International

High rent and nasty clauses

Stuck at The Student Hotel

Students who want to prematurely cancel their contracts with The Student Hotel are faced with extremely high cancellation fees. These fees sometimes prevent them from leaving.
By Koen Marée / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photos by Traci White and Nina Yakimova

The Student Hotel Groningen

Founded: 2016

Number of rooms: 365

Available to rent for a period between two weeks to a year: 287

Rental costs: 721 euros (standard room) – 1031 euros (suite with kitchen)

Current number of branches: Eleven (seven in the Netherlands)

Also active in: Barcelona (Spain), Dresden (Germany), Florence (Italy) en Paris (France).

It’s been a stressful couple of months for Nora. Since March, she has been looking for someone to take over her room in The Student Hotel until August. But in the middle of the semester that’s not so easy. The hotel’s targets international students, who are mostly all currently settled into their own rooms. Those who aren’t balk at 900 euros a month. If Nora can’t find a replacement, she will have to pay a 350 euro fee, as well as 70 percent of the leftover rent – approximately 630 euros a month for the remainder of her contract. This would be a major financial blow.

Albanian student Noël has managed to leave the student hotel, but he doesn’t feel too great about it. He spent three months searching, unsuccessfully, for a replacement. ‘From December to March I was in a state of perpetual panic. I just couldn’t afford to pay rent.’

In the end a friend advised him to move all his things out of his room. That way, The Student Hotel wouldn’t be able to seize them for collateral should he be unable to pay. ‘They finally let me go when I did. I was lucky.’

Revenue model

Nora and Noël aren’t the only ones with stories like this. Eight other (former) residents shared their experiences with the Universiteitskrant. Some of them say their friends were also faced with these costs – or fines, as they call them. Others are currently prevented from leaving The Student Hotel because of the financial restrictions.

Most people want to leave because of the high rent. Of course they were aware of the rental price all along, but were either too desperate not to sign a contract or unable to find a cheaper place to live over the course of the year.

From December to March I was in a state of perpetual panic

The rooms, the service, and the companionship at the hotel are all fine. In fact, most former residents say they had a great time at The Student Hotel. They made friends and they didn’t have to clean their own rooms or change their bedding. But the high rent and the clauses are still prohibitive.

‘Those fines are a revenue model for The Student Hotel’, says Noël. ‘They actually have a waiting list, but they make you find a replacement on your own so when you can’t find anyone, they get both the 70 percent and a new tenant.’

Squeeze

Former resident Rakan agrees with Noël. ‘There’s a great atmosphere at The Student Hotel and the staff were really friendly at first. But that turned out to be a complete act, and when I left they tried to squeeze everything out of me that they could.’

When Rakan finally found someone to take over his room, he still had to pay 350 euros. ‘I was told I wouldn’t have to pay the fine if I came up with someone myself.’ He raised the issue with the staff: ‘They were really rude about it. I don’t understand how they treat their guests that way. It was almost as if they wanted me to hate them.’

The frustrations about the fine stipulation are part of a larger discussion. Is The Student Hotel even allowed to use hotel contracts? Hotel contracts don’t have to comply with the rental points system that determines reasonable rental prices. The residents of the hotel also don’t have any rent protection.

Blocked

This lack of protection can lead to bizarre situations. ‘When I returned from holiday, they had blocked my key card’, says Noël. He still had an outstanding fine for violating the smoking ban. ‘That fine was justified, but suddenly I couldn’t get into my room, which meant I couldn’t get to my stuff. My Raboreader, which I needed to pay the fine, was in my room, for God’s sake.’

The municipality should not be encouraging this

Lisa Busink with the National Student Union (Landelijke Studentenvakbond, or LSVb) is critical of The Student Hotel’s short stay contracts. ‘They’re meant for summer schools, or holidays, but not for long-term residence as it’s taking place at The Student Hotel.’ She is considering a test case with the rental committee to try and get a formal pronouncement. ‘It’s ridiculous that the municipality claims that a need is being met here. The municipality should not be encouraging this situation’, says Busink.

