The new academic year has brought fresh controversy over homeless international students. While classes have started at Tilburg University, many internationals are still desperately looking for housing. Why does this problem keep recurring? And whose problem is it anyway?
Combing through housing ads. Sending emails. Making phone calls. Posting requests for help on social media. Staying out of the clutches of scammers. For many newly arrived international students, finding accommodation has become a curriculum in itself. It requires a fair share of time and energy, which Tilburg University’s new arrivals would rather be spending on their course assignments and exam preparations. But before they can start worrying about the road to graduation, they must first find a way to graduate from a bunk bed in a hostel, an Airbnb or a friend’s couch to an actual student room.
“I’ve just heard that I’ve been accepted to rent a studio”, says Nundehui Xicoténcatl from Mexico, who has been searching for a student room since her arrival in Tilburg last month. The studio is small and the rent is higher than she had anticipated, but she’s happy she found something. Xicoténcatl must wait until October before she can finally move into her own place, because the studio is currently still occupied. “I’m looking at options to bridge the coming month, and I’m praying that nothing happens in the meantime. Although I’ve received confirmation from the landlord that I can rent the studio, I’m scared that at some point he will retract.”
Homelessness is expensive
Since she arrived in Tilburg to study Data Science, Xicoténcatl has bounced around from an Airbnb in Etten-Leur to the Ibis hotel in Tilburg to another Airbnb in Dorst, from which it’s a 30-minute bike ride to the nearest train station where she can catch a train to Tilburg University. She tries to see the bright side: “The first weeks were actually quite exciting, because moving around from one place to another allowed me to get to know other small towns near Tilburg. And I also met some great people who wanted to help me.”
“During my first month here, I’ve already spent nearly three times more than I expected”
Now that courses have started, it’s a lot more stressful to live far away from campus. “I’ve been very busy trying to find housing while also reading my course materials. That’s difficult when you have to travel long distances and deal with directions.”
But what’s putting the most stress on her, Xicoténcatl says, is that homelessness is expensive. “During my first month here, I’ve already spent nearly three times more than I expected”, she says, adding: “I really wanted this. I worked hard and saved my income for almost five years. It’s not cool to have to change your plans due to housing problems that nobody tells you about when you’re in your country.”
Tilburg University accepts an increasing number of new international students each year, driving up the demand for rooms. Although finding affordable housing can be a daunting task for any new student, the housing shortage is hitting international students particularly hard.
The university reserves rooms for international students in the apartment buildings along the Professor Verbernelaan and in Talent Square, but these rooms are quickly taken. Students who haven’t registered for a room long before their arrival in Tilburg must find a room through the private housing market. While still abroad, that’s a nearly impossible task. In student houses, new roommates are typically selected through a type of speed dating during viewing nights which the Dutch call ‘hospiteren’. International students cannot participate in these viewing nights while they’re still in their home country, which puts them at a great disadvantage. Similarly, most landlords in the private housing sector won’t consider candidates who are not physically present for a viewing and a handshake.
Because arranging accommodation from a remote location is difficult, many international students opt to search for a room once they have arrived in Tilburg. But once they are here, they stumble on another problem: ‘Dutch only’ housing ads.
On the internet, student housing advertisements that explicitly exclude international candidates are very common. In Facebook groups for students who offer or need housing in Tilburg, many posts include statements saying ‘Dutch only’. In some cases, landlords are not willing to rent to international students. In other cases, it’s the students who are not willing to take them in.
Nundehui Xicoténcatl stopped responding to rooms offered on Facebook after a while. “Nobody answered my messages. I only received a response from two girls, who said they would like to rent me the room but the other tenants in their house didn’t want internationals.”
Last year, Univers asked several Dutch students why they were not open to an international roommate. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was to avoid a coming and going of short-stay roommates. She also stated that Dutch and foreign students don’t mingle well because of language and culture differences. Another student, Stephan Krijger, expressed a similar reason for excluding international room-seekers, saying: “I don’t think my housemates would feel like talking English all the time.”
