No room if you’re not Dutch
Sorry, no internationals
‘Finally!’ Lorenzo Zambelli was over the moon when he was invited over for a hospi – the Dutch word for a group house viewing. But when he arrived, it didn’t take the Italian student of applied mathematics long to realise that he wasn’t really wanted.
‘I was the only international student out of the five people that were viewing the house. The hospi was basically all in Dutch, with short interruptions in English to tell me, this is the kitchen, this is the bedroom…’, he says. ‘They only asked me a few brief questions, and some of them were completely irrelevant, like whether I had tattoos or if I had any weed with me. Then they continued talking in Dutch with the others.’
After fifteen minutes he gathered his things, said goodbye, and left. ‘They didn’t show any interest in getting to know me. It was clear from the first second that they didn’t want any internationals. I went home even more disheartened and I felt more unwelcome.’
Lorenzo is one of the 11,000 international students currently residing in Groningen – 9,000 UG students and roughly 2,300 Hanze students. He’s been living in the Sugar Homes for the past year, but his contract is nearly up and he needs to find another place by July.
They asked me whether I had tattoos or if I had any weed with me
‘I started searching in late January, knowing that it was difficult,’ he says. But he hasn’t had any luck, and now time is running out.
Student housing corporation SSH’s 1,600 rooms and studios are fully booked for next academic year. The municipality, despite creating 230 new emergency beds for internationals, fears the worst for September. Meanwhile, the UG is telling prospective students not to come to Groningen if they haven’t found a room by August.
But even though Lorenzo has been searching from Groningen, he doesn’t seem to have it any easier than those who haven’t moved to the city yet. He uses official housing websites and agencies – he’s paid around 200 euros in subscriptions so far – and looks at the most active Facebook groups daily. When scrolling through the ads there, on average half say ‘No internationals/Only Dutch’.
‘I understand that there’s a housing crisis, but what I don’t understand is this reluctance to open the house to internationals’, he says.
It’s not much different on the agencies’ websites. ‘A lot of them mention the “no internationals” policy. Some justify it by pointing out it’s the landlord’s decision, some don’t give a reason at all.’
And even when they don’t say openly they don’t want internationals, you can still end up at a hospi and feel you’re not welcome. ‘I think I was only there because I was among the first ten who reacted to the ad, and so according to the website they had to grant me a viewing. But clearly they had no intention of giving me the room’, Lorenzo says.
Why are students and landlords in Groningen so averse to internationals? It frustrates him to no end. ‘Is an international student unable to pay the rent, clean the house, be polite, be a good tenant and friend?’
If you come home after a day of studying, you want to switch off
It’s not that, Dutch students explain when asked. One of the main reasons they’re not keen on international housemates is the language barrier. ‘Having to speak English at home can be difficult’, explains Wies. ‘If you come home after a day of studying or working, you want to chill, to switch off. For some, having to speak English is a big effort.’
‘It’s a convenience thing’, agrees Anne-Lauren. But she also suspects there’s a cultural gap. ‘‘I think most internationals don’t know the student culture in Groningen, where you go to hospis and join a student association.’
A lot of Dutch students live in fraternity or sorority houses, like Wies, who’s a member of Vindicat. ‘Our student association is basically all Dutch, so our houses also don’t have any internationals living in them’, she explains.
Because internationals don’t usually join the traditional Dutch student associations, that puts them at a disadvantage. In addition, oftentimes Dutch students come to Groningen with friends they know from school. ‘They don’t need to get to know new people and want a place for themselves’, says Wies.
She’d advise internationals to join an association. ‘That would definitely make it easier to get a place in a big student house like ours. But obviously, seeing that the other members are mostly Dutch might deter them.’
It doesn’t help that internationals often only stay for a short time. Many houses look for tenants who can stay for a few years, and so do the housemates, who prefer to have friends around who stay for longer.
Still, sometimes that short stay is to the internationals’ advantage. Jup lives in a fraternity house, but he currently has an international housemate. ‘We had to sublet a room for a few months and many internationals look for shorter stays, so it works’, he says. ‘We all love him, but we don’t have internationals often as we mainly search for new housemates within our association.’
And then there’s a practical reason why houses that have a room to let preclude internationals, explains Annyck. ‘Five hundred people have already responded to our ad. If we didn’t rule out internationals, that would have been even more.’
Groningen student union GSb believes Dutch students can be persuaded to welcome internationals into their houses, though. ‘We think that the image of international students in one’s home or safe space is a bit distorted among Dutch students’, says board secretary Ale Pieter ten Cate.
I think many Dutch students are not fully aware of the huge problems for internationals
Together with the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), and with the support of the municipality, they’re setting up the campaign Internationals Welcome to change that. ‘We’ve shot videos where we go to student houses where Dutch and international students live together, and we show how fun and great that can be’, says ESN president Hannah Jelkmann.
The videos will be published during the summer. ‘The situation will not change overnight; it’s a long-term goal’, says Ten Cate. ‘But we all want to see more mixed houses and create more awareness.’
Mix of students
It might just work, says Dutch student Tirza. ‘The housing situation is awful, for both Dutch students and internationals, but I think that many Dutch students are not fully aware of the huge problems for internationals. For us, it’s difficult to find a place, but definitely easier than for internationals.’
The municipality of Groningen is planning to tackle the problem on a more practical level, by making sure new student flats – like the building that’s being planned on Zernike Campus – have a mix of Dutch and international tenants. ‘We want this to slowly but surely become the norm in Groningen’, said outgoing alderman Roeland van Der Schaaf in his last press conference on June 1.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo keeps on searching, even though he’s overwhelmed by the whole situation. ‘I don’t know what will happen and where I will go. I feel anxious, frustrated, and unwelcome. It’s like a desperate fight for bread. Everyone is trying to grab the loaf before someone else takes it.’