‘Oh man, why does it look like this is gonna be just another one of those unnoticed proposals... Well, here goes nothing.’
That is how an international student starts his request for a room in the Facebook group ‘Student Housing Leiden’. As he suspects, he is just one of the many people hoping to find accommodation here. They all know that these requests lead nowhere and making demands is out of the question, but they are desperate.
And their desperation is justified: plenty of students spend months actively looking for a place to live, to no avail. Take, for example, film and literature student Sylvie de Leeuwe (19). She has sent over 150 messages. The result: eight invitations for a housemate selections, four of which she was actually able to attend.
‘I live in Helmond, so sometimes it’s not possible for me to attend such evenings, given the travel time’, De Leeuwe explains. ‘It’s 2.5 hours to get there and 2.5 hours to get back.’ That is why she gets travel time priority as well as first year priority from DUWO, but this does not really help her: ‘There are hundreds of others who also have that priority. I'm getting more and more discouraged by the day. I have also noticed that those housemate selections do something to your head. I know those rejections aren’t personal, but it still makes you feel like a slab of meat, being judged over and over again.’
For now, she continues to travel back and forth four days a week. On one of these days, she has to be on the train at six in the morning in order to be on time. In the meantime, her search for a room continues unabated. ‘It’s tedious but I have no other option.’
For international students, it is even more difficult to find accommodation. They usually do not have any contacts where they can stay for a short period while looking for a room, they are more likely to be scammed and many advertisements explicitly ask for Dutch students only (‘NO INTERNATIONALS’).
That is why linguistics student Nina Estedt (23) is now staying at the Bastion Hotel in Leiden. She is from Germany and, just like De Leeuwe, started searching at the end of May, but so far, she has just spent a lot of money on all the different platforms. ‘You have to pay a lot of money just to search for rooms. I have sent seventy messages but only received three replies.’
Estedt estimates that around 90 percent of the advertisements explicitly state that international students are not welcome. ‘I often give it a shot anyway, saying that I’m learning Dutch and that I’m staying here for at least three years, but it’s no use.’
‘I have a bed and a table at the hotel, but it’s not really a place where I can sit back and relax. The thought of not having my own place to return to in the evening really bothers me. Room searching is now part of my daily routine: I start searching immediately after I get up, then after lunch and then again after dinner. But I have little hope left, to be honest.’
Luiza Dzhidzhavadze (23, machine learning) is also at the end of her rope, she explains from the hostel in the Hague where she is staying. In fact, it was so bad that she almost responded to a fishy advert from a 65-year-old man. ‘He didn’t even have a separate room, he asked for 500 euros a month, and still I got excited for a second – but of course, I know that would be a bad idea.’
Two weeks ago, she arrived in the Netherlands and at first, she was staying with a friend who lived near Harderwijk, but it was too far to travel every day. She spends ten hours a day searching, Dzhidzhavadze says.
Even students who are relatively lucky enough to have a roof over their heads, are not necessarily on safe ground. For a couple of years now, the city council has been trying to substantially reduce the number of student accommodations in the city centre by introducing a new policy.
This means that renting for home-sharing is more difficult and that existing student houses are sometimes shut down retroactively.
This was also the case for Els van Son (23, recently graduated in biomedical sciences). As a tenant, she has had to suffer the consequences of the housing policy twice already. ‘Last summer, I moved into a house on the Morsweg with four other Master’s students. In November, we were told we had to move out. Our landlord had not been informed about this at all, and we didn’t really know what to do either.’
Ultimately, Van Son moved into her current place at the end of January: a house close to the Huigpark with three other Master’s students. ‘This time, I made sure to check with the landlord whether everything was in order regarding the permit. I was told I could stay here.’
But once again, she received a letter stating that she has to leave. ‘All this moving around doesn’t exactly put you in high spirits. And since more and more of these houses are disappearing, it’s getting harder and harder to find a place like this.’
‘I’m not very worried about it at the moment, but that’s because I try not to think about it. It was very stressful for me the last time. In two weeks’ time, I had to earn twenty credits for my Master’s degree; and with this on top of it, it was just too much. Because of the stress, one of my housemates didn’t pass anything and had to repeat a year.
‘Your home is the most important place you have’, Van Son says. ‘The city council claims it wants to protect tenants, but it is the tenants who suffer the most now. It’s true that the city centre shouldn’t consist of only student houses, but the student houses that are causing the nuisance are not those housing five Master’s students.’
‘My eyes hurt from looking at my phone so much. I haven’t even been to a viewing yet; I only get rejections. I try to stay positive, but I’m very close to a mental breakdown.’
Many other international students are also staying at the hostel. It kind of feels like being in a hospital, she says. ‘When others find a place to stay and get to leave, you’re happy for them, but on the other hand, you still have to stay there.
Wiktor Pawłowski (23, Russian) is also staying at a hostel, but in Amsterdam. He did a lot of research and found that this was the cheapest option. ‘Unfortunately, the train is still quite expensive and I can’t get a discount card because I don't have a postal address.’
He too starts searching as soon as he wakes up. ‘My day starts with responding to all the accommodations on Pararius, everything that’s available in Leiden and within a thirty-kilometre radius. I receive a reply about once every two days.
‘The problem is that they usually require that you have an income. I do have a guarantor but he is Polish so they often don’t accept him as a guarantor. Without a postal address, I also can’t work. I can’t find a job because I don't have a place to live, and vice versa.’
He cannot afford to lose hope, he says. ‘I want to do my PhD here as well, so I’ll just keep searching.’ Dzhidzhavadze has already asked her previous university if she can go back there in case she cannot find a place to live here. That would shatter her dream to bits.
‘I went to Tilburg once, where I saw what the real Dutch student life looks like. That’s why I was so excited to study here, and I’ve worked hard for that ever since. I’m very happy I got to come here but it’s hard to focus on that when you don’t even have a home.’
Through the university’s Housing Office, a limited number of students can acquire housing. They do have to pay 350 euros and a contract fee of 75 euros (which may only cover the costs).
Three years ago, this sum was still 150 euros. University spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke explains that the halving is the result of ‘a cost shift’.
In 2018, the university rented a number of bungalows at a holiday park in Noordwijkerhout, where Mare wrote a report about a student who stayed there with seven others. Since then, no emergency solutions have been offered. Van Overbeeke: ‘They were used either sporadically or not at all.’
She advises students who encounter problems because they do not have a postal address to report to the Admissions Office so that a suitable solution can be found.