In 2018, a group of student activists marched into Leiden University’s Lipsius building to drop a banner in protest of the University’s stance on the growing housing crisis among its students.
The activist group, Leiden Demands Housing, coordinated by the youth wing (ROOD) of the Dutch Socialist Party, elicited a response from the university.
Maïra Al-Manzali, a member of the group, shares the origins of this movement: “I was just really homeless, and I wrote on Facebook—I was curious if there were other people in the same situation—and 80 people answered. Just on the Leiden Student Housing Group!”
“I then added: Should we protest?”
The group presented the university with its demands: the university should provide emergency housing for students, the university should assist students in getting emergency Burgerservicenummers (BSNs) and the university should speak out against the root causes of the housing problem.
But how pressing is the student housing crisis?
How long does it really take to find housing in The Hague or Leiden?
The Student Housing Monitor for The Hague paints a grim picture of the housing shortage. They expected that 2700 students (both Dutch and international) would not be able to find housing in The Hague in 2017/18. This is a sharp increase from 800 in 2015/16 and 1500 in 2016/17.
According to Ines Castagnet, a Leiden University student who conducted a survey of student opinion on housing in 2018, it took an average of 3 months for the survey’s 113 Dutch and international respondents to find housing.
Maïra Al-Manzali’s own survey of 150 students provides similar numbers, and further, provides a damning reflection of the university’s Housing Office. Her survey showed that 44% of students did not use the office because the deadline was too early (they received their admission to the University after), and almost a quarter could not afford the application fee.
Ali Mohammad, a PhD student at Leiden University specialising in the marketisation of higher education institutions, points out that universities are not legally obliged to provide housing, but “the Minister of Education presses universities to make sure that there is enough housing for everyone.”
This is supposed to be done in coordination with the Municipality and housing providers like DUWO, to ensure that housing provision is considered when increasing student numbers. It is clear that this coordination has not happened.
A focus on ‘managing expectations’
Viktor Blichfeldt, University Councillor from the Democratic Student Party, doesn’t believe the university is taking the concerns of students seriously.
He is frustrated with the university’s focus on managing expectations instead of making actual change.
“It is basically the perspective of the university that it’s not their responsibility to help students with housing, which I find odd.”
Stephanie van Beukering, a ROOD member involved in Leiden Demands Housing, explains, “They [the University] took no responsibility for the situation at all. They even seemed to blame the international students for not being better prepared for this situation, even though the [university] website had no information on how difficult the housing situation actually is in Leiden.”
Other universities in the Netherlands have taken different approaches to the housing crisis. In Groningen for example, the University of Groningen the Hogeschool and the Municipality have set up a joint website providing comprehensive information on tenants’ rights and listings of available student housing options.
In response to the lack of information at Leiden University, Leonie Klüver, a student in the Tackling Global Challenges Honours College, is working on a project to create a website to provide international students with essential information on housing: “There is information out there, but we hope to put it in one place for international students.”
She and members of her group point out that the information provided by Leiden University’s own website is woefully inadequate, especially when most international students are ill-equipped to navigate other online resources on housing that are mostly in Dutch.
Without emergency housing…
Students like Marius Stemmer, a first-year International Relations student, are forced into taking on unofficial and predatory housing arrangements.
After hundreds of unanswered queries on housing websites and desperate to avoid homelessness, Marius took the plunge in accepting an offer from a Dutch couple looking to sublet their room. Without a contract and facing a dispute with his landlord, Marius lost out on his entire deposit.
In the absence of emergency housing solutions from the University, students have had to step in with their own ideas.
Jedidja van Keulen, Vice-President of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) The Hague, shares:
“As ESN, we made a deal with a few hostels in The Hague, to provide emergency housing when students first arrive in The Hague and do not have housing yet. The deal is that students pay €500 per month, so they can find a ‘real’ house in the meantime.”
No structured response to the housing crisis
Leiden University’s response to the housing crisis among students has largely been ad-hoc. The University responded to ROOD with a statement, offering emergency BSNs to students.
The University offered a temporary holiday home in Noordwijkse Duinen, which would close in October and is 20 kilometres away from Leiden, to a few students who spoke out about their housing problems. A German student who received the offer described his miserable daily ride to Leiden for the Mare newspaper.
According to Maïra’s survey, the Housing Office has allowed individual students to skip the long waitlist for housing if they make a complaint.
On this, Maïra observes:
“Basically, everything’s run by how much you threaten and persist and annoy them. And then they do something for you. But if you don’t feel like doing that, then it’s like the university said themselves: they have one less international to worry about.”
The lack of a coherent structure on dealing with the housing crisis functionally excludes from university assistance students who are unaware of or unwilling to use these nuclear options, students with disabilities, or students with health issues.
Viktor, who has been working on placing the issue of the student housing crisis higher on Leiden University’s agenda, points out. “There are some very simple things you can do to alleviate the pressure that students feel around this. You can set up the same website that Groningen did. You can set up a legal and translation assistance within the housing office especially for international students.”
What can the University actually do?
1900 new housing units are expected to be built by the private market in The Hague by 2020, with an additional 3000 to be built by 2026. This of course does nothing for the students who facing the threat of homelessness now, or for students facing exclusion and discrimination on the housing market.
For those asking that the University spend more on housing developments, Ali Mohammed points out that the options are limited by Dutch law.
He explains that private ventures, such as housing, which are funded by public bodies like the university must by law charge the full market cost of their services so that government funding can be “earned back”. In effect, this means that “universities cannot offer subsidized housing on the market, but housing for a full economic cost price (or under normal market conditions) would be too expensive for students.”
However, ambiguities exist on the University’s limitations. Leiden University does own and provide short stay apartments to staff (as they search for more permanent housing). The university also has leasing arrangements with DUWO for some international students (in International Relations and Organisations, International Studies and Leiden University College), and has recently announced the development of 1100 new housing units in the Leiden Science Park.
Furthermore, the university can do little to alleviate structural issues such as a lack of a legal limit on rent deposits—which leaves international students in desperate circumstances paying as much as 6 months’ deposit to secure roofs over their heads—or the lack of high-density apartment buildings in the Netherlands.
Surely, however, Leiden University can do more than it does now for its students (both present and future) experiencing the housing crisis.
Note: In response to Entrepot’s enquiries, the university’s Housing Office and Student Support declined to comment and requested that Entrepot contact the University’s Spokesperson. At the time of publishing, the University Spokesperson has not responded to Entrepot’s repeated enquiries.
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