Complaining about the neighbours
In the trenches around the Rikkers-Lubbers house
A war has broken out at the corner of the Verlengde Oosterstraat and the Heresingel.
Several months ago, the city of Groningen agreed to let housing agency StudentStay outfit Heresingel 32, 34, and 36 as temporary student residences. So in August, 56 students from all over the world moved into what had at one time been a nursing home for the elderly, relieved to finally have a roof over their heads. And a pretty nice one, to boot: the stately Rikkers-Lubbers house near the Groningen canals.
But while the students were celebrating their good fortune, their neighbours in the house next door began to feel as though the world had forgotten about them. There had been no prior notice nor any considerations of how the arrangement might impact the neighbourhood; 56 students had simply moved in adjacent to them. Just over the fence, the students partied, made music, had loud late-night conversations, and smoked in the garden with impunity.
These days, the neighbours are calling the nuisance hotline several times a week. They keep trying to explain how they can’t sleep from all the noise, and of course the students are making noise; that’s what students do. So who in their right mind decided to move so many more of them into a neighbourhood that, legally, was at its limit for student housing?
The students at the Rikkers-Lubbers house know that the neighbours are unhappy, but have to rely on google-translated news articles to figure out what the complaints are. They don’t have direct contact with any of the neighbours. And students have reason to be unhappy as well: their complaints to StudentStay about rental issues – like no heating and missing doors – are completely ignored. When the agency does reach out, it’s to threaten the students with homelessness if they don’t stop misbehaving. And at the heart of their home, their common living room, a CCTV camera records everything they do.
The battle lines are drawn; the two stately houses serve as trenches; the opponents are stuck at an impasse. How did everything go so wrong? Well, there are two sides to every story.
‘I have a hard time falling asleep and I wake up during the night all the time. At three, four o’clock in the morning.’
Ed van den Brink shows off the view from his first-floor apartment at the Verlengde Oosterstraat with such obvious pleasure, it’s clear that he hasn’t quite gotten used to it yet himself. He and his wife Truus recently moved from the little town, Hoogeveen, into Groningen’s bustling city centre. ‘I love it here’, he says. ‘The liveliness is great.’
But one thing throws a near-constant shadow over his pleasure, day and night.
Van den Brink sits at his dining table, leafing through a large binder. Inside are listed a hand-scratched catalogue of times, most of them around or after midnight. The afternoon sun shines through an open window, which lets in a soft breeze that carries with it the animated voices of three or four people. Their words are so loud and so clear, it almost seems they are sitting at the table with Van den Brink instead of in their own garden across the way. He is only spared the intimate details of their conversation because he doesn’t understand Spanish.
‘This is just the start’, he says. ‘The rest will be there tonight.’ He speaks from experience.
The garden is part of the Rikkers-Lubbers house, which stands on the corner of the Heresingel, perpendicular to Van den Brink’s residence. The Frisian housing agency StudentStay has been renting the Rikkers-Lubbers house to students since August. Fifty-six students who may otherwise have had to live in a tent, a boat, or even the street, now call the house their home.
Make no mistake: Van den Brink doesn’t wish homelessness on anyone, and certainly not on young people who come here to get educated. He also understands that students have to live somewhere, that they sometimes throw parties, and that Groningen isn’t the same as Hoogeveen – he truly does. But he hasn’t slept since August.
‘I have a hard time falling asleep and I wake up during the night all the time. At three, four o’clock in the morning. Every single day of the week.’ The students are in their courtyard at all hours of the night, talking and listening to music. ‘I’m retired, so I can catch some extra hours when I wake up tired. But my downstairs neighbour works irregular hours. Her alarm goes off at four thirty sometimes.’
I have a hard time falling asleep and wake up all the time
Initially, Van den Brink tried talk to the students himself. ‘I’d yell at them from the open window: “Could you please be quiet?”.’ Sometimes, nothing happened. Sometimes the students were quiet for a while. But as soon as one group had slunk off, another would take their place within the hour, and they would continue talking and playing music.
So Van den Brink no longer yells at them. Nor does he bother to ring the students’ doorbell. ‘All they would do is give me lip, or laugh at me.’
He’s knows because he’s been treated like that before, when two men who work for the owner of the Rikkers-Lubbers house showed him the garden. A student – ‘this guy with a short beard who’s always outside’ – addressed them. ‘Who gave this man permission to enter our garden?’ the student demanded. ‘He was being provocative, rude’, says Van den Brink.
But he refuses to give up. Whenever he hears noise during the night, he notes the time in his binder. Then he calls the police: ‘As soon as they see my cell number they know what’s up.’ Then he waits.
Sometimes it takes too long for the police to come; depending on the night, noise complaints don’t always take priority. But the other night, two officers showed up right on time. ‘They were right here, at the window, just before midnight’, says Van den Brink. ‘They were like: this is awful.’ They issued an official warning to the students. A second warning followed, along with a fine.
Whether the students will have to pay the fine themselves or whether the cost will fall to StudentStay, Van den Brink doesn’t know. But if Studentstay does have to pick up the bill, he thinks it would serve them right. It might make the Frisian company consider the consequences of their renting policies.
‘A cleaning company is supposed to come and collect the trash. But they haven’t shown up. There should also be a building manager on site to enforce the rules, but that manager is located in Leeuwarden and the house rules are only listed online. We were supposed to be able to call someone from the agency 24 hours a day.’
