By Max van Geuns
— Students who lack the money to pay the municipal taxes in Amsterdam, a couple of hundred euros every year, can apply for kwijtschelding (a waiver). However, having been a student for the last three years, I discovered how impossible, incomprehensible and unfair this process is. As a journalist, I started an investigation and revealed eight other ‘incidents’ of the Gemeente Amsterdam. Where does it go wrong? And what will be done about this?
Over the past three years, I have been continually e-mailing documents, writing letters and forms, calling, and meeting with the Gemeente Amsterdam to receive a waiver for my gemeentelijke belastingen (municipal taxes) — a bureaucratic rollercoaster I wished to have never stepped into.
They requested my bankafschriften (bank statements), huurspecificatie (rental agreement), beschikking huurtoeslag (proof of rent benefit), beschikking zorgtoeslag (proof of care allowance), polisblad zorgverzekering (policy schedule), aangifte inkomstenbelasting (income tax return), and loonstrook (payment slip). I sent them everything. Not once, not twice, but at least three times. It took me hours, days, months, and, eventually, years. But by then, the reason for my endeavours — the fact that I just could not pay the taxes — were long forgotten. It became a principle road to justice: I would not pay the taxes.
My applications have been denied for different reasons. In 2015, they argued that I did not include documents that I actually did include. In 2016, instead of taking my average income as the standard, they took the month in which I earned the most. In 2017, they responded that one of the required documents was missing again. The last letter stated that my income and vermogen (assets) were too high. Once again, this was wrong: I earn less money than the limit of 993 euros per month, and I barely had any savings on my bank account.
It was only after I got help from my father Roeland van Geuns, who happens to work in poverty research, that I finally got some ‘real’ people to talk to: someone from the Gemeente, who would personally handle my ‘case’, and an independent person for mediation. The application for kwijtschelding that followed (processing three years of municipal taxes) got denied again. They stated that I would earn 220 euros per month by providing tutoring — a job I never even had.
At this point, we are months further. Months of writing more letters and sending more e-mails. Finally, they admitted that they had been wrong and I had been right. “Sloppiness,” said the woman who was personally assigned the job of handling my case. “We made some mistakes and we are sorry for that.”
They were sorry, but I am still in trouble. The current problem is that Waternet (the institution that receives the water authority taxes, which is one of the municipal taxes) has not processed my kwijtschelding yet. MijnWaternet says that my waiver applications for 2015 and 2016 are still being processed, and that my application for 2017 got denied. The total bill counts up to more than 500 euros. Money I still simply do not have.
Now, you might think that I am just unlucky to experience such an accumulation of mistakes. I actually thought so as well. It might just be an incident. The Gemeente Amsterdam could just have been sloppy with my case. However, when I started asking other students around me and did some poverty research of my own, I found out that these problems are a given in the student community of Amsterdam. Eight others told me their story.
Stories from Science Park
Many of the ‘problem-stories’ come from residents of the same street as where I live: on the Carolina MacGillavrylaan, in the ‘student bubble’ of Science Park. All of them are or were students at Amsterdam University College (AUC), where I am graduating this year. They have been facing several problems over the last few years, but each one of them seems to face a different issue.
First, there is a communication problem between the Gemeente Amsterdam and Waternet. Yentl Stutterheim (21) had already applied for kwijtschelding, when she suddenly got an official warrant from Waternet last year. She called them and explained that she had applied for a waiver with the Gemeente. Waternet gave her until March to fix it. “Meanwhile, we are eight months further and my application is still being processed,” Stutterheim says. “I am being shuttled from pillar to post. Waternet is sending me warrants, while the Gemeente is asking me for more patience. I am sick of it. The bill is totalling up to almost 1,000 euros, so it is really important for me to get that waiver.”
A second problem is that the Gemeente maintains untruthful information about some students. Tobias Traxler (21) has been calling with the Gemeente for months. His waiver application got denied, because he would be trading waardepapieren (securities) — something he is sure to not be involved in. Traxler is from Austria and does not understand Dutch, which is not helpful for his situation. “I have had multiple conversations with the Gemeente,” he says. “These always ended in them telling me that they will take care of it.” Not much later, he received new warrants from Waternet and Traxler had to call again. “This has been an ongoing fight for a year now.”
The third problem concerns documents that are not correctly processed. Lotte Bijsterbosch (22) received warrants about taxes she thought she had already waived. The Gemeente stated that she would not have sent an overview of her student loans. However, e-mail conversations actually prove the Gemeente wrong. “I filed an objection,” she says, “but I received another payment reminder soon after.” When she called the Gemeente, they told her that they did not know what happened with her objection. They would link it to her new application. “The fine I received is still standing and I am still waiting for their decision.”
