Room for rent (NO INTERNATIONALS!)

Post from the Leiden Housing Facebook page. The pictures are from a photo series on ‘coffin homes’ in Hong Kong, by Benny Lam.

International students seem to be hardest hit by the scarcity on the student accommodation market. They don’t now their way around and are barred from Leiden student houses. “I’m a person! I need somewhere to sleep!”

On waterlogged campsite De Stochemhoeve, Massimiliano Di Berardino (29) lights up a cigarette. His dome tent, covered with an extra tarpaulin to protect it from the severe weather, is a few metres away; he’s been sleeping here for four weeks because he can’t find anywhere to stay during his two-month visit to Leiden.

He cooks on a camping stove, often in the company of the other international students whose tents are next to his. Two Dutch first-years sleep in a caravan.

“It’s been terrible”, says Di Berardino. The camp site’s staff warned him of the coming storm. The wind is worse than the rain, in his experience. This week, he’s leaving to stay with friends in Belgium. Although he has an Italian grant to do research in Leiden’s library for his Master dissertation on African politics, he’s decided to gather the information he needs and do his work in Belgium. “I’d have stayed if I’d found a place. You expect this sort of thing in Italy, but not here.”

His unsuccessful search, on sites like Kamernet, etc. cost him “a lot of money”, he says. “Because I have an Italian grant, I’m not enrolled at Leiden University, so it was very hard.” He’s stayed in various places, including a hostel in Rotterdam. “With seven others who commuted to Leiden.”

Homeless students are frequent guests at De Stochemhoeve, a care farm for people with learning difficulties which also runs a camp site. The students can work indoors and there a few rooms are available. The Hague’s hostels are full of students too – Stayokay even offers special long-stay deals. The number of international students has soared because of the new English-language programmes in The Hague, increasing the pressure on the accommodation market.

Caroline van Overbeeke, the university spokesperson told Mare that just under 1,400 students applied for accommodation for the coming semester. “We housed 711: 445 in Leiden and 308 in The Hague.”

Each year, the university hires lodgings from DUWO for newcomers. International students can reserve a place on the waiting list for a 350-Euro housing fee. They get their money back if nothing is available. Rent for those premises is much higher than average: the monthly price for a room in Oegstgeest can be as much as 530 Euros.

“International students pay big time”, claims Kimber Miedema, chairman of the DUWO tenant association BRES. For example, international students must pay a fixed amount to cover electricity, etc., which is not set off against their actual use. DUWO’s spokesman admits that is the case: “It’s an average, so if it’s very hot, or very cold, they’re either unlucky or lucky. Their rooms are furnished too; it’s included in the price.”

Those who can’t find anything are forced onto the private housing market, which is often difficult to negotiate for newcomers. “Dutch students know DUWO and know they need to register”, Marjon Hilhorst, chairman of International Student Network Leiden, explains. “But how can you know if you’ve only just arrived?”

The situation is obvious from all the desperate emails she receives. “It’s frustrating: the university promotes its international character, but leaves us to deal with frantic students with nowhere to stay.”

“You need a network”, adds Nicoló de Sandre, an ISN committee member who lived in a bed & breakfast for a while. “I got a room I could use for four months then found new accommodation just in time. I looked everywhere: Facebook, estate agents’ sites, Kamerraad, DUWO.” He now shares with two Dutch students. “They like me now, but they told me I wouldn’t have been their first choice.”

Foreign students are not popular as flatmates. Currently, a quarter of the 64 ads on Kamernet say NO INTERNATIONALS – or a variation of that, in large letters. “International students struggle on the Dutch student accommodation market, which is already quite saturated”, Hilhorst believes. “This ‘no internationals’ thing is a big problem." In addition, many houses only invite students who are members of the same club or reserve rooms for people with priority due to long travel times, so many rooms just aren’t available.

“If you can choose between an international student who doesn’t speak your language and who’s only here for a while and a Dutch one who’ll stay for four years, the choice is easy”, says Marta op den Akker, ISN’s treasurer. “I can sympathise. At the same time, I want to scream: I’m a person! I need somewhere to sleep”

“Leiden was actually on schedule in terms of solving the housing shortage with the Meelfabriek and Leidse Schans”, says Miedema, BRES’ chairman, who claims that internationalisation is the issue here. “We need another 2,000 places.” DUWO’s site says that, in March 2016, 2,000 rooms were needed and the prospects are that, by 2024, there will be either 700 too few rooms or 500 too many, depending on the impact of the student loan system. “But that only takes ordinary students into account. The problem is, we can’t predict the internationalisation process.”

However, DUWO thinks you can predict it, but this year’s numbers have exceeded all expectation. “We can’t build fast enough”, their spokesman explains. He doesn’t know the exact figures, but “there are far more this year than in previous years”, he says.

DUWO is also forced to compete with private housing agencies. “We want to build 480 rooms in The Hague, but it’s hard to find a good location. The biggest problem is the price. We want to stay under 414 Euros so occupants are eligible for a housing allowance. But commercial parties can ask as much as 650 Euros for the same space, so they outbid us. In fact, we’ve lost out on all too many projects that way.”

“They say they expect fewer students in the long run, but Leiden’s high in the rankings and is trying to make a name for itself as an international university. Logically, plenty of international students want to come here”, says the Dutch National Union of Students (LSVb)’s Tariq Sewbaransingh. “It’s not a bad thing, but it reveals that the university has not given internationalisation much thought. If they want to be international, they need to stimulate social integration too.”

“The university never promises accommodation: not to international students and not to Dutch ones”, says Van Overbeeke, the university spokesman. “It’s the students’ own responsibility; we make that quite clear. We do what we can; we’re involved in new-build projects, but ultimately, it’s not our responsibility.”

A one-sided contract, or not? 

DUWO does not allow international students to give notice before the end of the lease, although early cancellation is permitted by law. Student union LSVb calls students to come forward if they have such a contract.

In July 2016, a new law was introduced that gives tenants more leeway to cancel temporary contracts, which means that some accommodation in DUWO’s international houses might be unoccupied. Generally, there are two periods in a year when foreign students arrive, so if a student stays longer to work on his or her thesis and then gives notice, the room remains unoccupied until the next semester.

“That would be unreasonable”, claims DUWO’s spokesman. “That’s why our lease, which we drew up with the educational institutes and tenant associations, states that, in principle, the students cannot give notice.” But is it legal? “The law is not very clear on the issue. Meanwhile, we’d like to keep it as it is.”

At the Legal Services Centre, an assistant agrees that the law is unclear but nonetheless advises tenants to invoke their right to give early notice. “The question is: can you agree on a minimum term when a tenant can’t cancel the lease? Questions have been asked in Parliament and it’s been confirmed that it’s possible, at least, if it’s an open-ended lease in which a minimum term has been agreed. If it’s a fixed-term lease, it can be cancelled, so we’d advise tenants to make an appeal, because the law says you can.”

Student Union LSVb calls international students to report to them if they have such a contract. ‘We ask DUWO to uphold the law on their own, but if they don’t, we will take them to court,’ says chairman Tariq Sewbaransingh.

Anoushka Kloosterman

Addition: Mart Swagemakers, chair of tenant organisation Duwoners, responds that the tenant organisations involved (WijWonen in Delft, BRES in Leiden, VBU in Amstelveen en Duwoners in Amsterdam) uninamously voted against DUWO's contract policy. 'Simply because the law states that with temporary lease contracts, the renter's right to cancel the lease cannot be revoked.' 

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