These students are about to become homeless

Indian students Herchel, Ritu and Shivom are out of ideas. ‘What if we just storm the university and set up camp there?’

Esdoornflat tenants must leave by Wednesday

These students are about to become homeless

More than a hundred students living in the Esdoornflat must move out by this Wednesday. Yet around half of them still haven’t found a new place to stay. Who are they and what’s their story?
By Edward Szekeres / Photos by Felipe Silva
8 October om 12:38 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 9 October 2019
om 12:03 uur.
October 8 at 12:38 PM.
Last modified on October 9, 2019
at 12:03 PM.

Say hello to the future homeless of Groningen: the defiant Peruvian who is ready to sleep on a bench if necessary; the unnerved Egyptian who moved six times in a month and tried almost every hostel in the city; the despaired Georgian who feels like the university and the city are turning a blind eye. They all live in the Esdoornflat – but not for long.

The Esdoornflat is one of the three emergency housing locations set up this year by the university, municipality, and housing corporations to tackle Groningen’s room shortage. It opened in early August and proved an instant hit with students who came to the city without a permanent place to stay.

It was so popular that the 120 private rooms have stayed fully booked since they opened. But this Wednesday, students must leave whether they like it or not. The building will begin a much-needed renovation next year.

Housing agencies told me that it was impossible to find a room and I should give up

Chemistry student Herchel

‘People can always go to the Metaallaan facility if they still don’t have a permanent place to stay’, said alderman Roeland van der Schaaf at a council meeting last week. ‘We will keep the school open as long as necessary.’

But many students don’t like the idea of having to put up with snoring strangers in shared rooms. They’re angry. Many are scared. Others are just stressed from the constant uncertainty. It’s affecting their studies, health, and wellbeing.

One big lottery

‘The first thing I do every morning is check SSH and other websites for a free room. But there’s nothing’, says chemistry student Herchel.

While most people start their mornings with their Instagram feed or the latest fail compilation on YouTube, Herchel must scan housing portals, hopelessly. ‘Kamernet is just one big lottery; other agencies even told me that it was impossible to find a room and I should give up. I have a budget of €500, yet they still say I’d be lucky to even get a viewing.’

Shivom and Ritu sigh and nod in agreement. The three Indian students are sitting in the kitchen they share with a dozen other tenants. It’s one of their last nights in the Esdoornflat, and their housing prospects are looking dire.

Ritu stayed in a hostel for two weeks before moving into her emergency room. She also tried The Village, but found it uncomfortable with so many strangers around. She’s now facing a tough choice: go back to the hostel or try the Metaallaan option. ‘I knew the room situation was tough here, but I had no idea it was this bad.’

We paid more than ten thousand to get here, we can’t just drop out of university. I’d rather stay out on the streets

Computing science student Shivom

Computing science student Shivom is finding it hard to concentrate on his studies. He’s missed some classes and hasn’t turned in assignments because all of his time is taken up with viewings. ‘I can’t tell my family how bad it is here. They’d get worried.’

For Indian students, living out of a suitcase is the only option. They can’t just turn around and go back to their family home like a Dutch student would do. ‘We are suffering here, but we can’t simply give up. We paid more than ten thousand euros to get here, we can’t just drop out of university. I’d rather stay out on the streets’, says Shivom.

The three friends think the university is partly to blame for creating an environment that makes it easy for housing agencies to take advantage of their desperation. Landlords know they will pay whatever they have to in order to stay off the street. They kick around other ideas: ‘what if we just storm the university and set up camp there? Then the RUG can be our home, and the city could be our campus.’

Buried in paperwork

Gabriela and Vlad might crash with friends after they have to leave the Esdoornflat.

Romanian psychology student Gabriela and her boyfriend Vlad spend most of their day messaging landlords and agencies. They have sent over 70 messages. ‘They almost never respond. And when they do, they say the room is only for Dutch students’, Vlad sighs.

On the rare occasion the couple gets invited to a viewing, Vlad says the paperwork and forms required just to prove their income is overwhelming. ‘It just feels like the Dutch students get the rooms way easier.’

The couple doesn’t have a plan for after 9 October, aside from maybe crashing with friends. They are already living light; they even share a bowl because they don’t have the space to store dishes. They hope at least one viewing will work out before their time is up. ‘We just have to keep trying and see what happens.’