Fourth, students experience problems because they have no income, but assets they need for other purposes. Eva van den Berg (23) got in trouble because of a large amount of earlier savings. “That money was to pay my tuition fees and rent from,” she explains. “These savings are all already gone by now. However, I still have to pay the taxes from those years, because I used to have the money. The worst thing is that my income is currently literally zero. For the entire last year, I did a full-time unpaid internship, so I could not do paid work at all.”
A fifth story from Science Park has to do with the student loans from DUO. Since 2015, Dutch students receive no grants anymore. Instead, they can take a student loan under reasonable conditions. Despite that, AUC-student Merel Kuijs (20) wished she had never taken a loan. She saved her loans to pay for her exchange semester in Singapore. This money was all seen as vermogen (assets) by the Gemeente. Although she really needed that money and she will eventually have to pay it back, the loan resulted in her having to pay the municipal taxes.
Main problems in Amsterdam
However, the problem does not only exist in Science Park. The five people who did their entire stories for this article are all personal connections of mine, going to the same university and living in the same dorms. Within these buildings, they are not the only ones. Nearly everyone I spoke to about the kwijtscheldingen has the same reaction: “Well, has anybody ever succeeded in getting the waiver?”
For sure, there are some. Of all 159,636 applications for either the afvalstoffenheffingen (waste collection charges), the waterschapsbelastingen, or the gecombineerde aanslag (which takes both into account) in the last three years, 62,310 have been fully granted. And no, not all of the others are eligible to receive the full waiver. But ask any student in Amsterdam about it, and there is a bigger chance that you will get an angry reaction than that they say to have experienced a fair process without any problems.
I did look for students with struggles outside ‘my bubble’ and quite easily, I found three of them through Facebook. Floor Hoogeboom (24) is studying History at the University of Amsterdam. Her applications for 2016 and 2017 got denied, because she coincidentally had 500 euros too much on her bank account during the summer holidays of 2017. “I did not only have to pay the taxes of that year,” she says. “With retrospective effect, I also had to pay the taxes of the year before.”
Muck Sofie van Empel (28), who lives in the city centre, studied at the Filmacademie when she applied for the waiver. She spoke to several civil servants about her denied applications, because certain documents were missing every time. When she finally thought to have filed a complete application, accompanied by someone from the Gemeente on the phone to ensure this, it eventually got denied again. “They suddenly wanted me to add the documents from the year of the application, instead of the year of the taxes,” Van Empel says. “It feels like they really want to make you pay, as if they are deliberately screwing their citizens.”
Lastly, the eighth student who talked to me about her issues with the Gemeente is Madeleine van den Berg (23). She studied medicine at the VU and has been living in the south of Amsterdam. She faced the same capital problems as Kuijs did. “I loan to pay my doctor internship,” she explains. “I work 60 hours per week, unpaid. Meanwhile, I also have to pay my tuition fees and rent. I am still in await of the decision on my waiver, but it will probably get denied.”
To sum up, the main issues for students in Amsterdam who try to apply for kwijtschelding are documents that never reach or do not get correctly processed by the Gemeente; the Gemeente being misinformed about the financial situation of its citizens; miscommunication between the Gemeente and Waternet, resulting in payment reminders and warrants that are sent for taxes of which the kwijtscheldingen are still being processed; workers of the Gemeente and Waternet who misinform their citizens; and students who get in trouble because of their necessary DUO-loans.
Where and why does it go wrong?
After my investigation, which at least shows that the problems are not just incidents and several students throughout the city are experiencing them (probably many more than the ones I ‘collected’ on Facebook), two questions came to my mind: where does it all go wrong, and why?
Doing this kind of research is exactly what municipal ombudsman Arre Zuurmond does. It is his job to collect all official complaints from citizens of Amsterdam about the local government, investigate where these complaints come from, and try to solve the problems citizens are experiencing. However, the scale of the problem I am hinting at is not something he has encountered yet. This year, there were ‘only’ 35 official complaints until the 18th of May, which is nothing compared to the large amount of waiver applications and the hundreds of complaints he received about other issues in Amsterdam.
“These stories are worrisome,” Zuurmond says. “It seems like these problems are more widespread than we know from the complaints.” According to him, there are two major reasons for the different issues at stake. “First of all, students have an unstable financial situation. Most non-students have already been receiving social security allowance for years, so it is easy to see that they deserve the waiver. Students have a more volatile income, so it is harder to decide on them.”
