Housing: A basic need for every student

Het Academiegebouw in Groningen

By DAG-workgroup Sustainability & Responsibility.

Imagine you finally got accepted for your dream study abroad at the top 100 university of Groningen. The one thing keeping you from starting this new exciting adventure and fully concentrating on your academic career is a place you can call home. The few rooms of the official student housing company have been rented out completely way before you even got your acceptance letter, but you still stay optimistic. You were prepared that it was going to be no picnic. There must be alternatives you think, but as the room search takes it course, you are slowly getting convinced of the opposite. Unanswered emails, ridiculous offers, overly expensive registration fees on housing websites without guarantees and Facebook posts that state ‘Dutch girls only’. While the start of the academic year comes closer and closer, you feel further away from a room than ever. You give up the thought to move into a room on time, and decide to stay in a hostel for the first days. Upon arrival you quickly realize you are not a unique case in the city of Groningen:

The general housing situation is a nightmare, countless students, especially internationals, are not able to find a place to stay due to an extreme shortage of rooms. People who can afford it, go to hostels or Air B’n’Bs, but others decide to camp in the park. Consequently, voices demanding the university to take responsibility for its international students got louder and the pressure on the university rose. Indeed, it took action by reopening the former refugee home in the outskirts of the city. However, this ‘van Swietenlaan’ only tackles a minor part of the issue, considering the dimensions of the housing crisis. It only accommodates 100 people for a limited time and this is only the beginning…

For 16 euros per night it is possible to share a room with another person, which results in nearly 1000 euros being paid per room. An enormous amount of money for rooms located not even near the city center of Groningen, insufficient cleaning services and kitchen facilities that weren’t available in the first couple of weeks. Once installed, it was closed again without warning on the grounds that it was not clean enough. On top of that, the rules applied in the Van Swietenlaan remind you of those trips you used to do in high-school such as no visitors in the bedrooms or no drinking allowed. The people living there feel like the university should have taken immediate action but indeed only handed over responsibility into private hands, facilitating the exploitation of the international students even further.

Conditions in the van Swietenlaan residence aren’t great, but it does mean some internationals now have an alternative to sleeping in the street. Dutch students have other options. For them, it is usually doable to find somebody with a couch to sleep on, or even to commute. International students don’t have that kind of network and home is far away. These are not the only reasons, though, that it tends to be the internationals who end up homeless. In many cases, it is impossible for prospective international students to go for viewings of their housing. Sometimes, upon arrival in Groningen, this housing turns out not to exist. Earlier this year, university newspaper UK noted how some students ended up losing up to 800 euros in deposits and rent for rooms that aren’t even real. Furthermore, the inaccessibility of viewings makes it much harder for internationals to be chosen for rooms that are legitimate. After all,     ‘hospiteren’ is impossible. It wouldn’t matter much, though, seeing as many rooms accept ‘Dutch people only’ anyway.

We can conclude that international students are disadvantaged in their search for housing as provided by the free market. Two students living at the van Swietenlaan residence indicated the unresponsiveness of room owners on the Kamernet network, and housing corporation Lefier works with a point system that excludes internationals in practice. In addition, short-staying internationals tend to need furnished rooms, which are scarce outside of what the SSH offers. For emphasis: international students are generally at a disadvantage in finding housing in Groningen, owing to several factors. When the pickings get slim, the international group is the first to suffer. And they do get slim, around the start of every academic year. Last September was only the latest example.

