The housing crisis in Groningen was big news this year after students occupied the Academy building. Students in other cities, who are also in dire need of a roof over their heads, followed suit.
When Shelter Our Students (SOS) occupied the UG’s Academy building in September, it wasn’t just to find a solution for the many homeless international students. ‘We also wanted to bring attention to the ongoing national housing shortage’, says Marinus Jongman, who represents SOS.
This worked better than he might have ever thought. While Jongman spent eight hours negotiating with the city and the UG, local and national media reported what was happening in Groningen, which ultimately led to Parliamentary questions.
Student organisations from all over the country were also watching Groningen. In the weeks after the occupation, Jongman fielded requests from advice from organisations from various cities, such as Enschede, Amsterdam, and Maastricht.
‘While the housing shortage in Groningen has been a clear issue for a long time, we didn’t realise that it was also happening in Amsterdam’, says Pieter van Rossum, vice chair of student union SRVU at the Vrije Universiteit (VU).
This isn’t all that surprising, considering the VU usually provides first-year international students with a room at Campus Uilenstede, which houses approximately 3,500 students.
But as Van Rossum explains, the housing market in Amsterdam has been overheating for a while, for a host of reasons, such as an intense increase of VU students since the start of the pandemic, fewer students moving on to other rooms, and students suffering study delays The student union was alerted to hundreds of homeless students during the first week of the academic year.
‘The university doesn’t have enough room for everyone. Suddenly, we were talking to approximately 250 students, most of them internationals, who were unable to find a room.’
Van Rossum approached Jongman, who told him ‘in detail what we did, in what order, and what our reasons were’, says Jongman.
First item was the couchsurfing campaign and how SOS went about it. ‘It helped us gain insight into the number of homeless students and their stories. We then had to decide to what extent we wanted to politicise the issue and how to publicise the issue in a local context.’
Van Rossum was grateful they were ‘allowed to copy Groningen’s homework’. In addition to a plan of attack, they also received real means to use as they saw fit, such as the couchsurfing website, the scripts SOS used to call people, all their press releases, and the list of demands that SOS Groningen made.
Within three weeks, Amsterdam had set up its own couchsurfing campaign, under the header ‘No Room for Us’. ‘We organised a protest on September 28. It was attended by approximately 150 students.’
At the southernmost university town in the Netherlands it was the city that found out that many students had been unable to find a room. The city then set up an online council meeting, which was attended by international student Freddy Leppert, who is also a member of the university council. She was shocked by what she heard, and contacted Jongman.
‘We set up our own couchsurfing campaign: SOS Maastricht. Based on the Groningen model’, says Leppert. It’s difficult for the city to set up emergency housing, she says.
‘The university did try to help. They gave us one of their empty buildings, which had room for approximately twenty students. It was a nice gesture, but not nearly enough to solve the problem.’
While SOS Maastricht is lobbying for container apartments like the ones in Groningen, approximately a hundred homeless students are still sleeping on people’s couches, the organisation says.
Drop in the ocean
The board of directors in Maastricht has decided that all students affected by the housing crisis are allowed to take online classes. ‘But it’s a drop in the ocean’, says Leppert. However, it does give students who live just across the border in Germany or Belgium some room to breathe.
SOS Maastricht is working closely with the university’s board of directors. ‘We also want to encourage the city to come up with fast solutions in order to prevent issues next year’, says Leppert. If the city doesn’t do anything, Maastricht is looking at an estimated shortage of eight hundred rooms.
In order to facilitate its partnerships, SOS Maastricht will not be protesting. But a second organisation sprang up: Student Housing Now (SHN). This organisation will be protesting in the city on November 1. They also launched a petition listing its demands. This petition has been signed 550 times so far.
‘We’re not a part of SHN, but we do work with them’, says Leppert. SOS Maastricht writes strategies, while SHN campaigns and keeps the momentum going, according Leppert. ‘I think it has its advantages; SHN can be a bit pushier than we can be.’
In Amsterdam, the student protests appear to be bearing fruit. After the first one, the VU came up with a ‘modest suggestion’, says Van Rossum. Students were offered a place to stay in a hostel for 700 euros a month and three euros in tourism tax a day. ‘But when we announced a second protest, they halved the price and cancelled the daily tax.’
The VU saw what went down in Groningen and wasn’t looking forward to students occupying any of their buildings. ‘That definitely had an impact, which is great’, says Van Rossum. ‘I think the campaigns in Groningen definitely led to people taking the problem more seriously here. Thanks to the champions in Groningen, the issue is now on the agenda.’