavior. Certainly because this is often reflected in discussions about payback models. It is then expected that the behavior of residents will also adapt as a result of investments. However, the link between the two is not so clear-cut. It is dangerous to work with simulations that do not capture this sufficiently. Especially if that return on investment has become a main argument in the debate. ”
 

What do you think works best to get the landlord to renovate? And what is not working?

“At the moment nothing is happening at policy level to get landlords on board in the necessary renovation wave. You only have the minimum mandatory standards that can be checked. This often happens after a complaint from a tenant. Many tenants do not file a complaint because they may lose their accommodation as a result and there is no alternative. So in practice that sanctioning policy has a perverse side effect for the tenant. Why not work with a system such as the vehicle inspection, in which, by analogy, the landlord must be able to prove that he is offering a house for rent that is in order from the start of a renting period?

At the moment nothing is happening at policy level to get landlords on board in the necessary renovation wave

This does not detract from the fact that we must also effectively offer trajectories to landlords to proceed with renovations. A good mechanism, for example, is what Het Pandschap does. They renovate a rental home, rent it out to a social rental agency, creating a housing solution for someone with a housing need. With the rental income, the renovation costs are systematically paid off and the property is then returned to the owner's management. Mechanisms of this kind should become bigger and more familiar so that the rental market shifts. ”

In 2018 you wrote the book “the invisible housing crisis”, in which you shed light on the reality behind the numbers and tell some poignant stories. Why did you choose that approach?

“The combination of faces and insights reflects the situation most clearly. It is difficult to have a numerical discussion without knowing who or what is behind those numbers. In contrast, individual problems are often described as anecdotal, so that a structural solution would not be an option. By combining figures and faces, I try to reflect the impact of poor housing quality on a family or single person. At the same time, this also shows that this problem transcends an individual household. In other words, it is a structural problem and that requires structural solutions. Because of their size, those solutions will not just come out of the blue. I wanted to demonstrate that this situation was allowed to develop because the social rental market was kept small and the private rental market was given only minimal guidance. The government really needs to take the initiative here and decide on another approach. If it doesn't, the crisis will persist or even worsen. ”

Finally, a question about the future of renting in Belgium: do you notice some favorable or worrying trends? If so, which one?

“We currently do not see a turnaround in order to increase the share of social rental housing. We also see little initiative for the private rental market. We can only hold on to a sentence from the coalition agreement of the government that establishes a new growth path for social rental housing that takes into account the actual housing need. That target group is calculated as a quarter of a million households. Hopefully that will still be a harbinger of increased ambition. ”


Thank you for this conversation!

You can find more information about the Flemish Tenant Platform on their website.

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