Negotiations about a solution to the problem are moving slow, which has a lot to do with the bind that the UG and the municipality find themselves in. The municipality feels it is responsible for student housing, but at the same time shouldn’t have to worry about specific student preferences. Meanwhile, there’s not a trace of responsibility to be found at the UG. There’s financial guarantees in case of vacancy, according to university manager Jan de Jeu, but the €800.000 he talks about is peanuts when its spread over the 6000 students living in these rooms. SSH, the organization offering these rooms to international students, is fully booked by May. There’s a lot of room for improvement in the sense of communication too. The Dutch housing situation is drastically different from other countries and international students are simply unaware, confirms Jesse David Marinus, who works at the SSH himself. He tells us that too many students are far too optimistic about the outcome, which causes them to start their search for a room quite late. The UG does nothing about this situation, pretending it’ll work out fine. The worst thing that could happen, according to the UG website, is a ‘challenging experience’ for those seeking a room. The information that the SSH has all rooms booked by May is painfully absent. We also spoke to Maarten van der Laan, municipality member. “The municipality is responsible for the housing of everyone within the city of Groningen, working the communication at the same time isn’t easy.” He tells us the UG should be more clear towards its international students. “The least they could do is put the facts on their site: it’s going to be hard to find a room!”

But the situation in Groningen is probably not unique, right? Internationalization is everywhere, present at every other Dutch university. We talked to the Housing Offices of four different Dutch universities (Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Universiteit Maastricht) about the housing services they offer to international students. Using these interviews, we will attempt to highlight that the situation in Groningen seems to be fairly unique. First of all, it must be said that none of these universities operate like a housing corporation, as is the case at many American universities that have students living on campus. Despite that, all of these universities seem to feel a certain degree of responsibility for the housing of its students.

The housing officer of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam has recently published an article on the subject. In this article, she acknowledges housing as a key objective within the university: students don’t want to study in a city without being able to live there. The university has and agreement with the SSH for 530 (furnished) rooms for internationals, and a site that, if so desired, points the students towards private parties. At this time, they are also witnessing the higher influx of internationals, with less and less rooms being available for them. The board of the university feels compelled to act on this issue. They have also witnessed the need for a more fundamental support system for internationals looking for housing. That is why they want to shake up their policy, claiming they’ve set up extensive research into the market, along with several private parties and the municipality. This has already resulted in 330 new rooms, with more in the pipeline. They intend to keep an eye on the demand for housing, while catering to the specific needs of the international student.

If you’re slighty familiar with the housing situation in Amsterdam, you know that it’s incredibly hard to find an (affordable) room. This year however, according to Joep Dragt who works at the international housing department at the University of Amsterdam, there was no waiting list for these students at the beginning of last year. The UvA has different arrangements with several private parties concerning 2200, mostly furnished, rooms for international students. This is clearly stated on the university’s website , along with a strongly worded advice to start looking for a room as soon as possible. The university also gives advice to students that want to arrange their own housing. This seems to be their way of managing all 4500 international students at the University.

The situation in Nijmegen is also better than the one in Groningen. The head of the International Office of the Radboud University Nijmegen, Wessel Meijer, told us that the university definitely feels responsible for the housing of its international students. They are also aware of the fact that it’s a lot harder for international students to find a suitable room, in part because they are only able to rent pre-furnished rooms, but also because they are being discriminated against by landlords and Dutch students alike. This is the reason why the RU, along with a couple of private parties, actively helps these internationals find rooms. This isn’t easy or cheap, but the university feels that it’s worth the cost. Every year they monitor the amount of international students and provide an adequate number of rooms accordingly. Not an easy task: too little rooms means students sleeping in the streets, but too many leaves the university with vacancies at their expense. Last September the university managed to house 1050 students, including a couple that had applied after the official deadline. This leaves the university without a waiting list, while Wessel Meijer reassures us that every student has found an adequate room. It seems like Nijmegen has the situation under control. Meijer says that the issues in Groningen might be larger because of its larger and steadily increasing international student population. This makes it harder to house these students in time.

