Knokke-Heist puts the brakes on second homes
The coastal municipality of Knokke-Heist is considering a direct debit obligation outside the tourist center. ‘We want to avoid dead neighborhoods,’ says Piet De Groote, the new mayor of Knokke-Heist.
The municipality of Knokke-Heist wants to oblige buyers of houses and apartments in certain neighborhoods to establish their main residence in that house. That is what the new mayor Piet De Groote says in his first interview since he succeeded Leopold Lippens, who died last week. “We want to introduce a direct debit requirement in the old neighborhoods outside the tourist zones,” he says. ‘It concerns, for example, neighborhoods in the center of Heist, Oud-Knokke, Duinbergen and Westkapelle. Otherwise, everything will be bought up by the second residents. ‘
Real estate prices in Knokke-Heist are soaring. The average selling price of a home in Knokke-Heist was 564,033 euros last year. Over the past five years, prices in the municipality have risen by 21 percent, a lot more than the average for the entire coast (+ 15%). Prices are rising due to Belgians and foreigners who buy a second home in the municipality or rent out their home as a holiday residence. Due to the corona crisis, the popularity of the municipality is increasing. ‘People even go from door to door asking if they can buy an apartment or house,’ says De Groote.
We want to avoid a situation like the French ski resort of Courchevel, where the number of real inhabitants dropped from 10,000 to 1,000.
The new measure should prevent real estate from becoming completely unaffordable for those who want to live in Knokke. “Now 21,000 of our 39,000 homes are second-home residents,” says the mayor. ‘If we don’t intervene, it will be 80 percent. Then we end up in a situation like the French ski resort of Courchevel, where the number of real inhabitants dropped from 10,000 to 1,000. ‘
The obligation only applies to real estate that will be sold in the future. According to De Groote, it could be several thousand homes. “We want to avoid having dead areas,” he says. ‘We have started the preliminary process for that direct debit requirement. The intention is to start next year. ‘ The current second-home residents should not allow themselves to be domiciled, De Groote emphasizes. Moreover, the rule only applies in certain neighborhoods. For example, Het Zoute, where there is a lot of luxury real estate, does not fall under the new obligation. ‘We just want to maintain a healthy balance. Everyone still has free rein in the tourist zone. ‘
Nevertheless, the question arises whether the measure, which does not exist anywhere else in Belgium, is legally feasible. Knokke-Heist wants to impose the obligation via an ‘overpressure RUP’ (spatial implementation plan), which refines the ‘living’ destination in the relevant neighborhoods. ‘This plan is well-intentioned, but I don’t think you can ever make such an RUP that will pass the test of the Council of State,’ says Steve Ronse, lecturer in real estate law at the KUL. “This is very difficult from the point of view of property law.”
Pieter-Jan Defoort, the lawyer of the municipality of Knokke-Heist, calls the plan ‘not obvious, but defensible’. “The Council of State has already accepted in two judgments that a government refines a residential destination in order to offer a solution to a social need,” he says. ‘How else can a municipal council take action against a phenomenon with negative effects?’
The real estate sector in the municipality is reacting cautiously. ‘I can understand that people who grew up here should be given the opportunity to buy a house,’ says Peter Van Wynsberghe, the manager of the Van Den Broucke real estate agency in Heist. ‘A direct debit obligation will lower prices in the zones in question. But it is a cut in the portfolio of people who have invested here. ‘