Feringa Building construction kicks off at official launch

FSE Dean Jasper Knoesters, Hans Biemans of the university board and Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa (far right) celebrate at the launch party for the Feringa Building. Foto Edward Szekeres

Feringa Building construction kicks off at official launch

Although contractor Ballast Nedam started with the drilling of large holes filled with concrete as early as this summer, the real brickwork on the planned Feringa Building only starts now.
By Edward Szekeres
18 September om 11:54 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 18 September 2019
om 12:46 uur.
September 18 at 11:54 AM.
Last modified on September 18, 2019
at 12:46 PM.

The University held an official launch event this Wednesday in the cafeteria of the Nijenborgh 4 building, which will eventually give way to the new construction. 

Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa, the building’s namesake, took a virtual tour of the future premises. ‘I am absolutely proud’, he said, after taking off the special headset.

The Feringa Building, with three V-shaped wings and room for 1,400 students and 850 staff, will be erected in two stages. The majority of the work will be done by the summer of 2021, explained Edwin de Kuiper from Ballast Nedam’s executive board.

The second phase, expected to be completed two years later, will include the demolishment and replacement of the outdated physics and chemistry building on Nijenborgh 4. After the flattening of Nijenborgh, the oldest building of the Faculty of Science and Engineering will be no more than 12 years old.

Too small

Yet the new 64,000 square metre construction, also touted as a ‘playground for science’ and one of the biggest buildings in the country, will not be big enough, according to Faculty Dean Jasper Knoester. ‘We are a faculty on the move and we’re already thinking ahead of our next step,’ he said. ‘Our plans are bigger than the projected capacity of the Feringa Building.’

The grandiose construction, with an estimated cost of more than 200 million euros, has already been mired with controversy. A recent court ruling found the RUG was not allowed to opt out of working with a consortium of three companies who were supposed to install the new building’s technical infrastructure. Instead, the University privately gave the job to a third party, citing a lower price.

Following the court ruling, the RUG now started a new open procurement process, where all parties can submit bids for the job. The University says this will not delay the construction’s deadline. ‘We expect the tender to be finished by the end of this year,’ said RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker.

Bike chaos will only get worse

Can’t find a space to park your bike around the university buildings in the city centre? Bike stewards don’t see that improving any time soon. ‘We remove one bike, and three others take its place.’
By Edward Szekeres

It’s the early morning rush to class. Students jostle their way through a jungle of bikes in front of the library as they look for any free inch of space to put down their two-wheeled friend. They carelessly drop their cycles anywhere they can, ignoring or blocking up free racks with their haphazard parking. Daniel, a bike steward, calmly observes the chaos unfolding in front of his eyes. But his façade of coolness crumbles with a sigh of despair. ‘We can’t really do much. It’s a free-for-all’, he says.

Stewards can remove bikes parked in unsafe spots, such as in front of emergency exits or safety corridors.  But it’s a futile effort at best. ‘We remove one bike, and three others take its place. If students could park their bikes in the middle of their lecture room, they’d do it’, Daniel thinks.

The Uurwerkersgang, a narrow side street hugging the Harmonie building, used to be a favourite parking spot. But its front end is now marked with a large sign that forbids cycle parking. The reason? Safety. ‘The firefighters told us they need the street clean in case of an emergency’, explains Daniel.

Students can instead leave their bikes in the racks behind the Harmonie building, or right under it. Around 500 spots are available underneath the public library, right next to the UB. While facility manager Rein van den Bos admits these spaces might be hard to find, he says the ultimate responsibility resides with the cyclists. ‘There’s plenty of free space underground, but people don’t make use of it, because they think it’s too far a walk from there.’

Van den Bos thinks many students are not even aware that there is a corridor leading directly from the underground garage to the Harmonie lobby. ‘We need to give people more time and information. It’s always hectic in the first weeks, but we have more than enough space to accommodate all bikes.’ Last year, the University did its own investigation that found the capacity of Harmonie’s garage parking to be enough to accommodate all wrongly parked bikes.

But ignorance and laziness might not be the only roots of the bike parking conundrum. Arthur Hilberdink, the steward supervisor, is convinced the problems will only get worse. ‘We’re hearing that the public library next to the UB will be renovated sometime in the future. That will cost us many parking spaces’, he says. The University library itself has large premises underground that would be suitable for bicycle parking. But the space is currently used as book storage and it might take years to create enough parking spaces there. ‘It could be as late as 2025’, says Hilberdink.

Stewards think changing class schedules could ease the pressure on parking, as not all students would arrive in at the same time. Installing two-tier bike racks, also used at the train station, could also be an effective, albeit expensive solution. ‘But safety is an expensive commodity’, adds Hilberdink.