• ‘You don’t feel safe in your own house’

    Theft in international housing

    International student housing in Groningen has long had the reputation of being a common target for theft. But is that reputation fair?
    in short

    In the past sixteen months, 22 reports of theft at international housing addresses were filed to the police. In total, 128 reports were filed from all student houses in Groningen during that time period.

    Student police agent Matthijs Beukema says that the number of cases in international housing is not cause for alarm.

    International student houses are typically much larger than houses on the private rental market in Groningen. Diaconessen House, the location of nine reported robberies, has 198 rooms.

    Because most students only live in SSH housing for up to a year, they are less likely to recognise a stranger in their residence.

    ‘Social control’ is generally low in students houses, but even more so in international housing because students live there on a temporary basis. Leaving doors and windows open also make it easier for someone to sneak in and out.

    full version

    Reading time: 19 minutes (1,981 words)

    On a persistently rainy afternoon early in the election week, Claudia Skibnewski is standing on the Harmonie square with her fellow members of TBR, the student faction for the law faculty council. In between the raindrops and blue and yellow balloons decorating the party’s tent, Claudia, a 20-year-old student of international and European law, explains how her laptop was stolen at her student house, Diaconessen House.

    ‘Mine was stolen from my room. They just opened the door’, she says. ‘I was just blowing up balloons for my friend’s birthday, I was sitting on the stairs.’ Her door was closed, but not locked. Claudia says that another friend was robbed at 5 in the morning when she went to the bathroom – she wasn’t wearing her glasses at the time, and actually waved at the person who was stealing her stuff when she encountered him in the hallway.

    Several other residents had their belongings stolen around that same time period. Although at least one of the girls who was robbed moved out of the large student house at Van Ketwich Verschuurlaan following the incident, Claudia still lives there. ‘But now, even if I’m going to the shower or the toilet, I take my keys with me. If you were living on your own in your home, you wouldn’t do this. Why should I do this? You don’t feel safe in your own house.’

    ‘It’s not safe’

    ‘I think it’s a general feeling in the house that it’s not safe. Another friend of mine got mugged in front of the door, she was an exchange student last semester. Right in front of the door. I can keep telling you more, but I think you get a pretty good picture now’, she says.

    For a variety of reasons, theft is proportionally higher in properties that are rented out through the Housing Office, which was officially taken over by the Utrecht-based company, SSH, in January. Based on the number of reports that were filed to the police in Groningen over the past sixteen months, students who live in SSH housing in Groningen are five times more likely to have been robbed in their house than students who live in other accommodations.

    Numbers of reports

    Between 1 January 2014 and 21 April 2015, the following numbers of reports had been submitted to the police:

    Theft from residence: 22 incidents (9 at Diaconessen House)
    assault: 1 – at Diaconessen House
    noise complaints: 14 incidents (5 at Moesstraat 16 – 22)
    Trespassing: 1 (Winschoterdiep)
    Bike theft: 3
    Theft from car: 1
    Cyber crime: 2

    Diaconessen House (198 beds): 1x assault, 9x theft from residence

    Bisschop Nierman Centrum (69 beds): 1x noise complaint

    Winschoterdiep (338 beds): 1x trespassing, 2X theft from residence, 1x bike theft

    Albertine Agnesplein (50 beds): 2x theft from residence, 4x noise complaints

    Kraneweg-Melkweg (three separate buildings – 46 beds): no reports

    Blekerslaan (51 beds): 1x theft from residence, 1x noise complaint

    Martini House (66 beds): 1x theft from residence

    Kornoeljestraat (296 beds): 2x theft from residence, 1x bike theft, 1x theft from car, 3x noise complaints, 2x cyber crime

    Moesstraat 8 (49 beds): 1x theft from residence

    Moesstraat 16-22 (43 beds): 5x noise complaints, 2x theft from residence, 1x bike theft

    Van Houtenlaan (150 beds): 2x theft

    Agent Beukema adds that it’s possible that the number of incidents could be slightly higher than these figures indicate. The statistics rely on the responding agents checking a filing code for student housing when filling in the report, and if that box is not checked, the incident does not show up in the results for reports at student residences. There is also some debate about how many instances of theft are reported per break-in: if a thief enters a student house and steals from several different rooms, a report is usually made for each room separately, but the possibility exists that only a single report is filed per property.

    Planetenlaan (49 rooms, reserved for bursary PhDs), Hofstede de Grootkade (36 rooms, reserved for bursary PhDs) and Stadswerf (12 rooms, reserved for PhDs) were not included in these results.

    There are 14 properties currently available through SSH for international students, totalling 1,470 beds. Between 1 January 2014 and 21 April 2015, there were 22 reports of theft filed by residents of eleven of the properties – housing exclusively for PhD candidates was not included in these results. At the eleven non-PhD properties, there are 1,356 residents. That means that roughly one out of every 61 students living in non-PhD housing has submitted a report to the police.

