Student - February 13, 2020

Drowning in bills... for something you already paid for

Luuk Zegers

Imagine coming home to a pile of bills, fines and letters threatening to confiscate your personal belongings... all for something that you already paid for. It happened to WUR-student Yichun Zhou. ‘I felt so helpless.’

Text Luuk Zegers Photo Guy Ackermans

When Zhou was studying for her Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture and Agribusiness in Delft, she lived with two roommates in a student house in Delfgauw. ‘While I was living there, I received a letter from the municipality which told me to pay two regional taxes: waste tax and water waste tax. This amounted to more than 400 euros per year. Because this was not mentioned in our contract, we decided to check with our landlord whether we should pay. He told us not to worry about it and that he would take care of it. We were relieved.’

However, when Zhou and her roommates had three months left on their contract, their landlord sent them a message, asking them to pay some bills. ‘We were confused, because all of a sudden he asked us to pay for those same taxes he had earlier said he would pay. But at that time, the three of us were very busy with internships and writing theses to finish our Bachelor’s degrees. And we trusted our landlord, so we just paid. To get it over with.’

Fresh start
After her graduation in Delft, Zhou moved to Wageningen for her Master’s in Health, Communication and Life Sciences. ‘Ready for a fresh start. But quite soon, letters started pouring in. When I opened them, I could see they were bills. Because they were all written in Dutch, I could not really understand what they said. So I asked my Dutch roommates.’

Zhou’s roommates explained that the letters were bills and reminders to pay for the local taxes of her student house in Delfgauw. ‘I could not believe it: my former roommates and I had already paid those taxes to our landlord—taxes that weren’t ours to pay in the first place. But the letters just kept coming and after a while, they became very threatening. Each letter told me to pay up immediately, because otherwise the amount would increase. And I could not reach my landlord.’

Her Dijkgraaf roommates advised her to pay as soon as possible. ‘But it felt wrong to pay twice for something that we should not even have paid for in the first place.’ Zhou dialled the phone number on the letters. ‘I wanted to fight back.’

Sorry, not sorry
The person on the other end of the line told Zhou it was not his responsibility and redirected her to someone else. Who redirected her to someone else, who... etc. etc. ‘After being kicked around like a football for an hour, I finally spoke to a person who said he would help me. But when I sent him my documents and the proof that we paid it to our landlord, he told me that he could not help me and that I should just pay.’

Meanwhile, Zhou had joined WUR’s Student Council. ‘We worked long hours, learning the job on the go. But when I came home after a long and busy day, I could not relax, because I had to stress about solving this whole tax thing. With every letter I received, the amount we had to pay increased. My Delfgauw roommates thought it was unfair to expect me to fight back. But I was listed as first tenant on the contract, so I was the one who received all the threatening letters. Which meant that I was the one who had to fight back. I wanted to, but the municipality of Delfgauw was not supportive at all. I felt so helpless, so alone.’

In November 2019, the threatening tone of the letters increased. ‘It started with a “writ of execution in the name of the king” and the letter said that if I did not pay within two days, they were allowed to confiscate my salary or my belongings.’ Exhausted and depressed from what felt like a fight she was dragged into against her will, Zhou asked HousingDesk Wageningen for help. ‘I explained what happened and showed them all the letters. Together, we tried calling my landlord again, but he did not pick up and did not reply to the voicemail. In the end, we decided together that it was best to pay: the whole thing had escalated way too far to solve it any other way. But they listened to my story and tried to help me. That alone made me feel so much better.’

On 9 December, Zhou transferred the money to the collection agency. Her former roommates shared the costs. ‘The lesson I learned is: don’t just pay every bill your landlord sends you. And if something bad happens to you, you have to act immediately. If you cannot figure it out on your own, ask for help. But take an active position, because if you wait, things will only get worse.’

Housing: rights, duties and safety
Advertisements of non-existing rooms; landlords not paying back deposits; disputes over who should pay for what; contract issues... There are quite some pitfalls when it comes to renting a room and it is not always clear what rights you have as a renter. So student council party Sustainability & Internationalization (S&I) will host an event to clarify the rights and duties of renters, safety regulations, where to go for help and other housing related issues. ‘Housing! Rights, Duties and Safety’ (in collaboration with Wageningen municipality, Student Alliance and HousingDesk) will take place on Thursday 20 February 12:30—14:00, in Speakers Corner in Impulse.