Tuesday 05 July 2022

Tenant rights body wins case against ‘network living’ landlord

Photo: Despositphotos.com

Tenant rights foundation Woon does not have to remove or rectify a news blog that said tenants felt ‘intimidated’ by property firm Change after a dispute about costs, according to a court ruling.

Change is a property developer and management company that offers what it calls ‘networked living’ for employed young people – low cost studios with other services and facilities such as a gym and fast internet charged as extras.

However, 250 tenants at two of its buildings in Amsterdam had formally protested about ‘community services’ costs of €75 to €120 a month on top of their rent and standard service charges. In a separate hearing last June, judges said the community services charges were unlawful and needed to be refunded –  something which has not yet happened. Service costs have, however, tripled and some tenants have refused to pay.

In March this year, the foundation Woon published a news blog alleging that ‘Change is not extending the contracts of difficult tenants’, as well as a summary of the continuing dispute about costs – in Dutch and English.

Questions

After Change protested about the article, Woon made some amendments, and pointed out that tenants who disputed the service charge raise were being offered a tenancy extension if they paid.

In the meantime, Dutch media including consumer rights programmes Boos and Kassa, the Parool and AT5 have questioned billing practices at Change, which has one development in Utrecht and manages another two developments in Amsterdam. There have been formal questions about the contents of the Woon article in the Dutch parliament and Utrecht council.

‘Privacy’

This month, Change Vastgoed Beheer and Ralph Mamadeus, its founder, director and sole shareholder, issued a summons claiming his ‘right to respect for privacy’ was breached by Woon’s news article because it was an ‘unlawful violation of his honour and reputation’.

The summons said Mamadeus was an entrepreneur motivated by ethics and philosophy, including Rousseau’s social contract, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and the Welshman Robert Owen, a reforming, socialist manager of the New Lanark cotton mills near Glasgow in Scotland.

In a court hearing earlier in May, Mamadeus strongly asserted that he does not intimidate tenants and is not a ‘huisjesmelker’ – a derogatory term for a ‘house-milking’ landlord. Royce de Vries, his lawyer, said the Woon article should conform to journalist norms of right of reply and balance, and claimed that it portrayed Mamadeus as a ‘seedy huisjesmelker’.

Abuses

However, a judge in Amsterdam has now found that Woon was entitled to publish the article, as part of its work and under freedom of expression laws. She said that part of Woon’s mission to protect tenant interests is to ‘express itself in public in a critical, informative and warning way about abuses’.

Woon presented three statements from former tenants to back up its allegations, including one made anonymously, and these represented the necessary ‘serious indications for serious allegations such as these’, the court said. The judge added that intimidation does not need to be physical.

Costs

In a new news blog, Woon reported that it had been found justified on all points, and that ‘we were allowed to write in a sharp way and had every indication to do this.’ It said that there was reason to revisit the original article, and plan ‘more action’, as the tenant in question is now being evicted.

De Vries told Dutch News that Mamadeus and Change were unhappy with the verdict. ‘It is of course disappointing for my clients that the rectification claim has been disallowed,’ he said in an email. ‘An important balancing factor for the judge was that Stichting Woon – under pressure from the proceedings – had already altered and weakened the article, so the judge considered my clients’ interests had sufficiently been met.

‘For my clients, it was and is of the utmost importance that it is clear that they never gave an order to make things difficult for tenants, as stated in the original version of the article – even if there is a difference of opinion with that tenant.’

Costs of €1,692 for the ‘privacy’ case – including for Woon’s lawyer – must be paid by Change and Mamadeus.

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