Homeless in the housing jungle
Michael Zemedkun (26)
Master in clinical and psychosocial epidemiology
Michael Zemedkun finally has his first house viewing since his arrival in the Netherlands. He agreed that UKrant comes along at this exciting moment. But he doesn’t seem excited at all. ‘The Landlord has ghosted me’, he says, showing unanswered messages on his smartphone. In front of the Academy building, the colourful tents of activists stand still in a silent protest against the student housing shortage.
It’s unfortunate for Michael who took a train to Groningen from Amsterdam, where he is currently staying with his aunt. Commuting for hours every day is not only exhausting, but also expensive, he says. ‘If I don’t find a house in September, I will cut my losses and go back to Ethiopia.’
Back in Ethiopia, Michael is a well-paid doctor. He had been working ‘in the frontlines of Covid’ since the moment he graduated last March. So coming to the Netherlands and basically being homeless is ‘a blow to my ego’, he says. ‘But I am just dealing with it as I go along, trying to keep positive vibes and think of this as a vacation, if I don’t find a place to stay.’
If I don’t find a house in September, I’ll cut my losses and go back
It’s not that he didn’t try to find a room from abroad. He even booked a room five months ago, right after he was awarded his scholarship. But the landlord told him to finalise the contract in August, close to the time of his arrival. When he reached out to her again, it turned out that she provides housing for bachelor students only. ‘For the four months, I was under the impression I had a house.’
All that is left for him is to ‘constantly’ apply for rooms. ‘Facebook. Kamernet. Huurstunt. At Home in Groningen’, he easily recites the counting rhyme that’s familiar to all homeless students. The problem is that most adverts target Dutch or female students, he says. So if someone gets back to him, it’s to apologise that the room was already rented. ‘So far I haven’t viewed a single house. It was going to be my first time today, but that didn’t work out’, he says with a smile.
So far his plan is to pay 356 euros for a season train ticket – ‘basically one month rent’ – to commute between Groningen and Amsterdam. That would be still cheaper than staying in a temporary student shelter, he says. ‘The only drawback is exhaustion and lack of sleep.’
Nico Hatt (19)
Even though this is Nico Hatt’s second year at the UG, it was ‘pretty hard’ for him to find a room from abroad, either. The housing company he was staying with last year doesn’t allow students to live there for more than one year, so he found himself back to square one. Three months of searching from his home country of Switzerland, where the pandemic brought him, turned out to be fruitless. ‘All the landlords prefer Dutch people or those who can actually see the place in person.’
So Nico decided to try his luck in Groningen, even though he had nowhere to land. He managed to book a bed at the Village emergency dorm, which allowed him to be ready for action once he’d been invited for a house viewing. He also got a subscription on Kamernet – ‘I didn’t have any success on the free platforms’ – and prepared a template message he’d send out to any new openings immediately once they show up.
Why would I, out of all those 20 people, get that room?
After a few days just refreshing the website and seeing if there’s anything new coming up, he finally managed to get his first viewing.
But when Nico arrived, he saw twenty more people waiting outside for that one place. ‘A lot of students brought their parents with them because they thought they might have better chances if the landlord sees some adults there as well.’ That felt intimidating, he says: ‘oh no, they’re all that desperate, so why would I, out of all those 20 people, get that room?’
What is more, Nico recognised many familiar faces with whom he shared the shelter. ‘We’ve played ping pong together and all that, but now we’re all competing against each other because only one person can sleep at that place.’
Eventually, Nico left the Village for another temporary room someone on Facebook offered him a sublet. ‘I didn’t mind the lack of privacy there, but it was just super noisy, so I couldn’t sleep at night.’ Now he has two weeks to find something else. ‘It’s stressful to not know where you are going to stay in two weeks’ time, so I make sure that every time I have a free minute, I check if there’s new advertisements.’
Nico is guessing he’ll be seeing the people from the Village more often as he didn’t get the first place. So he keeps applying on Kamernet despite the fact he gets ‘very few’ replies. ‘Today I’ve sent…’, he pauses counting his applications. ‘Five messages.’ And how many replies? ‘Zero.’
Tami Kolowa (29)
Master in economic geography
Tami’s lived in many different countries and is not new to hunting for rooms, so it’s not stressing him out a lot. ’It’s just inconvenient and takes a lot of time.’
He knows he started looking for a room rather late, in August, when he decided to pursue a master program instead of doing a PhD. Nevertheless, he stays determined and rational. After reaching out to over one hundred people on Kamernet – ‘I got one viewing from it’ – he switched to real estate websites and learned to play his cards right. ‘Saying that I’m older and that I’ve already worked is definitely more efficient because more real estate agents respond.’
That worked out well for Tami who is still working part-time next to his studies. With the proof of his income, he has been able to attend six house viewings in total. What he noticed, however, is a difference between how landlords treat international students and how agents care about employed house-hunters.
Saying I’m older and have already worked works: more real estate agents respond
When Tami arrived at a student place, for example, he was astonished by the arrogant manner the landlord addressed some students – not him. ‘He was making jokes about ‘poor’ countries, among other things, and it was a good example of someone who doesn’t have to fear anyone because everyone is dependent on him due to this incredible demand for housing.’
When the landlord told Tami that he always chooses international students for his house, it became clear to him that he wants people who he has more leverage over and who will not make a big fuss.
Now that Tami is looking for two-bedroom apartments – to be shared with someone later – he had one-to-one viewings where agents were touring him around saying nice things about the apartment and doing small talk. ‘So it was very different from the student housing viewings.’
Tami’s house hunt is still on, though. ‘I had three viewings yesterday, so the whole day I spent doing that instead of working part-time or studying and I don’t know for long this will last.’