Was it easy to find a room: yes or no?

Housing is not a minor issue, so I did some research

Photo by Taco van der EbStudents staying at the Stochemhoeve Camp Site, close to Cronesteyn Park, Leiden.

After complaining about it, Maira al-Manzali decided to carry out her own housing survey among other
international students. ‘The university seems to think we're all loaded'

In response to repeated claims made by board members of Leiden University that housing is a minor issue with only a few students affected by Leiden’s housing crisis (‘Xenophobia at the academy, One of Leiden University’s unwanted students speaks out’, Mare 7, 1st of November), I carried out an online survey.

With 150 responses from a sample with obvious self-selection bias, it is, admittedly, far from a rigorous sociological survey. Yet it is better than nothing, and does prove that there is indeed is a problem. When asked why the university does not conduct a housing survey of all students by sending out a university-wide email, I was told by a board member that the specific topic of housing does not interest most students and that there already was a survey on many topics, including housing – by this, he meant the “international student barometer” used by many universities and not particularly tailored to Leiden, nor to its distinct housing problem. Meanwhile, the student party ONS had an online survey (which they mistakenly called a “housing hotline”, which led many a homeless student to believe there would be a number to call for help, which there wasn’t), and yet refused to share its results with people who asked. Instead, we believe that transparency is more in the interest of students than secrecy.

75.2% of survey takers were international, yet 93.2% affirmed that it was difficult to find housing in Leiden without the housing office (it is thus difficult for Dutch as well as non-Dutch students). 44.4% did not use the office because the deadline was too early, and 23.9% could not afford the housing fee (here I quote a board member: “If you cannot afford this fee, then maybe you should not come to Leiden”). It takes nearly a quarter of students more than three months to find housing - unless they are part of the third who still have not found it, or have to commute (from the Hague, Amsterdam, or from Belgium with five-hour daily travel time). 15.5% of students commute for more than one hour.

While seeking housing, 15% of students had to pay for a hotel or hostel (hostels being €30 a night in general), and 13.4% stayed at a friend’s house, which usually meant not having one’s own room. While organisations such as DUWO charge €750 for a studio room, 92.6% of students are looking for rooms below €700 (with 56.6% seeking rooms for under €400).

To find a room for just under €400 is in fact normal for many Dutch students, especially with those with ties to student fraternities; for an international student, it feels like a miracle. This is not because they’re loaded, as the university seems to think, but because they cannot find a house otherwise, since they are not part of these associations and are priced-up by landlords. As one student wrote, “the rent is far above my initial budget (the most expensive house I have ever lived in)”. It comes as almost no surprise that 55.4% of students could not find housing in Leiden that met their budget.

The comments of the students who took the survey attest to the financial and personal distress this situation has put them in. Regarding the University Housing Office, one student wrote: “The student housing did not help at all. It was actually closed for full two weeks at the beginning of the academic year- last September.” The brick wall of coldness of this office is well illustrated by a student’s story: “I could not find housing through the Housing Office because I have a pet - which I have had for 13 years, so the Housing Office repeatedly told me to ‘just give it away’”. Due to this lack of help, some reported being subject to scams, such as one student who wrote: “In the end I found a room that wasn’t even in Leiden (it’s in Rijnsburg). The realtor has illegally charged me “administration costs” (€400) and has several illegal clauses in our contract. Because of how badly I need a room, I couldn’t do anything about it but accept it. I’m not the only one who’s had this problem.” One student explained the problem as being due to the fact that “There are also a lot of scammers in Leiden who know about the bad housing situation and capitalize on international students who are unable to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent landlords.”

Many comments attested to the anxiety caused by housing discrimination against internationals. “What was most troublesome, was to hear all kinds of exclusion, discrimination and sometimes even exploitation of fellow international students I came across. It did not feel like a safe and welcoming introduction of my student life in Leiden at all”, wrote a respondent.

One student reported that “I speak Dutch fluently, but was told over and over that as an “international”, I was not welcome.” Finding housing early on is not an option for non-EU students, many of whom “could not visit Netherlands earlier in summer because of visa issue,” as one student wrote.

One student nicely summed it up: “Too much time is invested in finding housing.” We’d all rather be focusing on our studies, and it is up to the University to provide us with the possibility to do that. In order to do so, it should listen to the suggestions of the students themselves. One survey-responder proposed that “the housing office should formalise a network (ideally through their webpage given the lack of security that FB provides to students) whereby current students can advertise possible short-term lets for international students.”

Another suggested to “set up a transparent and clear online and physical information service, held by people who are well informed about the infrastructure behind housing accommodation... At the moment I’m thinking about a simple scheme that guides the student through from step A to step Z. For instance, are you registered on an address: yes - no. If yes: you can now apply for a BSN (tells you what it does, and how to get it). Do you have a BSN: yes- no. If yes (and probably meet other requirements): you can now apply for a Dutch bank account (tells you why it is handy to have one). Do you have Dutch bank account? If yes: you can now apply for a personalised OV chip-card (tells you why it is money saving if you get one).”

These things may seem obvious to someone who has always lived in the Netherlands, but many internationals simply have not been informed of their rights. Many students who could not find housing in Leiden and live in the Hague pay for their commute, because they cannot register at their address, or because they do not know of the free transportation option. It is money thrown away that could be spent on books or better nutrition, both of which would lead to a higher quality of learning.

The university must stop offering ad hoc solutions (such as a BSN resolution for students who specifically took the initiative for it) and instead offer a long-term safety net for its students who are victims of a bureaucracy that refuses their rights (so instead, a permanent registration possibility for students who cannot find housing, one which is advertised to all students, always). Listen to students, acknowledge there is a problem, care.

Maïra al-Manzali is an international student in Leiden

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