The municipal council in Leiden banned similar contracts after plans to establish a student hotel were floated there. According to The Student Hotel, it was not their hotel chain that was looking to settle in Leiden; but in addition to Groningen, they do have branches in Amsterdam (two), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Rotterdam, and The Hague.

Richer students

The Groningen Student Union GSb also had its doubts, but they were opposed by alderman Roeland van der Schaaf, a great proponent of The Student Hotel. According to him, the hotel caters to richer students. ‘They should be able to choose a residence that works for them. The Student Hotel gives them the opportunity for a short stay where everything is taken care of for them.’

The Student Hotel’s manager, Jan Akkermans, points out that the hotel is obeying the law. And while he’s not familiar with individual cases, he wants to emphasise that students do not have to worry about cancellation fees. ‘You only have to pay those if you can’t find someone to take over your room.’ The 350 euros students otherwise have to pay is used to ‘get the room ready for the next guest’.

The manager also says The Student Hotel is ‘extremely accommodating’: ‘We help guests write a Facebook post looking for a replacement and students can always leave when they have a valid reason, for example when they’re ill.’ Residents are also allowed to approach people on the hotel’s waiting list. ‘But that’s their responsibility.’

Accommodating

But Nora says the hotel isn’t very accommodating at all. ‘I used to be a volunteer for their event team, so I hoped they would take that into account. But I would have to pay the fine as well.’

If you want to change phone providers when your contract isn’t up yet you have to pay as well

RUG professor of consumer rights Charlotte Pavillon hesitates to speak definitively about whether students have a right to rent protection. But she does think that a judge would consider the fine stipulation disproportionate. ‘Considering the room shortage in town, the hotel would have no trouble renting out the room. In that sense, it’s a hefty fine.’

The Student Hotel will not do away with the clause. According to Akkermans, it guarantees that all the rooms will be occupied. ‘If you want to change phone providers when your contract isn’t up yet you have to pay as well.’

Waiting list

Alderman Van der Schaaf was surprised to hear about the fine structure. ‘I’m generally not a fan of these kinds of arrangements. If they really use them, it’s not something that’s needed in a housing market as saturated as ours. And if they have a waiting list, as they say they do, doesn’t that just take care of the problem immediately?’

At the same time, the saturated housing market also leads to international students doing everything they can not to end up sleeping on the streets. Loïs, who stayed at The Student Hotel in the autumn of 2017, knows what it’s like to be desperate. ‘I was late looking for a room and I needed a place to stay before the start of the semester. So I ended up signing a contract with The Student Hotel.’

She didn’t plan to stay long, but leaving turned out to be easier said than done. ‘The search for a replacement was extremely stressful. Although friends of mine had even more trouble paying rent and finding someone to take over their contracts.’

Rent protection

Hotel manager Akkermans finds it hard to believe that there were students who booked a room at the last minute. ‘We’re sold out way before September. We’re already being booked for next year.’ He advises students to book a short stay if they have plans to leave again.

We’re already being booked for next year

Sjoerd Kalisvaart, with the GSb, says the situation is problematic: ‘The municipality counts the rooms in The Student Hotel as part of the total number of rooms we have available in the city. When corporations like Lefier or SSH are out of rooms, they don’t tell people to go to the Simplon Jongerenhotel or the Apollo Hotel, but refer them to The Student Hotel. I don’t mind that it’s aimed at richer students, but at least provide rent protection.’

After months of not being to find a replacement, Nora has decided to keep her room until August. She will be out of town for the entire summer. ‘I’ll just use the room for storage’, she jokes. ‘I know of some other people who’ll be doing the same. Sure, I could cancel my contract and save ninety euros by paying the fine. But I don’t have another room yet to store my things. Do you by chance know of anything?’

At the request of the interviewees, the names Nora and Loïs are fictional.


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