Facebook page fights the Housing Office

A Facebook page for international students to complain about housing is growing. The page’s goal: ‘Lower rent, better service and fair treatment.’

It’s a grim scene: wall paper, speckled with brown mould, is peeling off the ceiling, lit by fluorescent lights. A small metal showerhead is the actual culprit of the photo – it’s clogged with calcium, causing the water to flow sporadically. Next, photos taken in the Diaconessen house reveal mould dramatically splashed on a window. The latest addition is a photo of mouse trap in the corner of a student room at Winscho.

The photos are from the Experiences from Groningen’s Housing Office Facebook page which has 290 likes after being online for two weeks. It’s getting a lot of attention. ‘People from the student political parties want to meet to talk about it’, says Tom (not his real name), one of the page’s founders.

Ungrateful tenant

Student housing in Groningen

In Groningen, the average size and price of a student room is 21 meters squared and 400 euros a month – 18.50 euros per square meter. In comparison, single rooms in the international student houses typically cost 388, and the smallest rooms are about 13 meters squared – 29 euros per meter squared. Not only do the rooms cost more for less space, but the condition that the rooms and the shared facilities are in make internationals feel that they’re not getting what they’re paying for.

The Housing Office explains the high pricing, because it has to pay the rent for all rooms in the buildings they own, including empty rooms, due to the short stay status of the housing.

All of the students running the page live in international housing, but Tom’s not actually worried about the Housing Office knowing who he is – he has visited them in person several times.

He is concerned about the owner of the apartment he’s planning to move into in February seeing him as an ungrateful tenant because of the page, though. It was looking for his next room that made him realize that pricing on the private market was more cost effective than what most students get through the Housing Office.

Just pissed

‘When I started the page, I was just pissed’, he says, ‘but suddenly, 200 people joined in two days. A lot of people sent me private messages, but didn’t want to publish them.’ Students feel frustrated, but don’t want to get their student managers, who live alongside them in the houses, in trouble. They like the managers, yet they don’t feel they can do much to fix things.

There’s a pattern: students go to their managers who promise to contact the Housing Office, but there seems to be no timely follow up. If they do respond, students often find it deliberately vague, ‘so we cannot hold up anything against them.’

Moldy shower walls

Moldy shower walls, mice, broken elevator buttons, uncontrollable water temperature, unreliable wifi, unexplained drilling and misleading claims about whether rooms are carpeted or not are among the complaints. Still, students say they would be willing to pay the fairly high rental prices if they were getting what they pay for. Alternatively, they could accept gross showers and limited internet access if it didn’t cost so much. ‘Either raise the service standards and fix the problems, or lower the rent.’

Many international students hesitate to complain at all. ‘It’s the human instinct not to admit that you got ripped off and not fight the system. But I’ve lived in many places and I’m not a 19-year-old coming from a very different country’, Tom says.

Well aware

Jeroen Boonstra, manager of the Housing Office, is well aware of the page’s existence. ‘We are sorry that they made a Facebook page out of it’, he says. ‘We are always willing and wanting to follow the interests of our lessees, and they can come directly to our office to discuss matters. If items are broken, we will of course repair them.’

‘Groningen is amazing, but housing has become a joke’

That was not Tom’s experience. Although he feels that Boonstra himself is approachable, he avoids making promises of when exactly things will get fixed. But Boonstra insists that following the chain of command gets things done. ‘So first, please report to the student manager, and if they cannot deal with the problem, they can come to the office and we will assign it to one of the housing associations.’

Solve complaints

‘We take all complaints seriously, let me say that very clearly’, he continues. ‘And we cannot see inside the rooms, so if people don’t address their issues to us, then we cannot help solve them. The Housing Office is really willing to solve the complaints.’

As for the messes in the common areas, Jeroen explains, ‘We have a cleaning schedule which means that, three times a week, the common areas will be cleaned. But the students have their own responsibility to clean the house as well.’ He adds that if a cleaning service was hired more often, the rent would be even more expensive.

That’s why Tom is moving out after only 5 months in Housing Office accommodations. ‘Groningen is amazing, the university is amazing and the partying too, but housing has become a joke.’