Michel Vols studies evictions
‘The right to ownership dominates in our society’
He prefers the chaos of Budapest over the empress Sisi palaces in Vienna; the ruggedness of the Rotterdam Crooswijk area and the Weimarstraat in The Hague over the fancy neighbourhood of Benoordenhout, which is where he could have settled down back when he was still living in the Randstad.
Michel Vols, professor of public order law, likes things with frayed edges, rough neighbourhoods, society’s sharp corners, dirt, and disorganisation. Streets with slightly too many liquor stores, currency exchanges, and weed shops. In his research, he aims to help the people who live in these neighbourhoods; the needy, people who’ve been denied help because they’re prostitutes, because they’re confused or have mental issues.
Maybe it’s because he grew up in a socialist family, or maybe it’s because of the things he saw when he travelled around the world as a student. He worked in a Mother Teresa hospice in Calcutta, where the poorest people in the city came to die. In the Johannesburg city centre, he saw how forty thousand people had to squat in houses without electricity, without a trash collection system in place.
‘It’s impossible to not let that get to you’, he says. ‘I had to do something.’
What he did was focus his PhD research on the issue, studying how governments should handle people who caused a nuisance in their neighbourhood. It earned him a reputation as someone who stood up for the underdog. He consulted with municipalities and the government and was the driving force behind Overlastadvies.nl, a website that helped citizens handle nuisances in their environment.
His next big project earned him a 1.5 million euro ERC Starting Grant. Vols will be studying eviction proceedings after the 2008 financial crisis. The corona crisis has made this study even more relevant; it’s only a matter of time before a new wave of evictions hits.
Ten thousand people a year are evicted
‘Millions of people all over the world lost their homes in the 2008 crash’, says Vols. ‘They couldn’t afford to pay their rent or mortgage because they’d lost their job. We can see this starting to happen again in the US. The eviction protection there is coming to an end, and landlords will be able to kick out their tenants with just a single day’s notice. Imagine how you’d feel if you got a letter saying you need to leave your house by tomorrow.’
Vols predicts that the crisis will lead to evictions in Europe, as well. The last crisis led to more than a hundred thousand people losing their home in Spain. ‘In the Netherlands, ten thousand people are evicted a year. Ten thousand!’
This means that approximately thirty people a day get a letter saying the housing corporation wants to evict them. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been causing a severe nuisance, or maybe, and this is the most likely scenario, they are behind on the rent. Nevertheless, no one actively chooses to endanger their living situation. Eviction usually only exacerbates people’s problems.
Housing is a basic human right, but how does that work?
‘Fortunately, the Dutch housing corporations believe in second chances. They’ll let people stay as long as they get debt assistance or do something to work on their issues’, says Vols. ‘Still, ten thousand people a year get that eviction notice, and it’s extremely stressful to them.’
During the previous crisis, this number actually rose to more than twenty thousand at one point, says Vols. This will probably happen again in the current crisis. And these people don’t even represent the full number of citizens who face housing issues. No one even knows how many people have lost their homes because they could no longer afford to pay their mortgage.
‘Foreclosures are rare’, says Vols. ‘But that’s usually because people come to an agreement with their mortgage lender, or because the house is put up for sale online. No one really knows what happens after that.’
That alone is very interesting, but Vols is interested in a different concept: housing as a basic human right. Which it is: it’s set down in the Dutch constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, together with other basic rights like freedom of expression and the right to privacy. ‘But we don’t really know what the right to housing actually means’, he says. ‘It’s included in all these treaties, but how does it work in practice?’
In Great Britain, landlords can evict tenants with only a week’s notice
In Poland, extreme rent protection meant that is was nearly impossible to evict people. ‘Some people even stopped paying rent. One landlord had to go all the way to the European Court.’
In Great Britain, tenants have almost no protection. ‘Property is so expensive that the current generation has no chance of ever owning any’, says Vols. ‘Also, landlords can kick people out with only a week’s notice. All that judges in eviction cases do is sign the paperwork. They get through a thousand cases a week, easy.’
But when a British woman went to the European Court because she felt her eviction was unfair, they still couldn’t help her. ‘The landlord was free to kick her out’, says Vols. ‘Dutch tenants have it pretty good.’
The differences between the countries are weird, though. That is why, over the next few years, Vols will be studying the plethora of post-2008 eviction court cases in Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. They may be boring verdicts in cases any lawyer would deem simple and unexciting, but they provide insight into why judges approve some evictions while stopping others.
‘We’re going to use machine learning to study these cases’, says Vols. ‘We’ll be looking for certain phrases or texts in these verdicts. The computer can then use that to predict whether someone will be evicted or not.’
This would enable Vols to do something he could never do manually: find the connecting thread in these cases. He hopes to determine which concerns the courts give precedence to. He then wants to find out whether those are the ‘right’ concerns.
He’s worried that judges are simply too unfamiliar with the right to housing and don’t consider it in their verdicts. ‘The right to ownership dominates in our society’, says Vols. The rights of ordinary citizens are overshadowed by those of ‘big money’, like corporations or banks. Other rights, like the rights of children, also end up being eclipsed and not taken into consideration. ‘Why does that happen?’
‘The law’, Vols has concluded, ‘is usually just politics solidified.’ Lawyers and judges are often more interested in systems and applications. At the same time, they’re unaware of this. He wants to bring this to the foreground and find out how these ‘solidified politics’ relate to human rights. ‘I want to know why we can’t get past that.’
Translation by Sarah van Steenderen