Housing: Good intentions poorly executed

When the international housing crises erupted in protests last year, everyone agreed on one thing: this can’t keep happening. But here we are again.
By Megan Embry / Photo Reyer Boxem

Everyone knew a tidal wave was heading for Groningen: an analysis back in March predicted a shortage of over 500 rooms this year. The RUG, Hanze, and the municipality said they were making plans. But halfway through the first week of classes, university spokesperson Jorien Bakker estimates that between 300-400 students are still without a room. What happened?

Too little, too late

By June, Facebook chatter among prospective international students was reaching a fever pitch of desperation. Competition for rooms was already impossibly fierce. But students had been warned, says Bakker. ‘We urged everyone to get started early. We told them how it works here.’

All the same, many international students feel duped. They report that if they had really understood how bad the housing situation was, they would never have come. ‘Of course communication can always be improved, and that’s something we can look at in the future’, says Bakker.

At the beginning of the summer, the RUG responded to worried inquiries by assuring students that new rooms would be uploaded to the new housing module, At Home in Groningen. The goal was to find 500 rooms. But the module didn’t launch until July, and by the middle of August when students were arriving in Groningen, only 320 of those rooms had been listed.

‘I had really wanted that module up earlier’, Bakker admits. ‘June would have been good.’ For hundreds of students the help was too little, too late.

Feeding frenzy

By the time the Suikerlaan container development entered the scene, anxious students were desperate enough to drop 500 euro a month to live outside city centre. Inexplicably, developer Rizoem decided to make the units available in small batches at random times, igniting an online feeding frenzy. Students wasted entire days waiting for the next batch to drop.

Students say a lottery system could have prevented unnecessary suffering. Just a little bit of planning and cooperation between the universities and Rizoem would have shown students that their time matters as much as their ‘value’ as internationals.

Nickel and diming

For months the universities had been planning ‘affordable’ emergency accommodations for students without a room. When news broke that the homeless would pay 12,50 a night to sleep in a tent or 41,50 to sleep on a boat, public backlash was swift.

They responded quickly by slashing boats costs and declaring the tents free of charge. But the damage was done. This and so many other interactions with the RUG and its partners ‘smack of nickel and diming’, says UK student Louis Sandiford, a disillusioned Suikerlaan renter.

UKrant.nl commenter Anna Osuska agrees: the whole situation has been a master class in ‘how to lose students and a good reputation as well.’

Us, responsible?

Many of these negative impressions could have been prevented. Over the last year students and faculty alike have been critical of university decisions that prioritise finances over people. Had the university opened the tent camp early and welcomed students to use it as a home-base while searching for rooms in person, the gesture would have spoken volumes about the standing of international students in the RUG community.

In the face of criticism, the RUG is quick to disavow any institutional responsibility to house its students. But if Elmer Sterken is to believed, the university is not just an institution. It’s also ‘an inclusive community that wants everyone to feel at home.’ An institution looks out for its bottom line; a community looks out for its members.

DAG has taken this idea to heart with a couchsurfing initiative currently providing shelter to over 130 homeless students. 360 willing hosts wait in the wings. ‘The solidarity has been amazing’, says one DAG member. ‘The university has its mouth full of inclusion, but we have our couches full of it.’

Next year

Bakker looks forward to next year, when an estimated 1500 rooms will have been added to the Groningen market. But in the end, she thinks the RUG’s efforts, along with Hanze and the municipality, have been largely successful. ‘We were better prepared than last year. As far as I know no one is without a place to sleep.’

Indeed, keeping kids off the streets is good. And students are grateful for whatever they get. ‘Initiatives like the Suikerfabriek containers and At Home in Groningen show initiative and good will’, said one student in an online UKrant survey. But even the best intentions can be poorly executed.

Or as another student puts it: ‘this has been an absolute shit show.’

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