We met with alderman Roeland van der Schaaf at City Hall and asked what everyone is currently wondering in the comments on Facebook. The most important question we asked: why do international students experience severe difficulties in finding a place to live?
Why are students angry?
“That’s simple: people are disappointed. International students don’t have the insights they need regarding housing and how one obtains a place to live. They are full of enthusiasm when they travel to Groningen for their studies, only to experience how difficult it is to find a room. This doesn’t happen to a few, but to a lot. So I can imagine why a lot of people are asking why this is such a hassle.”
The current situation has been called a housingcrisis. Is this a true crisis?
“The phrase ‘crisis’ is quickly coined nowadays. In this case I can imagine why. As we speak, 250 students are using a temporary facility or resort to sleeping over at their friends’ places. So these people experience the situation as a letdown. One comes from another country, wants to go to college, but instead has to search for a room. This causes a lot of insecurity and unrest. When it happens on the schale it currently does, it becomes obvious that this is a problem.”
In September 2017, Groningen experienced exactly the same shortages regarding housing for international students. A year has passed and history has repeated itself. Why haven’t the problems been solved in the meantime?
“That question suggests the possibility of an easy solution. My personal belief is that this problem is not one we can solve within with our current way of cooperating. What happens is the result of two factors. One one hand we have the balance between supply and demand on the housing-market. On the other hand we are looking at a tremendous increase of the number of international students… a number which isn’t clear until the very last moment. These factors result in a situation where it’s impossible to find long-term solutions. So you’re resorting to emergency-solutions. The very fact that such a solution is needed raises eyebrows, and some of those solutions themselves leave things to be desired. So this problem will persist as long as we have a situation in which a large group comes to Groningen in August without a place to live.”
What must be done in order to reach a solution?
“I believe that we need a new system. It is my opinion the university and Hanze, together with the national ministry, should be working on a system where the housing is organised at the same time the student applies for for an education. This would create more clearness towards international students, because they know their room is spoken for. The added benefit is that we would be able to anticipate on shortages in a much earlier phase, allowing us to organise housing when necessary.”
Why is it difficult to anticipate the number of international students coming to Groningen?
“A lot of students decide to come to Groningen at the very last moment. They pre-apply to the university early on, but as few as one in four students might actually make the journey. So the process of choosing for Groningen happens relatively late in the year and takes more time when compared to the Dutch students. Also, please keep in mind that the municipality itself doesn’t build houses. More housing means for us to find a third party in order to realise more places. Recently a developer places 250 containers on the location of the former Suikerunie-factory. But what if those 250 students wouldn’t show up? Who would sustain the losses for the units not occupied? So it’s not a matter of reacting to anticipated numbers: you have to know the actual numbers in order to find someone to realise these units with.”
Why not just assume a yearly increase in the numbers; as this has been the case for several years?
“Because the numbers may vary greatly from year to year. This year the university removed the numerus fixus from the bachelor of Psychology. In hindsight one could say this resulted in a major influx in the numbers of applications, but the impact wasn’t clear until the very last moment. Would you, however, know the number of aspiring students as early as in Januari, it would be much easier to anticipate and create certainty. But as long as you are unable to determine whether it’s going to increase with a hundred or a thousand, it’s impossible to build more units in time.”
Why doesn’t the municipality just asks the Hanze and the RUG to stop hiring more students?
“Because students, including the international students, make the city of Groningen what it is today. Besides: this is not our call to make. It would be utmost curious if a municipality gets to make such a decision. Within the European Union we have a freedom of enrollment, where the same rights apply to a Frenchman or a German as they do to someone from the Netherlands. It would be completely new if a university installs a numerus fixus just because of the housing situation.”
Should the Hanze and RUG be more cautious when recruiting students abroad?
“I think that this is something for the RUG itself to contemplate. Just as it is something for the Hanze to wonder if this ultimately is the proper way to organise things. Because these problems are simply not within the ability of the municipality or the national government to solve. So that’s why I want to connect housing to the applications. In this scenario a student would know beforehand if there’s a room available. And if there’s not, he or she can make a conscious decision to make an attempts at finding a ream even if the odds are against them. But even more so, I would want to turn the situation around and ensure enough space for everybody. But in order to do so I would need much more insights into the numbers of new students in a much earlier phase.”
Why not just build 20.000 more houses, for students and for locals?
“That sounds easy, but I wouldn’t be able to do that overnight. Yet we are building new rooms at an advanced rate in Groningen. 435 units at Woldring Reitdiep, 698 at the Structonlocation, 300 near UMCG, 230 in De Hoogte near Helis, 224 in Paddepoel at Atlas & Pleione. The Suikerunie, Eemskanaalzone and Oosterhamrikzone are all being developed. So we have certainty regarding eight to nine thousand new units in the next four years.”
What’s holding back new houses in the city?
“There’s nothing holding us back, but there’s a lot of work to do. Once again: the municipality doesn’t build houses. Third parties and housing corporations invest in houses; the municipality ensures enough room to build on and invests in the infrastructure necessary. This is a time-consuming process, because there are always legal obstacles to overcome. And we have to keep the interests of the people of Groningen at heart.”
Wouldn’t it be about time to build a campus on Zernike?
“Zernike is big enough to house a thousand extra units. I in favor of it. But at the same time I don’t believe in a model comparable to the city of Enschede, where virtually every student lives on campus. Zernike doesn’t hold enough room to accommodate the almost 40.000 students in Groningen. And I honestly believe it wouldn’t be the most desirable solution either. The beauty of Groningen is that students live and learn within the city. And besides: there are enough locations to develop, meaning the limited space on Zernike could never be an issue.”
Final questions. Elections are coming up regarding the local council. Which role will these issues play?
“I think it is going to play a large role.This isn’t just about housing: it’s about the security of having a comfortable and affordable place to live. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old: the place where you live is the foundation of your live. Put pressure on the market, and you are pressuring the entire city. What is happening right now isn’t good. It could have been even worse, and at the same time it could be derailing even further. That is why I believe it is important for Groningen to keep developing new areas, because otherwise the problems would only be getting larger. So I truly hope these issues will play a very large part in the upcoming elections.”