This past Friday, I got my first byline for an article in the Dagblad van het Noorden for a story on this topic. Even though it was only meant to be opened on a temporary basis, there are still dozens of students living in a former asylum seekers centre in Groningen because they have yet to find a room elsewhere in the city. So few students have been able to find a place so far that the owner of the property is considering keeping the property open for the foreseeable future. Part of the problem is that housemates seeking a new tenant often explicitly state that only Dutch speakers need apply. Even though such criteria is considered common practice, it actually goes against Dutch anti-discrimination laws.
Even though I've been working as a writer and photographer for Dutch media for years now, having my first byline for a Dutch story in the city paper feels different in a good way. I've translated the story into English (under the photo of how the story looked in print - and being able to hold your story in your own hands will never stop feeling more special and real).
“Dutch speaking students preferred”. “No internationals”. “Dutch only”. Finding a room on the private market in Groningen is no small feat for international students.
Zain Ulabideen (24) from Pakistan is enrolled in the chemistry master’s program at the RUG. He has been living in the emergency housing for international students on Van Swietenlaan since September. Like the majority of international students in Groningen, he will be in Groningen for the entirety of his degree program. In his case, that means he will be living in the city for at least the next two years. He has been searching for a more permanent place for months, but that remains a challenge.
On Kamernet, a popular website for students looking for rooms, 87 rooms were listed for rent in Groningen as of last week. Nearly half of the rooms are effectively off limits right off the bat to foreign students: 20 of the listings indicate that their ideal tenant is a Dutch speaker. Three listings explicitly say “no internationals” or “Dutch only”. There were 21 rooms that were located within houses associated with fraternities, which pretty much rules out any international tenants being considered: according to the National Chamber of Fraternities, non-Dutch members make up less than one percent of membership of all Dutch student associations.
Rental property landlords also want to keep their current tenants happy. One local landlord, Eildert van Wieren, is responsible for renting out more than 200 rooms in the city along with his colleagues at Noorderveste Property Management. Van Wieren says, “We seek to make sure that things are running smoothly within the houses and with their neighbors. I get messages from tenants on a regular basis telling me that they would prefer to have a Dutch housemate because they don’t want there to be any communication issues.” Landlords feel compelled to honor those preferences.
According to Niek Peters of the Groningen Discrimination Hotline, rental listings requesting Dutch speakers or ruling out foreign students fall into a questionable gray area. “People aren’t technically being turned away because they were excluded and discouraged from inquiring in the first place.” Peters says that it is dubious for landlords to accept the preferences of their current tenants when considering new renters. “The landlord is the person who is ultimately responsible for renting out the room. Equal treatment legislation forbids anyone offering goods and services from making any distinctions on the basis of nationality or origin.
Despite its problematic legal status, making demands about would-be housemates is very widespread, which means that students like Ulabideen are still having little luck on the private market. He thinks he will eventually be able to find something via Facebook, but until then, he is hoping to be able to stay in the emergency housing.
The municipality and the owner of the Van Swietenlaan property, Eric Kooistra, are in discussions about potentially keeping the building open for a longer period. How much longer the emergency housing may remain open is not yet known. The current agreement among the municipality, the University of Groningen and the Hanze University will end on November 12. Robert de Veen, manager of the property, says, “It’s definitely a relief to the students to know that they don’t have to find a room before the end of the month.” The emergency housing reopened in September because dozens of international students had been unable to find a room in the city. A room at Van Swietenlaan 23 costs 16 euros per night. When the property opened, the assumption was that the students would be able to find a room fairly quickly, but there are still 80 students living in the building.