Students
Photos by Reyer Boxem

Rooms are scooped up by scalpers

How Xior became Little Chinatown

Photos by Reyer Boxem
In the two years since real estate company Xior had Zernike Tower built, the building’s 700 furnished studio apartments have been filling up with Chinese students. Scalpers use software to book the rooms for them the second they become available.
16 November om 11:11 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 November 2022
om 13:20 uur.
November 16 at 11:11 AM.
Last modified on November 16, 2022
at 13:20 PM.
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Door Yuling Chang

16 November om 11:11 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 November 2022
om 13:20 uur.
Avatar photo

By Yuling Chang

November 16 at 11:11 AM.
Last modified on November 16, 2022
at 13:20 PM.
Avatar photo

Yuling Chang

Yang still remembers the day she tried to get a studio in Zernike Tower. To be more specific: she remembers the screen of her computer.

The student at the Faculty of Arts had tried everything to find a room in Groningen: she got a subscription to Kamernet.nl, sent DM’s to people in Facebook groups and asked help from everyone. But nothing turned up.

Room.nl didn’t work either. ‘They work with a points-per-month system, but I only registered at the beginning of the year, while Dutch students have been collecting points since they were in high school’, she says. 

Xior

Then she heard about Zernike Tower, a big building with furnished studio, owned by real estate company Xior Student Housing and therefore usually referred to as Xior by the students who live there. It’s by no means cheap: a room costs around 800 euros every month. But there’s no point system, no hospiteren (viewings with lots of other candidates): whenever a room comes online, the first one who responds, gets it. 

It was a very reluctant decision

‘People told me Xior would release more slots on the first day of each month, but no one knew the exact time’, Yang says. ‘So I just kept reloading the page that day, hoping for good luck. It was my only chance.’

She even managed to reach the step where she was asked to fill out her information and pay. For a brief period, she thought she had actually, finally, found a room. ‘But then the page just crashed’, Yang says. ‘When I close my eyes, I still see that page in my mind.’

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Middleman

Yang does live in Zernike Tower now, though. Because with no other option available, she turned to a middleman she had heard about. For a couple of hundred euros, a scalper gets you the room you want by using software to book it only seconds after it becomes available. ‘It was a very reluctant decision’, she says. ‘I wouldn’t have done it if I could have found a place through any other source.’

When Liu, a PhD student at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, came to Groningen, he also used a Chinese middleman to get into the building. ‘Once they open for applications, you need to act within a few minutes’, he says. ‘Otherwise, you get nothing.’

He was able to secure his room for a little less than the usual amount, he says. Usually the fee is 400 euros. ‘I paid only 350 euros, though, because the intermediaries had already got a room but I was the only buyer.’

Competing

How many Chinese students have used this method to obtain a room in one of Xior’s buildings – the company also owns a property on the Eendrachtskade – is unclear. But it is obvious to the residents of Zernike Tower that it has become a little Chinatown. ‘Three out of every five delivery lockers downstairs have Chinese names written on them’, Yang says. The building has a WeChat-group for Chinese students which has around 300 participants.  

Multiple middlemen are now competing in the business. Not only in Groningen, but also in other cities with a large number of Chinese students and real estate agencies that work on a first come, first served basis. They run accounts on Chinese social networking platforms and some even use Xior’s logo as their avatar. They advertise themselves as ‘rental agents’, even though they appear to have no partnership with Xior or other student accommodation providers. 

Three out of five  delivery lockers have Chinese names written on them

Although they keep their identities hidden, at least one of them seems to have lived in Groningen, says PhD student Yi. An acquaintance introduced him to a scalper when he was looking for a place last year, and the man showed his familiarity with the city. ‘He told me straight away that there was a student accommodation close to my workplace, while another was cheaper, but much further away.’

One of his colleagues had used the same middleman in 2018. ‘She told me that the person came to her place in Groningen to discuss business’, Yi says. 

Impossible to get past

The software they use, which keeps refreshing the page and fills in forms automatically, means that it’s almost impossible to get past these middlemen on ‘normal’ days, when rooms only become available now and then. Only on ‘big days’ – the first of each month – when a lot of slots open up, do students searching for a room the old-fashioned way still have a fighting chance.

Clients pay about 55 euros as a deposit to get the process going, but for 30 euros more they can choose which building they want, which type of room and a maximum amount of rent. There’s even the option – for an extra 55 euros – to select more than one student accommodation and even the size of the room.

It’s much too easy for these people to make money this way

While all this adds up, there’s group discounts, too. If two students buy into a scalper’s service together, they get a 15 euro discount each. The middlemen are even familiar with the Dutch rental allowance, and will get clients who pay extra a room whose rent falls within the allowance limits.

Yang paid around 400 euros all-in. But the housing shortage is causing the middlemen to raise their fees, as media studies master student Zhuang found. She had to pay around 465 euros. ‘And the guy who got a slot for me recently announced on social media that he would double this price to 6,400 yuan (about 930 euros), because some customer abandoned the deal midway through.’

She can’t afford more than what she’s currently paying in rent, she says. ‘Otherwise I might have stayed in an Airbnb for a month first and looked for a room myself. But it’s much too easy for these people to make money this way.’

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Heroes

Yang is hardly the only Chinese student who’s unhappy with the situation. But others feel the middlemen are heroes for helping them. ‘One of the scalpers said on WeChat that he had been reported and that he now had to rewrite his software, so he was doubling his prices’, Yi says. ‘A few people called the whistleblower evil and said that it was his fault that Chinese people had no place to live.’    

Some students are even afraid of talking about the middlemen at all. Two students who had agreed to be interviewed for this article, changed their minds, saying that they did not want to be affected. ‘My friend told me not to answer any questions. That’s better for your safety, he said’, one of them explained. 

But Yi still feels it’s a ridiculous situation. ‘It’s like you’re watching a movie in the cinema, and people in the front stand up – then you have to stand up, too.’

Yang, Yi, and Liu are aliases, their real names are known to the editorial team.

Xior: ‘We’re cancelling bookings’

Xior has noticed the abnormal bookings by Chinese scalpers, says Dick Schotman, director of operations for Xior Student Housing in the Netherlands. ‘If we find out residents got their rooms through intermediaries, we will cancel their bookings. Some cancellations have already been made, he says, although he won’t say how many or when. ‘The local authorities and the police are aware of the situation. There is an ongoing investigation, so the people behind this can be held responsible.’ 

‘Everybody needs to have a fair chance to rent a room’, his colleague Sandra Aznar adds, ‘especially given the scarcity of student housing.’

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