A neighbour who finds inspiration from playing his drums late at night, or a woman who seems determined to use your garden as a public convenience for her pets. We can all imagine just how annoying this can be, and yet dealing with nuisance from neighbours can be a tricky business. Michel Vols, specialist in the area of public order and antisocial behaviour at the University of Groningen, thinks that housing corporations could do a lot more to help. ‘There are all kinds of instruments housing corporations could use to deal with antisocial behaviour before resorting to eviction.’
Every day, Vols is sent dozens of e-mails by people on the receiving end of antisocial behaviour committed by their neighbours. ‘They vary from people who are kept awake by a droning coffee machine to people who are exasperated by the noise of children playing or their neighbours enjoying rowdy sex.’ But according to Vols, things can get even worse. ‘One particular row got so out of hand that a resident made a hole in the floor of his apartment and poured frying fat into his neighbour’s living room. This is what you’d call terrorizing your neighbour.’
‘These days, corporations in many local authorities use mediation to try to stop rows between neighbours from escalating. But if their attempts fail, many housing corporations simply leave it at that. The main reason is that they are unwilling to use the only instrument they have left: evicting the person causing the nuisance from his/her home.’
‘So the current strategy is far from ideal for all concerned’, says Vols. ‘Victims have to wait too long before action is taken. They sometimes wait months or even years to compile a file that will stand up in court. They have to keep a ‘nuisance diary’ showing how untenable the situation has become.’
This strategy does not resolve the problem for the person causing the nuisance either. ‘Although culprits are able to continue their antisocial behaviour for longer, they are eventually faced with the worst possible invasion of their privacy: eviction from their home.’
It is unlikely that a person who has been evicted will find another home in the social housing sector. Housing corporations are working together more closely and compiling black lists of people known to cause a nuisance. Vols: ‘The only choice left for someone who has been evicted for growing cannabis, for example, is the rack rent circuit. And as these people tend to be fairly poor, they soon end up in the clutches of criminal landlords. So this strategy is failing to provide real solutions.’
Vols is convinced that the basic aim of any strategy should not be to evict the culprit, but to find a solution. ‘Landlords could intervene sooner by imposing measures to counter antisocial behaviour. A person could be ordered to get rid of his/her pets, for example, or banned from having certain visitors. Ignoring the order could lead to a fine or ultimately eviction. Given the choice between throwing a party and being evicted from your home, I think I know what most people would choose.’
A similar approach is taken in England, where the measures are known as antisocial behaviour orders. Landlords (often the local authorities) can ask the court to impose certain behaviour orders. This might be an order obliging the culprit to take an anger management course, or to accept help for drug addiction. Vols: ‘In this way, you can work towards a solution, assisted by the relevant aid programmes.’
Housing corporations can also make an agreement with the tenant causing the nuisance before applying to the courts for an antisocial behaviour order. Vols. ‘You see this in England too; landlords and tenants draw up an acceptable behaviour contract. The landlord is actually saying: you are causing a nuisance to other tenants. What do you think you can do about it? This usually works. The landlord is in fact giving the culprit another chance, but with the threat of the court looming.’
Michel Vols (The Hague, 1984) graduated from the Faculties of Law and Philosophy at the University of Groningen. Vols has been lecturing at the University of Groningen since 2008, and is also a PhD candidate in the Centre for Public Order and Safety (COOV). He is currently conducting research into enforcing public order and combating antisocial behaviour in the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain.
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