The last university we contacted was the University of Maastricht. This is also the university with the highest number of international students at 8952 (55.9 percent of all students). However, they also don’t seem to be dealing with major housing issues like the UG. Maurice Evers, head of the Student and Staff Housing Department, tells us about their online platform; www.maastrichthousing.nl. Every room spanning all three of the city’s housing corporations can be found on this website, along with about 6500 of private rooms. Furthermore, the site lists the Guesthouse that has room for 800 international student, provided by the university. This Guesthouse has been set up for internationals that are in need of furnished rooms for a short period of time. Finally in 2017, the UM has started providing a ‘room-guarantee’, which means they guarantee a room in the Guesthouse to every first year student at the University of Maastricht. Maurice also claims that the discrimination of international isn’t as much of an issue in Maastricht. Preferring Dutch student doesn’t make a lot of sense when more than half of all student rooms is inhabited by an international student. To prevent a shortage in rooms, arrangements have been made with the municipality to make sure the number of rooms is able to increase every year. This made it possible to increase the number of rooms with 350 this year. Evers does mention that the recruitment of international students by the different faculties still doesn’t take individual student needs into account when it comes to housing.

In the end, it seems that other universities are much better equipped to handle the housing of international students (although they admit there’s work to be done still). One big difference seems to be that the communication towards international students seems to be a lot better at other universities. Each of these universities has a specific entity or officer that deals with international student housing. At the same time, they don’t shy away from telling students they should start looking for a room as soon as possible, while still clearly explaining what the university could do for them in the way of housing. Additionally, they seem to be able to far more easily adapt to an increasing number of international students.

Returning to Groningen, we see that the housing crisis was caused my a multitude of different reasons. For one, the university isn’t informing students about the housing options and issues within the city. While this is somewhat out of laziness, the university is scared to death that complete honesty about the situation would scare off potential students. This has caused the international students, now badly prepared for what’s to come, to be a fragile group within the housing market. Trying to solve this problem, the UG in cooperation with the municipality, has started a platform similar to the one in Maastricht: At home in Groningen in its current form is a website with information on housing for international students. We would like to see the website’s development move towards a platform like the one in Maastricht, so as to create one place where all student rooms in Groningen can be found.

But a website alone simply does not cut it. Not while the UG keeps spending 520.000 a year on the recruitment of international students. If the UG keeps doing this, the issues will remain, says Sjoerd Kalisvaart, chairman of the Groningen Student Union. “We just can’t assume that these internationals can fend for themselves”. Leaving internationals to the free market is simply not possible. Not while the market is saturated with countless private institutions and other parties. Not while some of these students are still waiting on their acceptance letter in August. And definitely not while the rooms that are available are ‘Dutch only’. When it comes to the private housing market, there is a lot of room for improvement, ideally done in cooperation between UG, municipality and housing organization. A more feasible solution would be securing rooms outside of the private market. That’s where the UG comes in.

It would be unreasonable to put the entire burden of solving this issue with the UG. At the same time, it is simply a fact that the UG’s international marketing is a significant cause for the amount of international students coming to Groningen. If the UG refuses to stop this recruitment, they should be responsible to provide guarantees when it comes to housing these students. Jan de Jeu, member of the board, has said that the UG is only willing to provide guarantees when it comes to exchange students or furnished rooms on a small scale. But just as the current vacancy guarantees, this is just not enough. It’s a fact that taking true responsibility, the kind that comes with financial support, is the only way to really start housing these students. Take for example the new location at the Reitdiep, that will bring 400 new rooms. This would be the perfect location to reserve for international housing, which can be realized through guarantees to the specific housing corporation.

In conclusion, we ask the UG to take responsibility. Stop spending hundreds of thousands of euros a year on international marketing. Start informing new students on the current (problematic) housing situation in Groningen. Start improving the communication with the municipality by discussing international student numbers so that construction of new rooms can be set in motion to house these students. Informing the municipality about the closure of SSH-buildings needs to be part of this communication. And finally, the most important part of this new responsibility: UG, invest in your international student, the same student that has become the centerpiece of university policy. Provide more guarantees to housing corporations in order to put students in new student rooms like those at the Reitdiep. In short: lets stop pointing fingers and start making real progress towards housing every student.