The second reason lies in technical problems of the Gemeente. Until recently, their procedural system was case-specific. Since this year, it is personalised. This means that before, they processed each and every case separately, also if it was from the same person. “All information about a citizen should be gathered in the same file,” Zuurmond explains. “They could not do that before and that is why they had to ask for the same documents over and over again. The new system should prevent this from happening.”
Jan Geert Bakker, director of the tax-collecting institution Belastingen Gemeente Amsterdam, is not informed about the many student problems and rather talks about ‘unavoidable incidents’ within the large numbers of applications. “However, every mistake is one too many,” he says. “All citizens, students or not, have the right to a correct decision regarding their waiver applications.”
Bakker knows that a significant group of people reacts disappointedly to denied waiver applications every year. “Not seldom, they experience this as a mistake of the Gemeente,” he says. “However, in by far the most cases, the denial is justified and the rules have been correctly applied.” Whether these rules are fair, is a different question.
According to Tamara Madern, professor in Debt Prevention at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht, the problems have to do with systematic way of reasoning from the Gemeente. “They do not take into account what they actually ask people to do,” Madern says. “The municipality and its citizens think in two different worlds. The municipality fulfils its job to inform its citizens, but should they just assume that students know about all these rules?” According to her, these rules should thus become more clear and students should be better informed.
Furthermore, Madern does not agree with some of the current policies. For example, the language that the Gemeente uses should become more accessible: “Their letters are already not understandable for most native Dutch citizens, not to mention the many international students in Amsterdam.” Also, the problems with student loans are underestimated according to her: “Students have to loan and save their money if they want to do a full-time unpaid internship. If they have to hand that money in for municipal taxes, that is pretty annoying.”
What can and will be done about this?
If you are a student, you earn less than 993 euros per month and you do not have savings, you should be eligible to apply for kwijtschelding. As you can imagine now, an application takes quite some time and energy, but it can save you hundreds of euros per year. If you are sure that your application should be accepted, and it does not, you can file an objection with the Gemeente Amsterdam. After this, if you experience any more trouble, you can (and should) file an official complaint with the ombudsman. Only then, he can monitor all the problems and structurally do something about it. This does not happen very often right now: no students named in this article, including myself, have filed an official complaint.
According to Rianne Jacobs, professor of Legislation and Regulation Issues at the Vrije Universiteit, students should always send their objections to the Gemeente by certified mail. “That is what lawyers always ask for,” she explains. “If you call, send e-mails, or send documents through the regular post, you cannot legally prove your correspondence.”
With the new coalition of GroenLinks, D66, SP, and PvdA in the municipality of Amsterdam, things might change in the local government as well. In their coalition agreement, they stated that applying for kwijtschelding should become easier. Also, the beantwoordingstermijn (the period in which the Gemeente should answer filed applications and objections) should decrease. Exactly how the procedure will simplify and how fast they should respond, has not been specified yet.
On the other hand, the coalition announced that the afvalstoffenheffing will be increased. This means that if the administrative problems do not end, the financial burden on the students becomes even heavier. According to Femke Roosma, the new leader of the GroenLinks-group in the city council, this is also what her party should be aware of in the local government: “People should get the chance to easily apply for a waiver. You cannot ask people to do this within two weeks and take an entire year to respond to the application. The municipal service has been neglected by the last administration. If new investments are necessary to repair this, new investments will be made.”
Laurens Ivens, until recently the leader of the SP-group in Amsterdam and now the Alderman of Living and Building in the new government, understands the critique on their agreement. His party will ask questions about these problems in the city council. Ivens is worried: “Students who have to take a loan also get more costs with these policies. A student loan really should not be counted with the waiver application, it is a debt and no capital. It should become clearer to students, what their rights are. The current procedures are too difficult and the communication with citizens should become more customer friendly.”
Currently, 8,000 applications for kwijtscheldingen are still being processed by 18 different civil servants of the Gemeente Amsterdam. It is unknown exactly how many of these are from student households, but there are probably a couple of hundred of them. According to Madern, the best solution might be to grant waivers to all students beforehand, instead of processing them all. “Trust is better than mistrust anyway. Only 5 percent of society has bad intentions. You should not punish the other 95 percent for their good intentions.”
Disclaimer: This article was made in collaboration with Red Pers and The Herring. The story was entirely reported, written, edited, and fact checked by Red Pers.