Where to put the internationals
Scrambling for rooms
Groningen Facebook hero Elzo Smid spends his free time exposing rental frauds online. He worries that housing vulnerability for international students may be worse than ever this year. The RUG says things are under control.
The Facebook posts are going up with increasing urgency. They all follow a similar script: ‘I’m a student coming to study in Groningen. I am looking for a room.’ This is usually followed by a brief autobiography and earnest assurances: ‘I’m tidy! I’m quiet! I’m friendly! I can teach you my language! I’m a good cook!’ These days, landing a student room in Groningen is a lottery; your personality is your ticket.
Smid, who moderates the popular Facebook group ‘Free Housing Announcements in Groningen’, is seeing more of these posts now than he did this time last year. ‘That could be because people have started searching earlier this year; I really hope that’s the case. But it could also be because there are just more people who need a place.’
He says the city has always had a rough rental market. As a young man in the 1980’s he spent three years squatting in a room at Oosterstraat 53 – now the Hotel Schimmelpenninck Huys – before he could land a rental. He knows what it’s like to experience housing vulnerability. He wants to help.
By August of last year, the housing situation had grown dire for many internationals. ‘People wrote that they were desperate, had problems, and were being scammed. The international students are the most vulnerable because they don’t know the language; they aren’t physically here; they don’t understand the institutions.’
I can see a posting and I know: that’s not a Dutch room
So Smid started hunting through online postings for frauds and scammers, and posting warnings about them online. There are a lot of scams, he says, but the most harmful are those that collect large initial deposits for rooms that don’t exist.
Elzo as a squatter (middle) in the eighties
‘As a graphic designer I have a pretty keen eye for images and discrepancies. I can see a posting and I know: that’s not a Dutch room. I look at the furniture, the sockets, the radiators, the windows – windows are helpful.’ If the listing includes interior pictures and an address, he uses Google Street View to compare the windows. ‘This year I’ve seen it at least thirty times: the windows don’t match.’
Last year, Smid became so frustrated by the sheer number of students facing scams and homelessness, he helped organise a protest on the steps of the university building. He plans to do so every year until the situation improves. ‘If the problems are the same, we’ll do the same protest. But maybe the problem is even bigger this year.’
But Sjoerd Kalisvaart of the student union GSb is hopeful that things will actually be much better this year. ‘I feel confident that the relevant parties have come to understand the gravity of this issue and have moved past just assigning blame and responsibility to everybody else.’
University spokesperson Jorien Bakker says that the RUG ‘has been working very hard with the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and the municipality to make the necessary arrangements. We won’t know until August if there are exactly enough rooms for everyone, but the situation looks very promising.’
The RUG and Hanze have brought on an independent project leader, Will Panman of RIO Projects, to find enough rooms for everyone.
‘There has been a joint effort between the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, the RUG, the municipality, and real estate organisations; everyone is trying to be more proactive about finding solutions instead of reacting to a bad situation after the fact’, says Panman. ‘Even private landlords have been very cooperative – there is now a common feeling that we have a responsibility to help incoming international students who we’ve attracted to Groningen.’
Panman reports that between 450-500 rooms are currently in the contracting phase. The initial goal was to secure 500 rooms. The vacancies are a mix of temporary and long-term rentals in the city centre, says Panman, but he can’t yet speak to precise locations or rental costs.
These rooms will be uploaded to a module on At Home in Groningen by the first week of July, says Bakker.
Because of a higher than expected number of applicants, Panman says, they will continue to search for more rooms and have now turned their attention to rooms outside the city centre. To those students still hunting: ‘Hold on and keep looking. We are very eager to help. There will be more options on the website at the end of the month.’
Students might end up sleeping on someone’s couch, or paying exorbitant rent
There are also plans to provide short-stay solutions to help students in the first weeks after they arrive. ‘Perhaps a hotel, a boat, or an area in the Martini Plaza.’ Whatever the accomodations, affordability will be a priority. ‘Hotels are quite expensive, and we must consider how much the RUG and Hanze are prepared to contribute to facilitate something like a hotel boat.’
Panman advices students who do come to Groningen without a room to register with the International Offices as soon as they arrive. ‘So that we know you are here, and can help.’
Smid is pleased to hear that the university is working to counter potential room shortages. Finding a room for every student is a good start, he says. But to wipe out housing vulnerability once and for all, the rooms need to be good ones.
‘A lot of students will manage to get a roof over their heads, but maybe they end up sleeping on someone’s couch, or paying exorbitant rent, or with absent landlords, or with rooms that aren’t safe’, Smid points out. ‘Temporary solutions are okay, but eventually you need quality rooms, not just quantity. You need a decent place to live that you can afford.’