Evicted in the midst of a pandemic: Belgium’s housing crisis

Evicted in the midst of a pandemic: Belgium's housing crisis

During the first lockdown, civil society organisations such as Belgian Action House and Front Anti-Expulsions proposed a rent strike in order to pressure authorities. They are now launching a campaign for those without housing to squat public buildings. Pictured here, an informational meeting between the leaders of these organisations and community members looking to join the rent strike.

(Pablo Garrigós Cucarella )

In the entrance are three pairs of shoes, each one smaller than the last. In the corridor, a handful of boxes are stacked against the wall. Voices and laughter can be heard from below. Mid-afternoon light streams into an empty living room, where two chairs replace what was once a sofa in front of the television. Otherwise, the room is virtually empty. After weeks of waiting, Florence* (a 36-year-old woman from Guinean) is finally due to be evicted on 10 December 2020, in just a few days time. She is ready to leave. Scared to death. Alone.

Florence has been living in Brussels since 2009 and has spent the last three years in social housing in the municipality of Schaarbeek. A few months ago, when it came time to renew her contract, she was told that the building had been sold and that she would have to go. A single mother of three small children, her part-time job as a cleaner in a hospital barely provides enough to survive, and finding a new flat is very complicated. She has spent months on a waiting list for social housing. There are thousands of families like hers in Belgium; 49,000 in September 2020 in Brussels alone.

While Europe’s housing crisis is nothing new, the pandemic has underscored the structural problems that exist in many countries which result in unaffordable rent, appalling sanitary conditions, energy poverty, hygiene problems and overcrowded flats. According to Housing Europe, the European Federation of Social Housing, while these issues primarily impact low-income citizens, “more and more people are affected by the lack of affordable housing, particularly in big cities”.

In the midst of a pandemic in which people have been told first and foremost to stay home, Florence finds herself threatened with eviction. While the irony is cruel, it is far from uncommon.

Government measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus have had a major impact on the country’s economy and above all its most vulnerable populations. According to Belgian social services, demand for food aid has increased by 20 to 25 per cent. The number of families unable to pay rent is also growing.

“Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I’m scared, I’m terrified to see my children in this situation…I’m afraid they’ll just throw me out without warning,” admits a visibly uncomfortable Florence, clutching her hands nervously, her voice barely a whisper. “I’ve had to sell the furniture, put everything into boxes…I don’t know what comes next.” On 10 December, she and her three children were finally evicted and have since been temporarily living in a shelter.

Before the outbreak of the virus, around 600 families in Belgium were being evicted from their homes every year. Social workers fear that this number will increase when the moratorium on evictions put into place in March by the authorities of Brussels and Wallonia, or the social assistance, including rent subsidies, put into place by the Belgian government to support the sectors most affected by the crisis, are lifted. The situation is even more difficult for those beyond the state’s reach who do not benefit from this type of support.

The pandemic has turned the universal right to housing into a health emergency. Thanks to the efforts of trade unions, the eviction freezes put into place during the lockdown continue to be renewed, though only in two of the country’s three regions, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region. These measures, however, do not always prevent evictions and do not address the high cost of rent, which many tenants cannot afford.

“Rents are too high compared to income,” explains José Garcia, spokesperson for the Tenant’s Union, who argues that prices often do not correspond with property values. Although the Brussels Region presented a plan in January to curb uncontrolled increases, it only consists of recommendations rather than regulatory measures, such as those put into place in Berlin and other cities.

The violence of eviction

The uncertainty that Florence faces is common amongst those threatened with eviction. Organisations like the Tenant’s Union and Front Anti-Expulsions offer legal assistance, attempt to negotiate with landlords and pressure the government to find long-term solutions. But their efforts are not always successful. Laura (33, from France), a single mother of two children aged 12 and 5, was also evicted. She lived in Flanders where the moratorium does not apply.

Laura had recently been laid off from her job as part of a redundancy procedure when the health crisis broke out. When the lockdown came into force, finding work became more difficult and she ended up losing her residence card. The European Union Citizens’ Rights Directive, which regulates freedom of movement within the EU, allows EU citizens to be deported to their country of origin when they become an ‘undue burden’ on the social system of their country of residence. While such deportations are uncommon, in practice Laura ceased to exist for Belgian social security. She was left without benefits, without support, and with two children to care for in the midst of the pandemic. From June onwards, she stopped paying rent.

In a matter of months, she received notice that her landlord had reported her and that she would be evicted: “I knew there would be an eviction, I just didn’t know when.” Her landlord then began a campaign of harassment, including several visits by the police, in order to force her to leave. Laura woke up one morning to a dark house with no running water after the landlord had turned off the utilities without warning. Just 48 hours later, on Friday 8 January, two bailiffs turned up on her doorstep to carry out the eviction. Laura insisted that she had never been notified of the date, which she is entitled to by law, to no avail.