    By comparison, there are roughly 35,000 students living in Groningen in total, including all international students. There were 128 police reports of student houses being broken into in Groningen in total during the same time period: that’s one out of every 316 students.

    Popular target

    Student houses in general are a popular target for theft, but the size of the buildings rented by SSH in particular make it somewhat easier for someone to sneak in. The average student house in the city has around five tenants. In comparison, the largest international houses have hundreds: Diaconessen house has 198 beds, Kornoeljestraat has 296 and Winschoterdiep – the largest – has 338.

    Comparatively, according to the municipality of Groningen, a house on the private market requires a permit to become a rental property for student housing if three or more tenants live there and if the property has four or more rooms.

    According to SSH’s Annemiek van Vondel, the fact that international students live in the properties for a shorter period of time may offer at least a partial explanation for why robberies occur more frequently there. ‘In Dutch student houses, the residents may live for years, so they know each other better and they know their neighbours better’, she says. In other words, because most students only live in SSH housing for up to a year, they are less likely to recognise a stranger in their residence.

    Not technically breaking in

    Nine of the 22 theft reports came from the Diaconessen House. Four of those cases appear to have happened during a single break-in – the one where Claudia was targeted – but it may not technically have been a break-in. In international student houses in particular, simply walking in the front door is often the entry method of choice.

    ‘That’s often the case in international houses because it’s more anonymous’, according to Van Vondel. ‘Not everyone knows each other, so if you live there and you’re walking in the door, and someone says, ‘hold the door for me’, you assume they live there.’

    Groningen student police agent Matthijs Beukema says that any single case of theft is one too many, but 22 cases in a little bit over a year spread across multiple properties is not cause for alarm. However, nine incidents at one property – Diaconessen House – caught his eye. The person suspected of stealing Claudia’s laptop was eventually caught and is awaiting trial.

    There’s another reason that student housing is an attractive target: expensive stuff in a relatively small space. ‘There’s quite a bit of valuable property to be found. Every student has a nice mobile phone and a laptop, and it’s easy to get into a house’, Beukema says. ‘And once you’re in, the social control is quite low. Students leave quite often, and you don’t know everyone who comes to visit.’

    Strong as your weakest link

    ‘Security is also often bad’, Beukema says. ‘The doors aren’t always locked with a deadbolt, windows don’t always close fully, and it’s also got to do with that fact that some homes have multiple residents and you’re dependent on the fact that everyone locks the door. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.’

    But if the doors and windows are all closed, thieves in Groningen have another device at their disposal. The police call it the ‘flipper’ – a small, flexible sheet of plastic with a tapered end. It’s often made from plastic soda bottles, and according to Beukema, it’s the most common way that thieves gain access to houses: 80 per cent of break-ins are committed using the crude tool.

    Beukema demonstrates how it works on his office door inside the police station: the tapered end is wedged between the doorframe and the door and, with a bit of wiggling, the latch bolt clicks open. One way to prevent someone from breaking in using the device is by installing a large metal strip inside the door – Claudia says that Diaconessen house has one, but it doesn’t help. ‘People just don’t close it, or it doesn’t close properly. The doors are always open.’

    ‘The system should have to change’

    The property also had camera surveillance at the time of the theft, but that did not prevent the person who is accused of stealing Claudia’s laptop from entering the building on multiple occasions. Beukema says that the footage was helpful for the police in identifying the suspect, however.

    Claudia says she received help and guidance from her student manager, Victim Support of the Netherlands and the police as well. She will be moving into a house near the Westerhaven later this year, but she deliberately chose not to move away because of the theft.

    ‘I could move out if I wanted to, but I need to pay 75 euros, and that’s not fair’, she says. ‘If the problem is because there’s a lack of security measures, then I should be able to go and find another house, and the SSH is not providing this so far. You shouldn’t have to move, the system should have to change’, she says.

    Conscious about safety

    Implementing more safety measures, such as card scanners or buzzers for each floor of a building, could help. Van Vondel says, ‘SSH provides for the locks at the main entrance, but also on the room doors. We also encourage our residents to make use of these locks as well. If there are problems with a lock, we ask that residents let us know as soon as possible. Then, we can ensure that the problem gets fixed.’ However, since Diaconessen House will be shutting its doors altogether in 2016, investing in fundamental upgrades seems unlikely.

    According to the statistics from the Groningen police, the summer months – June, July and August – are the most likely time period for theft to occur. Windows and doors are left open, and houses are often empty since more students are away on vacation. Beukema hopes that students will be proactive about preventing theft as much as they can, but it’s often true that a person will only become more aware of safety measures after they’ve already been a victim.

    ‘But the most important thing is that you feel safe’, Beukema says. ‘We can’t completely prevent theft, but we are trying to keep it as low as possible. You have to inform students and make them conscious about safety.’