New year, same problem
The problems international students face on the housing market are not new, and they’re not confined to Tilburg. In Rotterdam, hostels are currently packed with international students who have not yet found a more permanent place to stay. And in Groningen, homeless internationals are temporarily housed in tents on campus and in the spare rooms of university staff members.
At Tilburg University, frustrated international students raised alarm by creating the Facebook group ‘Homeless students Tilburg’ two years ago, in August 2016. The page grew to over one hundred members overnight. After local newspaper Brabants Dagblad published a disturbing photograph of a homeless student wrapped in a sleeping bag in the back of a car, political party D66 asked the city council for a solution. Meanwhile, around 115 internationals were still registered as homeless with Tilburg University’s international office. As an emergency measure, the university made rooms available at the Bastion Hotel and in the vacant Tilburion building. The costs of this last-minute solution amounted to 76.000 euros.
Despite efforts to provide sufficient housing for the growing number of students from abroad, an estimated 100 to 120 international students were still in search of accommodation when lectures started in September 2017. Things did run a lot more smoothly than the year before—armed with temporary solutions and a newly-established Housing Office, the university was better equipped to help incoming students on their way.
“Most international students find housing pretty soon after they arrive in Tilburg”
This year, the difficulties faced by room-seeking internationals attracted renewed attention. Many international students express their disappointment on social media. They feel abandoned by the university, and discriminated against by their fellow students.
In Tilburg, there have been no reports of international students sleeping in cars or tents. Still, more than 90 international students were registered as homeless with the International Office at the start of the academic year, and housing officer Elisa de Klerk expects this number to climb to levels similar to those in 2016 and 2017.
For 20 euros per night, these students can sleep in a shared dormitory at hostel Roots in the city center, where the university has reserved beds for incoming internationals until October 1st. De Klerk is optimistic that the new arrivals will have found a room by then. “Most students find housing pretty soon after they arrive in Tilburg. Once they’re here, they can look at potential new rooms and go to viewing nights, which helps a lot.”
Universities have been criticized for actively recruiting more and more students from abroad while student housing continues to be a serious problem. But the Minister for Education has stressed that universities in the Netherlands are not responsible for the accommodation of students. In a 2017 letter to the Lower House, she stated that assisting international students in finding housing is a responsibility that is shared between the state, local governments and universities.
And such assistance can also come from less formal sources. Dutch student Max Frambach and his Bulgarian girlfriend Antonia Telbizova, both in their second year of the Online Culture bachelor’s program at Tilburg University, launched the Facebook group ‘Student rooms in Tilburg’—soon to be renamed ‘Housing Made Easy Tilburg’—earlier this year. The Facebook group, which has grown to over 900 members, helps international students find housing in Tilburg by providing a counter movement to platforms dominated by ‘Dutch only’ ads.
“We created the group after a rather intense discussion in another Facebook group, ‘Woonruimte aangeboden/gezocht Tilburg’, where an international student expressed his frustration over the persistent discrimination of non-Dutch housing-seekers”, Frambach explains. “Ads with statements such as ‘Dutch only’, and sometimes even ‘no internationals’, are at the core of the frustrations that many international students experience. Because I have an international friend group, I’ve seen those frustrations from a close distance. That made me want to do something to help these students.”
“‘Dutch only’ ads are at the core of the frustrations that many international students experience”
In addition to providing a platform for landlords and students who welcome international tenants and roommates, Frambach, Telbizova and their fellow Dutch student Emma Kakes provide information, tips, and warnings against scammers who are trying to rip off homeless international students using fake housing offers. “We help students as much as we can, with any questions they may have. If we are unable to answer a question—because it involves documents that are very complex, for example—we’ll redirect students to other organizations, such as International Center Tilburg.”
A little help can make a huge difference, Frambach says. “Helping out an international student may cost me half an hour, while for that person it means they can finally start enjoying a lifelong experience.” But for real change to be made, he adds, all parties involved must make an effort. “The responsibility to solve this problem is a shared one. I don’t think we should just be pointing fingers at the university, or the government, or the housing market. If we really want things to change, everyone needs to step up. I personally believe that’s what’s happening right now, and that change is under way.”
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