Several weeks have passed and Laura still gets choked up talking about the painful memory of her eviction, the violence of the situation, the bad manners of the police, the landlord, the trauma of leaving her home behind. “My daughter keeps asking me if the police are done so we can go back home,” she says.

Laura and her children are now squatting in a former retirement home in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, where the owner has agreed to let them and dozens of other families stay while waiting for the necessary permits to demolish the building and start work on the site. Despite the lack of heating and other amenities, Laura is happy. Her children are safe and have other children to play with. The solidarity, she explains, is tremendous: “The less people have, the more they give.”

“I won’t lie, in a way, a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Knowing that I was going to be evicted was a burden,” explains a relieved Laura, her eyes reflecting a smile hidden by her surgical mask. Now all she can think about is finding a job and a flat.

Broken dreams

One of the hardest hit sectors has been the restaurant business. After years spent working in the hospitality industry, Li (35), a native of China living in Belgium since 2017, decided to invest all of his savings and open his own business. With the spread of Covid-19 in China, his main clientele began to disappear even before restrictions were put into place in Europe. In March, the government shut down bars and restaurants, crushing Li’s dream.

The bills began to pile up and, as Li explains, government aid has not been enough. He struggled to pay rent on both his business and his home in Antwerp. In September, evicted and broke, Li moved with his wife and two children, four years old and seven months old, into to a tiny hotel room with a couple of beds and a small kitchen in the centre of Brussels.

The situation became untenable. His wife fell into a deep depression after seeing the life she had built disappear before her eyes. Li himself admits to being overwhelmed, trying to provide for his family while feeling like he was running into a wall every day.

Exhausted and beset by debt, Li has been roaming the streets of Brussels for months in search of a flat. “I would never have imagined, never, that I could end up in a situation like this,” he admits, the disbelief reflected in his eyes. But he tries not to lose heart. “When this crisis is over, I will rebuild my life again,” he says with determination.

A few days after this interview, he managed to find a small flat in neighbouring Leuven, where he has since been living with his family while trying to rebuild his life.

Civil society resists in the face of the housing crisis

In the near-dark flat, the cold air chills the bones. There is a shabby kitchen, a few rickety pieces of furniture scattered around the living room and a collection of damp patches decorating the walls. Chiara (Italian, 29) makes a cup of tea, rolls a cigarette and wraps her hands around her cup. She speaks with enormous composure but is clearly exhausted after a year of surviving as best she can.

Before the crisis hit, Chiara was studying in Brussels and scraping by on a waitress’s salary. When bars and restaurants closed, her income was drastically reduced. The same happened to her flatmates. “The first thing our landlord did the day the lockdown started was to come to collect the rent,” she explains. “How do you want us to pay the rent in full if we don’t even know how we’re going to earn a living from today?”

She and her flatmates stood together and asked for a rent reduction to cover the costs for the duration of restrictions. Their landlord reluctantly agreed. In April, the Tenants’ Union proposed a ‘rent strike’ in an attempt to force a price reduction of at least 25 per cent. Though its success had been limited, Chiara decided to join in.

The pressure of the petition, or perhaps Chiara’s insistence, made her landlord agree to a rent reduction during the on-and-off lockdown over the last year. But Chiara acknowledges that not everyone is as willing to stand up as she, which is why government action is so important in the face of a situation that threatens to get worse.

Chiara’s gaze drifts off as she recounts her story with both weariness and pride, as if she were addressing an invisible public, an absent state.

“There are people who have seen their salaries reduced to 70, 50, even 25 per cent for those who were working off the books. That’s how the restaurant business works. Meanwhile, rent costs the same. Yes, the space hasn’t changed, but do we have a choice? They tell us to stay at home, not for our own good but for the good of society, but the government doesn’t assume that responsibility,” she says.

Those who have no support and no rights “are helpless, slaves to their owners,” says Chiara.

In the absence of government action, civil society has stepped in to fill the void. In Florence’s case, it was the Tenant’s Union who negotiated for her to stay at least a few more months. For Laura, it was the Front Anti-Expulsions that found her a housing alternative.

“If housing is both a right and now also an asset to society,” insofar as it is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, “we shouldn’t have to rely on landlords to be generous or kind with tenants, the government should act to lower rents,” says Chiara. “Having no job and no money while struggling to survive in your flat on a daily basis […] is much more violent than having to wear a mask. The government will end up paying for the consequences. This has to change. There’s no other way.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.

*The names of those affected have been changed at the request of the interviewees, who prefer to remain anonymous. Some details of Li’s story have been omitted to prevent him and his family from being identified for security reasons.