Published On: Fri, Jan 17th, 2020

Rent Committee: Evictions without permission is a criminal offense

PHILIPSBURG — The waning economy is responsible for more people being unable to pay the rent and being evicted from their home. Only a few of them are aware that they have rights as a tenant, says Leyton James, secretary of the Rent Committee. “People need to understand that eviction without permission from the Rent Committee is a criminal act.”

A pile of envelopes is sitting on the desk of the secretary, all requests from landlords to let the tenant be removed. The reason is payment arrears, or the wish of the landlord to completely renovate the house. In the event of a rising rental debt, or postponed renovation of the house after Hurricane Irma, the Rent Committee, or ‘Huur Commissie’ as it is known in Dutch, must give permission for termination of the lease, James says.

Carl Duinkerk - 20200116The stack of envelopes also contains requests from landlords who want to get rid of their tenant because they want to increase the rent. One of them owns an apartment complex on Sucker Garden Road. Carl Duinkerk (68) and his wife have been living there for fifteen years in a two-bedroom apartment, for which they pay a $650 monthly rent. “A few months ago I was told by the landlord that she had increased the rent by 200 dollars,” says Duinkerk. “I told her she can’t just raise the rent like that.”

The landlady insisted. Duinkerk still remembers the day well: “In October last year I received a letter stating that we had to leave the building. Then I realized that it was no use arguing with her and I went to the Huurcommissie.”

The Huurcommissie-regeling (regulation) has been applicable in St. Maarten since March 1st, 1977, and is a national ordinance (landsverordening), a law adopted jointly by the government and parliament. The original regulation from 1939 had the title: “Decree of the 26th October 1939, containing regulation to curb the unreasonable increase in the rental prices of houses.”

Rent Committee Building - Huur CommissieThe law stipulates that landlords in St. Maarten must have prior permission from the Huurcommissie to determine and whether or not to increase the rent. “Newly built houses, first put into use on or after March 1, 1977, may not be rented unless the Huurcommissie has determined the rent. When determining the rent, the Huurcommissie takes into account the total construction costs, including the value of the land, of the relevant property, provided that the rent per year may not exceed 12 percent of the construction costs.”

Many tenants on St. Maarten pay a rent that is much higher than 12 percent of the construction costs, James knows. “Rental homes have become unaffordable for many. This situation arose after hurricane Luis in 1995. Many property owners were not insured, or insufficiently insured, and took out loans with the bank to restore homes. To be able to pay their debts at the bank, many raised the rent, often disproportionately. They nevertheless found new tenants. There was a large shortage of homes after the hurricane and people need a roof over their heads.”

Carl Duinkerk, member of the board of the St. Maarten Consumers Coalition, knows that he is protected by law as a paying tenant and that his landlord cannot deny him and his wife access to the property. But he did not feel comfortable with it at all. “Even if I would want to pay the rent increase, I would not be able to,” says Duinkerk who is retired. “I receive 600 guilders ($333,33) in pension each month. If I didn’t have a few odd jobs, I wouldn’t be able to pay the current rent.”

The landlord raised the rent after having had the roof of the apartment complex repaired two years after Hurricane Irma. “She assumes that the building is worth more now,” says Duinkerk, who was left with damaged furniture after the hurricane. “And also a bedroom that could not be used when it rained. That situation has existed for two years and I paid the full rent all the time.”

James: “There are people who think that the law does not apply to them.

Leyton James - Rent Committee - stamping documents - 20200116

Duinkerk was given until today, January 17, by his landlord to pay the rent increase. However, on November 29, 2019, the Huurcommissie denied the petition for approval of rent increase by the owner and she had been informed of the decision. “There are people who think that the law does not apply to them,” James says mockingly.

Due to his own negligence, Duinkerk was unnecessarily in uncertainty for weeks. “Why didn’t you come earlier?”, James asked when Duinkerk was sitting opposite him in his office yesterday. “The decision letter has been here for weeks, you just had to sign.” Duinkerk apologized by saying that he was very busy with the fruit and vegetable fair of the St. Maarten Consumers Coalition, he often left his phone in the office when carrying boxes with fruits. James, shaking his head: “A roof over your head is more important, isn’t it? You can only help people if you first have arranged your own affairs.” He then gave Duinkerk the advice to call the police when the landlord harasses him and his wife, or when she denies the couple access to their home of fifteen years. “Home eviction without the consent of the Huurcommissie is a criminal offense,” James says. “She will be charged by the court a fine of 500 to 1000 dollars a day, as well as pay all legal expenses.”

Leyton James with Client - 20200116

Photo caption: Secretary of the Rent Committee Leyton James in his office. Photos by JH.