How to take on the Swiss rental system and win.

This is for ex-pats in Geneva who have problems with regies (as those who stand between owner and tenant are called here). You can win. But it helps to know what needs to be done.

disclaimer: this is a knitting blog. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not handing out legal advice, I am simply describing what we experienced as we went through the process here. Check all the information when taking your own course of action!

1. Don’t be scared. Tenants don’t have any rights in Switzerland, but owners don’t really either. Even though you are in Geneva and people are mugged more often for rights to an apartment than for anything else, it doesn’t mean you can get kicked out or discriminated against just because you fight for what is reasonable.

2. The game is this. The regie and the owner will only do what is right and proper if forced to. I guess there are regies and owners that aren’t like this, but looking into it, I imagine they are thin on the ground. This is because the onus is entirely on the tenant to enforce his reasonable expectation. So be prepared for a game that may drag on.

3. Use registered mail. It is illegal for regies to ignore emails, but they do. REGISTERED mail is the first important rule you use. You can call and email in conjunction with registered mail.

4. Withholding rent. It is the right of the tenant to withhold rent if something that should have been attended to, hasn’t. This is, of course, after a reasonable attempt to get it done by more civilised methods. Advise the regie by registered mail that your next rent will be withheld unless your concerns are appropriately addressed. This is the only weapon you have as a tenant, so you must use it! Just the threat that they aren’t going to get your money will very likely prompt them into action. The process is simple. You take your next month’s rent in CASH to the palais du Justice. You will receive a receipt for it and the regie will be advised.

5. Going to court. If your concerns are still not addressed over the next month, you then have to take court action. This is not as scary as it sounds, nor as expensive as we were informed by ASLOCA that you are only liable for your own costs, not the regie’s, irrespective of the outcome. You can represent yourself or pay a lawyer. Remember it will be in French. This can drag out, during which time you keep putting your rent in escrow. If you don’t do this, however, you have no other legal way of proceeding.

6. ASLOCA. ASLOCA is your friend. Not just your friend, your moral support and your lawyer. You pay 100CHF a year for their normal advice. If you wish to employ their lawyers to represent you in court, that is at their standard rates. You really have to be patient about going here. You take a ticket and you wait, often for an hour.

Having given that set of rules as the basic guide, let me describe the specific situation we went through, which is a common enough problem in our area. It will give you a better idea as to how it all works.

We live on rue du Mont-Blanc, which should be a Geneva jewel, but instead is frequented by those groups of men who hang around outside all day and night in Geneva, and also by druggies. Our mechanism for getting into the building consisted of an entry code which opened the door. The automatic door frequently failed to close properly and also closes very slowly. As a consequence drug addicts were regularly entering our building, shooting up on our stairs, terrifying some of the residents. They sometimes came with one or more dogs, just to make things worse. Various of us separately made complaints to the regie, but were always told ‘not their problem, call the police’. We did that. We got to the point where we were calling the police daily. I’m here to tell you that when the cops turn up and you can have conversations like ‘Hey, Pierre, did your wife like that recipe I gave you yesterday?’ you are seeing too much of the police. Way too much. The police in any case can’t do anything about it. They politely take them off the premises and that’s it. Druggies don’t even have a reason to move on.

The experiences we were having made us start communicating more with our fellow residents. Before long we largely knew each other and started working on this problem as a group. We started sending registered letters to the regie and the manager of the building which were signed by most of us. Finally we started getting a more appropriate response, but nothing by way of action. This led us to ASLOCA. It wasn’t actually clear whether the regie/owner had responsibility for the building being safe for the residents, but nonetheless we could start by withholding rent as described above. If they didn’t have responsibility for the building’s security, the regie/owner could be sued for a decrease in rent based on that lack of security. One way or another we could try for something. Two of us immediately put our rents into escrow. Various others, who weren’t conveniently able to be in Geneva to lodge the cash payment of rent, threatened to do so the following month. At the end of this next month the regie was still not acceding to our requests which consisted of this:

(1) taking away the door code except for the postman to come in during certain hours. Our issue was that it was very likely that druggies got hold of the code itself.
(2) activating a phone system where either a landline or mobile is called and then the resident can buzz to let somebody in.
(3) remove the automatic opening and closing mechanism.

Just at the point where the two of us who were already withholding rent were prepared to initiate the court proceedings because our requests had only partially been met, management/regie/owner conceded defeat. So far the problem seems to be solved, but we aren’t sure if this is only because it is summer and so druggies do their thing outside. If the solution hasn’t worked, we will have to start again as the weather turns.

Does it help acting as a group? I think it does if you are looking at issues that involve the shared areas. We were largely in agreement that we wanted things about access to be changed. As it was, the management tried to argue that some of the residents didn’t want the changes. Since we were all working together as a team, we knew this wasn’t true.

This is the process that you should follow if you want simple things done within your own apartment as well. In fact, it is in the first instance what the process is for. You move into a place with working shutters. One stops working, the regie is reluctant to fix it? This is how you go about sorting it out.


One thought on “How to take on the Swiss rental system and win.

  1. The thing that surprised me most was the regie’s willingness to flat-out lie just to avoid doing a tiny amount of work. They kept telling us that they couldn’t switch from an automatic door to a manual one, there were three tenants who insisted on having the automatic door. We asked who these people were, and they refused to tell us. Suddenly, they caved in, and it became apparent that their supporters had never even existed.


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