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Looking back on the occupation: ‘We’re taking a stand’

On Thursday, students occupied the Academy building to protest the room shortage in the city. It’s not the first time this has happened. They can’t help but wonder: have the UG and the city learned nothing over the past few years?

‘What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!’ This is the cry that sounded through the Groningen city centre around noon on Thursday. A parade consisting of a little over a hundred students bearing banners and megaphones forms the ‘March of the Homeless’, wending its way through the city from the Grote Markt to the university’s Academy building.

They’re protesting the housing shortage in the city. It’s been a problem for years that affects mainly international students who are forced to spend the start of their time at university in emergency housing or on a stranger’s couch.

Protesters in the Academy building. On the right, holding the megaphone, is GSb chair Marinus Jongman, SOS spokesperson.

Occupation was planned

It’s the third action in a week’s time by Shelter Our Students (SOS), a collaborative effort of various student and youth organisations. SOS had been saying for months that the 150 emergency beds the city set up together with the UG and the Hanze would be insufficient.

Their fears soon became a reality. After expansion, the emergency housing now consists of approximately three hundred beds. Through their couchsurfing campaign, SOS has matched another 150 students with hosts offering up a place to sleep. This is only a stopgap solution however, which is why SOS has joined the homeless students in their protest.

However, before the protest starts, there’s something no one who isn’t with SOS knows: they’ve made plans to occupy the Academy building. ‘A small group was already in the building before we arrived’, says Ken Hesselink with SOS. ‘They made sure to keep the doors open so we could all get inside.’

Negotiations

Around 12:30 p.m., the protesters occupy the staircase in the main hall. Hesselink received an annoyed phone call from the city: they have to leave the stairs immediately, or the police will be called. Next, an officer shows up to talk to them.

While the protesters make it clear that they won’t leave until both the university and the city meet their demands, the board of directors of the university decide to lock down the building. No one is allowed in. While the scheduled PhD ceremonies are still happening, classes are cancelled.

It marks the start of hours of negotiations between SOS, alderman Roeland van der Schaaf, and university board member Hans Biemans. The stakes: SOS wants emergency housing for all international students to be free of charge, they want the promise to create two thousand housing units at the Zernike campus, they want future students to be properly informed about the Groningen housing crisis, they want the UG to issue a public statement condemning any further growth of the university.

Indignation

Anyone even remotely familiar with the situation in Groningen would respond sceptically to SOS’s demands on Thursday. After all, the city has already committed to creating new housing at Zernike, promising them by 2025. And the university has said more than once that it’s dependent on the government’s decisions about curtailing student numbers. ‘I don’t understand why I’m missing class over this’, a student outside the Academy building says indignantly.

While classes may have been cancelled, dozens of students show up to the building in vain that afternoon. The Groninger Studentbond (GSb) flag is flying from one of the windows next to the entrance and students sit in the windowsills. ‘Thanks a lot, GSb!’ a student who’s missing class yells sarcastically. ‘I’d much rather be in class right now than have to go home again. What are they hoping to achieve?’

University and city managers discuss the situation in a separate room. On the right is Hans Biemans with the board, in the middle alderman Roeland van der Schaaf.

Free emergency housing?

That’s what a lot of people are asking after four hours and two meetings between Van der Schaaf, Biemans, and SOS. ‘All their demands, minus a few things here and there, match up with what we want’, the alderman says. The problem appears to lie in the short-term details, such as the costs of emergency housing.

Can they make it free of charge? ‘See, making them free of charge would be complicated, because it isn’t free. If we’re spending money on something, we have to be able to explain where that money comes from’, says Van der Schaaf. ‘However, we do feel the price for the emergency beds should be reasonable, so that’s what we’re discussing now.’

Relationship

Marinus Jongman, who represent SOS in the negotiations, says they’ll keep going until they’re satisfied. ‘We’ll stay all night if we have to’, he says. In the meantime, the student parties on the university council are chagrined. They put out a joint statement condemning the occupation.

While the council members share SOS’s concerns, they’re worried that the occupation will damage the relationship between the university, the city, and student organisations. ‘I don’t think that’s likely to happen’, says university board member Biemans in between meetings. ‘Our students may be a little more radicalised and activist than our board members, but then again, we play different roles. I don’t think this kind of action is necessary and I’d rather meet with them under different circumstances, but in the end we all want the same thing.’

Around 9:30 p.m., after eight hours of negotiations, Biemans’ words come true: the parties reach an agreement, and the occupation ends. The protesters cheer as they exit the building.

Expand emergency housing

What agreements have been reached? First of all, the current emergency housing will be expanded, allowing SOS to scale down their couchsurfing campaign. ‘We’ll determine how many extra beds we’ll need for that’, Van der Schaaf says on Thursday evening. ‘We hope some beds will free up in the existing emergency housing. But at the rate at which things are moving now, it’s not looking great. So we’ll set up extra beds.’

It’s possible they’ll create another dormitory like The Village at the Peizerweg. The price per bed will be lowered from 9 to 6 euros a night at all dormitories, including The Village. But, says Van der Schaaf, that doesn’t apply to other emergency housing like the Martinihouse or hostels. Emergency housing will be expanded ‘as needed’.

Inside, the atmosphere was pleasant. The protesters shared a meal at six o’clock.

Build more, communicate better

Secondly, the city and the university will commit to creating at least 1,500 new rooms at the Zernike Campus in 2025. In addition, the agreement states, ‘they’ll look for a location on and around Zernike to potentially create temporary housing in the period leading up to 2025’. The agreement stipulates that these rooms cannot be built at the expense of social housing elsewhere in the city, and that they should be easily accessible to international students.

Thirdly, the university has promised to improve how they communicate with prospective students. They will ‘communicate openly and honestly and include a warning about the lack of housing in Groningen at the start of the academic year’. The university will also discuss how to curtail the influx of students with the university council.

Curtail student numbers

Finally, the city, the university, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and SOS put out a joint statement with a clear message to the Dutch government: the lack of housing for international students is a societal problem that can only be solved if the university is given the tools to match student numbers to the city’s housing capacity.

As far as Jongman is concerned, the biggest win of the day is that the city of Groningen as a whole is making a fist. ‘Together, we’ve come to the conclusion that what’s happening is too much for Groningen and that we need a solution. I think taking a stand together is a powerful signal. We’ve put this issue on the national agenda.’

Photo caption: University and city managers discuss the situation in a separate room. On the right is Hans Biemans with the board, in the middle alderman Roeland van der Schaaf.

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