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Deplorable housing for international students

Students from abroad are not satisfied with their housing. Just about everything goes wrong and it’s mostly a lack of communication that causes these persistent problems. Problems that the municipality and the two Groningen universities should take seriously.

‘Do you have a minute?’ German Leon Muser laughs at the question. How does he feel about the accommodation of foreign students… the answer would take quite some time. When Leon, a fourth-year student of International Psychology at the University of Groningen (RUG), arrived in Groningen four years ago, no-one told him anything about housing. ‘Basically, I was looking for a room on my own.’
Today the situation is different. Many international students rely on the information that is offered by RUG and Hanze University, the two Groningen universities. When you decide to study in Groningen, you can get a room via SSH, a nationwide room rental company that in Groningen provides shelter for students from abroad. For the students, it’s very easy. You log on, the university administration checks your personal data, and if everything is okay, you turn to the SSH. The SSH takes your wishes into account and offers you a room, but does not guarantee that it will meet all your expectations. This service will cost you an administration fee of two hundred euros.

Short-stay is often too long
SSH uses a short-stay formula, that’s quite similar to the formula that a hotel uses: your room is furnished and cleaned. Students who study one semester in Groningen, can live in the room up to five months. For students who follow Groningen higher education longer, the short-stay is limited to twelve months. After the short-stay room term is exceeded, the student needs to find shelter himself. Esther Heijnen, international student officer at Hanze University explains: ‘The short-stay is a transitional period. When they have found their place in Groningen, students must make room for new students.’

If students only can stay up to twelve months in a room, they have no tenants’ rights.

Sounds fine, but according to Denise Zonnebeld of tenants’ support organisation Frently there is a snag. ‘If students only can stay up to twelve months in a room, they have no tenants’ rights.’
One of the consequences of this is that a short-stay contract can only be terminated if the student or a family member is seriously ill. But when a student stops prematurely for other reasons, there is indeed a bill for the remaining months. Heijnen: ‘That bill will be paid by Hanze University, so vacant rooms cost us a lot of money.’

No leg to stand on
The arrangement between the two Groningen universities and SSH dates back from one year ago, when housing corporation Huismeesters (which means caretakers) decided to end its Housing Office section, which took care of the housing of students from abroad. These student grumbled considerably about the Housing Office service, which also used the short-stay formula.

I found a room through Facebook. If I may say so: a better room for a lower price.

The Nicaraguan Carolina Alvarez, a master’s student in International Business Management at Hanze UAS, ended up in a building at Winschoterdiep. ‘The room was quite large, but it was hardly furnished and we had to share showers. After a while I was offered a better room for a lower price. But I had this contract I couldn’t get rid of.’ She was not the only one: many students feel obliged to stay the full short-stay period in the more expensive rooms of Housing Office.
Zonnebeld knows the complaints. ‘Rent laws do not apply. The student does not have a leg to stand on, and for many students taking a lawyer is a step too far.’

Levan Nanava from Georgia lived in one of the rooms of Housing Office the first five months of his studies. After his exchange to Cambridge he could not return there, he had exceeded his short-stay period. ‘I found a room through Facebook. If I may say so: a better room for a lower price.’

How good is Maxx Vastgoed?
Students can also get in touch with landlords or rental companies directly. In this way German student Leon managed to live in as many as three rooms before he finally found his current houseboat. The internet site of Hanze UAS offers some alternative room rental companies. The first one is Maxx Vastgoed (Maxx Realty). If you turn to Maxx you get ten percent discount on the brokerage costs, the Hanze site states. Is there some sort of arrangement between Hanze University and Maxx Vastgoed? Heijnen: ‘I really cannot answer this one.’

In the Netherlands tenants have heaps of rights. But internationals are not informed about that.

According to Dion Glastra, president of the Groninger Student Union (GSb), the Hanze website also recommends firms that GSb has had negative experiences with, such as Rots-Vast Groep (the Rock-Solid Group) and Bakker Kamerbemiddeling (housing broker Bakker). This is new for Heijnen: ‘If there is something wrong with a company, that company should not have publicity on our website.’

Persistent structural problem
Obscurity is the biggest complaint for students. Leon Muser: ‘In the Netherlands tenants have heaps of rights. But internationals are not informed about that. Not by the landlords and unfortunately not by the universities either.’
This worries Wouter van Erkel, president of the Jonge Democraten (Young Democrats, the youth section of political party D66). ‘I have experienced it myself, you know so little that you accept any room that is offered.’ According to Van Erkel the University of Groningen and Hanze UAS should provide better guidance. Denise Zonnebeld of Frently shares this view, but she also points her finger towards the municipality and the political parties. ‘No one stands up for international students.’

This problem has been going on for years and years, but nothing has been done.

Zonnebeld and Glastra think this problem is specific for Groningen: other Dutch university cities have clear rules. In Groningen, the universities and the municipality hardly share any information about the accommodation of students from abroad. Esther Heijnen: ‘We let the students know that they should register as residents of the municipality.’
According to Zonnebeld, the problem is structural and persistent: universities, housing associations, society and politics, none of these parties do something for international students and their housing situation. ‘This problem has been going on for years and years, but nothing has been done.’
Fourth-year International Psychology student Leon, though, has not experienced this typical Groningen misery. ‘But I’ve always been lucky, man, maybe that’s it.’

This article appeared in the printed edition of HanzeMag on 31 March 2016. In the printed edition we wrote that Maxx Vastgoed illegally asks students for a mediation fee. This is incorrect. A new law is under construction to ban these practices, but as of yet, this law is still not effective. We have deleted this part of the story for this online version.