December 11, 2017
Guest post by Magdi Birtha, expat in Brussels
Gandhi is a young Indian person, who works in Brussels and earns 3700 EUR net a month. I stop here for a moment. If you are a bit familiar with the Belgian labour market and tax system, you know this is a very high income, a salary that many of us would only dream of. Gandhi needs an apartment as of early next year, preferably close to the office, near Merode. You would think that someone with such a high income has absolutely no problem with finding a nice apartment.
Me and my partner wanted to move to another apartment in Brussels and had two choices to get out of our current rental contract. Either we could give a 3 months’ notice, or leave with a 1 month notice, but then we had to find someone to replace us, a person with a stable income, who is acceptable to our landlord. Gandhi visited our apartment and decided to take over our contract. It sounds like an uninteresting story, but unfortunately I cannot bore you with the details of us signing the contract with Gandhi and moving out of our apartment. In the contrary, the story turned out quite differently.
Upon request of the real estate agency that is managing our apartment, Gandhi provided all necessary documents, including the copy of passport, work permit, last 3 months’ payslips and the work contract. For the agency that wasn’t enough. They argued that because Gandhi has a fixed term contract in Belgium until November 2018, there is a need to find a guarantor with a stable income. Gandhi asked a colleague to be the guarantor, who has a similarly high income, and was able to send all requested document straight away. The agency got back to us and rejected Gandhi as a tenant, arguing that the guarantor did not have a permanent work contract in Belgium neither. We further suggested that Gandhi’s savings should be taken into account, but this option was also rejected. This was the moment when I started to wonder: do you really need a permanent work contract in Belgium to be able to rent an apartment? How would the hundreds of expats, including contract agents at the European Commission, assistants of members of the European Parliament, or academics with fixed-term contracts be ever able to rent an apartment in Brussels then? I mean not even members of the European Parliament would have a permanent Belgian work contract, although I am pretty sure they would make a reliable enough tenant with their over 13 000 EUR monthly net income. All temporary staff members of EU Institutions I know, actually had no problem finding a home in Brussels.
I was saddened by realizing that the real problem might not be the type of contract, but the type of passport Gandhi holds. At that moment, I had to corner the agency, so I asked in an email: ‘Are you saying that you will not accept anyone who has a high income, but a fixed-term contract to take over our contract?’. They had two options: either to admit that they simply discriminate Gandhi, but would be willing to take people from EU institutions, or declare that they only want people with a permanent work contract in Belgium to become their tenant. The latter happened and it truly upset me anyway. Not all people have permanent work contracts in Belgium. In fact, there are many people living on social benefits. How will they find housing if such narrow, discriminative rules are enforced by landlords? Furthermore, what does a permanent contract mean in Belgium in 2017? Almost nothing. I have a permanent contract, make half of the money that Gandhi does, and I could be fired any moment with a 1 month notice. Yet, I was found eligible to be the tenant of this apartment for the past 2 years.
Finally, we stayed in our old apartment and continued to have a roof over our heads. But what will happen with Gandhi when money cannot buy you a flat rental contract in Brussels? If you are systemically discriminated by landlords and real estate agencies, because you come from India. If there is a completely unfair expectation to find someone with a permanent Belgian contract who would become your guarantor when you move to another country, as an expat. I deliberately say Gandhi is an expat and not an immigrant. Just like me, or anyone else, moving to Belgium for work. We should all be treated equally and be accepted as tenants. It seems, this is not the case in Brussels in 2017.