During a hearing with the municipality last month, StudentStay representative Rixt Hoekstra swore that Van den Brink could call her any hour of the day. She promised to give him her number after the hearing.
‘But when I went to her, she was like, “Oh sorry, my cell phone has stopped working all of a sudden, I will e-mail you the number”.’ And Van den Brink did receive an e-mail. But it provided only the number for the Leeuwarden office, which is only available between nine and five, if that. He would certainly not be able to reach anyone late at night.
I’m sure that forty out of the 56 students are actually fine people
Van den Brink is extremely frustrated with StudentStay; the agency presents a helpful and pleasant façade to mask their complete ambivalence. He is more frustrated with the agency than with the students themselves. ‘I’m sure that forty out of the 56 students are actually fine people. This German girl that StudentStay appointed as some sort of leader, Aniko, is a very nice girl. She came over once and we talked for an hour. But there’s this small group that just doesn’t care about anything, and I don’t think Aniko has any control over them. She’s their peer. Maybe she’s afraid they’ll bully her until she leaves.’
Van den Brink doesn’t think it should fall to Aniko to resolve the situation. It’s up to StudentStay and the city. But the city decided the housing crisis was more important than the law and allowed students to move into the Rikkers-Lubbershuis, exceeding the maximum number of students allowed in the neighbourhood. He and other neighbours have protested; they want the decision to be reversed. They should hear more in November.
‘I hope we succeed’, says Van den Brink. But if the city brushes them off? ‘We’ll go to the Council of State if need be.’
On a chilly mid-October evening, a dozen international students gather around a mammoth table in the common room of Rikkers-Lubbershuis. No one mentions it, but everyone is aware of the relentless gaze of a CCTV camera positioned in the top left corner of the room. Despite the jovial chatter, a sense of suppressed frustration permeates the air.
That frustration has been building ever since the international students moved into the eclectic building on the Heresingel in late August.
On the web, every room was advertised with the same image – but in reality, they vary considerably in both size and quality. ‘Some of the rooms don´t even have windows’, says Max, an international teachers education student. He and many of his roommates say they feel ‘ripped off’ because of the bad conditions and the lack of communication from StudentStay.
Residents think that StudentStay managers sees managing the Rikkers-Lubbershuis to be some kind of ‘favour’ they are doing for its tenants, instead of a professional responsibility.
Back in September, one of the students overheard a phone conversation between a StudentStay employee and another tenant who complained about a missing door in her unit. In response to her complaint, the company representative reportedly told the resident to ‘consider herself lucky to have found a place in Groningen.’
The other students are hardly surprised to hear about such comments. But what can they do about it? Calista, an international relations student, agrees that ‘the company is only in it for the money’, but she would still ‘rather be exploited by StudentStay than be homeless.’
Other tenants are similarly critical of the communication from StudentStay, which psychology master student Haris Psaros calls ‘nonexistent’. Haris feels like he has been ‘made fun of’ by a housing company that completely ghosts tenants. ‘My heater was not working and I complained about it for about a month and a half until they eventually fixed it. I sent around five or six emails and wasted so much time waiting for a reply. It makes you crazy.’
StudentStay did not react to my complaints for the entire week
The others nod in agreement. Calista had to share her unit with a male roommate for a week after she moved in, even though the units were supposed to be strictly unisex. ‘StudentStay did not react to my complaints for the entire week. They only replied once my parents contacted them’, she explains.
Despite growing anger from their tenants, StudentStay sent an email on 18 October stating that the company would reduce its availability to four hours a day starting 22 October.
On top of the troubles with their housing company, the students at Rikkers-Lubbershuis were involved in several incidents with the police related to noise complaints from their neighbours.
Tenants think all the drama with the police was completely unnecessary. ‘There was one night when we just played the acoustic guitar indoors and well before 10 p.m., and yet the police showed up’, explains Oliver, an economics and business student. ‘We didn’t have parties of more than fifteen people after the first incident with the police and since then, we have done our best to keep the noise down after ten in the evening.’
The residents feel that they are treated differently from students in an all-Dutch house right behind their backyard. ‘They cause noise on a daily basis, day and night, yet we don´t know of any incidents they had with the police’, say the Rikkers tenants. ‘It just makes us feel very unwelcome.’
Tenants wish they could just sit down with neighbours and work things out. But ‘one of the residents invited a neighbour to come over and talk to us in early September, and he refused’, says Catalin.
He keeps filming us on his phone from a window while we are outside in our backyard
The same neighbour has instead turned to ‘provocative, conflictual and intrusive’ behaviour, according to the residents. ‘He keeps filming us on his phone from a window while we are outside in our backyard, just talking or smoking a cigarette’, says Calista. ‘He then calls the police, without saying anything to us.’
The neighbour, who tenants say is ‘an older man’, has even entered the backyard of Rikkers-Lubbershuis to take pictures with his phone while Catalin watched. The tenants asked StudentStay to put the camera overlooking the backyard to good use and provide them with video footage of the incident. The company refused.
At another time, students tried to speak with the neighbour when he was in the courtyard with two other men who appeared to be ‘blue collar workers’, students say. But instead of exchanging pleasantries, their neighbour ‘acted quite arrogant, avoided eye contact, and talked down to us’, remembers Max.
Nonethless, they want to rise above the drama. ‘We don´t want to cause any trouble. We just want to live in peace and get on with our lives’, says Max. But they can’t make that happen on their own; he says. ‘We are trying. We love this city and we love its people. But we hate the treatment we receive from StudentStay; we feel uninformed and unprotected.’