Internationals and the room-hunting mess.

The student accommodation shortage in Groningen was so big at the beginning of September that internationals had to sleep outdoors. Who will prevent this from happening again? Hanze, RUG or the municipality?

Groningen is beautiful and has been a very popular student city for years. But beauty and popularity are frequently accompanied by problems. A nasty fungal infection, for example. In this case, a chronic room shortage among international students. And the longer we wait, the worse it will get. Current emergency solutions are like a cheap effervescent tablet, but when does the radical antibiotic cure we need present itself?

Why does the municipality fail to build additional student flats?

Overcrowded hostels, street sleepers and emergency shelters in the former refugee centre. The internationals have a tough time. In theory, they are responsible for finding a room themselves, but in practice this often appears to be an impossible task. Why does the municipality fail to build additional student flats? And why do University of Groningen and Hanze UAS continue to recruit students from abroad? Full is full, you might say. High time to subject the parties involved to an interrogation.

Being cheated 2.0
The international guests have personally made the choice to study in Groningen. And, well, that obviously implies hunting for accommodation. Consider it an ancient Groningen initiation rite full of malicious mediators, scammers and merciless slumlords. Even the Dutch must face this tough trial, but the international student are up against some additional obstacles as well: Being cheated 2.0.

Congratulations, you are the proud owner of … the Dumbo Award!

Very often the problems already begin abroad. At room hunting sites the prospective international students search for digs and they often find something. Just send us some money and you’re good to go. Congratulations, you are the proud owner of … the Dumbo Award! After arriving in Groningen, the room does not appear to exist. Money vanished into haze, no accommodation and no network to fall back on. Welcome to Groningen, just pitch put your tent over there.

Dutch only
The search starts again and new obstacles emerge. NO INTERNATIONALS or DUTCH ONLY, it says on various Facebook pages and room sites. Students and homeowners prefer Dutchies who are supposed to stay for years whereas the foreign students are expected to leave after a short while. Sometimes such prejudices come true, very often not. But due to this Dutchies-first mindset, the internationals are forced to throw away lots of dough to brokers, websites and unreliable intermediaries. Very often without any positive result.

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Marketing engine runs at full steam
So our newcomers are, there can be no doubt about that, doing their very best. But they cannot succeed on their own. A little help is therefore not only welcome but also much needed. RUG and Hanze should eagerly grab this moment to shine! After all these institutes recruit students from abroad with flashy marketing campaigns promising a wonderful time in a splendid city. Mostly true, but no word is spoken about our embarrassing secret, the room shortage.

So Hanze and RUG just have to stop recruiting

No, the marketing engine runs at full steam. At the same time the hostels are overbooked, new arrivals have to live in tents, some even end up sleeping in the streets. That does not seem to make sense. So Hanze and RUG just have to stop recruiting. That will surely solve the problem, don’t you think?

Shrinkage is disastrous
‘That’s too simple’, says Rob Verhofstad, Member of the the Executive Board of Hanze UAS. ‘In the near future the population composition of the Netherlands will change. A demographic shrinkage that will also decrease the total number of Dutch students at Hanze. That is why we are thinking about strategies to counter this. By offering more master programmes and further education, for example. And of course, by attracting more international students, which contributes to the international character of our college.’

We encourage these students to come to Groningen, so yes, we also bear a certain responsibility

According to Verhofstad, shrinkage is disastrous. ‘It has a negative impact on our infrastructure and the number of people finding employment at our university. Not doing anything to prevent shrinkage leaves us at a dead end.’

Pain in the neck
So trying to recruit more international students seems to make sense, at least from the point of view of Hanze University. But how about the students sleeping outdoors and the overflowing hostels. ‘That’s a pain in the neck,’ Verhofstad acknowledges. ‘We encourage these students to come to Groningen, so yes, we also bear a certain responsibility. The international students are the most vulnerable group looking for rooms to rent, so emergency accommodation should be ready sooner next year.’
Sounds okay, but does Hanze UAS also contribute to a permanent solution? ‘We have to consult closely with RUG and the municipality,’ Verhofstad replies. The rest of his answer is packed with phrases such as ‘looking for’, ‘finding solutions together’, and ‘getting started’. ‘But, of course, the underlying problem is the private rental sector,’ he concludes.

Roof over their heads
Hanze UAS, it is plain to see, does not come much further than arranging emergency accommodation – the cheap effervescent tablet. Just as Rob Verhofstad, Groningen Alderman Roeland van der Schaaf (Dutch labour party) is convinced that creating emergency accommodation is crucial. ‘It’s absolutely imperative that these people have a roof over their heads, even if it’s in a former refugee centre.’

A dormitory has just been completed, offering accommodation for 465 students

Meanwhile the emergency shelter is far removed from a five-star hotel. Students pay sixteen euros a night, almost five hundred euros a month, for room they have to share with someone else, without private sanitary facilities! That would give the average slumlord a huge hard-on.

Build more
So far for stopgap solutions. Perhaps Groningen would benefit more from a permanent solution? Concrete, plasterboard, steel pipes, why are there no construction activities yet? ‘Well, there are,’ alderman Van der Schaaf reveals. ‘A dormitory has just been completed, offering accommodation for 465 students, part of which is intended for international students.’ However, Van der Schaaf admits, the building is already booked up. ‘Therefore, another three thousands rooms will be added in the years to come. ‘
Van der Schaaf predicts that the shortages on the housing market will decrease due to these additions, ‘and that’s a good thing for international students as well.’ But Van der Schaaf has considerable doubts whether this will solve all the problem. ‘In fact, RUG and Hanze should simply invest in real estate. College dorms are very common abroad.’’

There is no other city the Netherlands where students are so dependent on the free sector as in Groningen

An excellent plan, it would seem, but there is a snag: the law forbids educational institutions to build student accommodation. Nevertheless, Hanze Executive Board member Rob Verhofstad does not reject Van der Schaaf’s suggestion straightaway. ‘Sometimes these kinds of unconventional solutions are needed, so who knows?’

Is there any hope?
At this point all hope seems to be based on emergency shelters and on student accommodation existing only on the drawing board. Both the municipality and the Hanze University are justified in pointing accusing fingers at the private rental sector. There is no other city the Netherlands where students are so dependent on the free sector as in Groningen. Therefore, international students will have to be admitted to regular Dutch student houses, which requires a more open attitude of residents and owners. Can we count on that?
International guests contribute to the colourful and vibrant character of the city. And honestly, Groningen remains a wonderful city with or without that embarrassing secret… But one would rather have it without.

Photos: Niels Punter