by Laura Ballerini, Emma Pelizza and Guido Cucchia
Den Haag defines itself as “Internationale stad van vrede en recht” (International City of Peace and Justice); it is indeed the headquarters of international organizations and the first permanent international criminal court in history (ICC). Fine words and fine principles, but when it comes to living in Den Haag, peace becomes a silent war. Den Haag also has been infected by the endemic housing shortage that strikes everywhere in the Netherlands, and it is starting to become a real emergency; this situation is so serious that there’s the risk to compromise the economy and the life in the coastal town.
Den Haag is (bijna) the new Amsterdam
If the situation is difficult for workers, it’s even more difficult for students, especially for the international ones. Desperate posts on Facebook, scams, and money wasted in hotels and hostels: here we go again with the nightmare that freshmen (and not) looking for a roof in Amsterdam have experienced. So, what happened?
Den Haag is now one of the most popular university cities in the Netherlands, especially since the University of Leiden decided to open a branch there in 2010. In the eight years since the courses increased, the historic university town, where finding accommodation has always been a business, Den Haag has now become a “hot spot”. From an institutional, conservative city and head of the government, it has turned into an international university center.
And if international students cry, the Dutch don’t laugh either
Until recently, students could choose between rooms in shared dwellings and an independent studio -which is a luxury, even without a rich budget. However, this idyllic situation fell apart fast: even there, the students have to face a huge waste of time visiting rooms and send bursts of “pm” on social ads, hoping not to spend the semester, or worse, the academic year, between a hostel and sofa.
“For the student apartments (not managed by agencies) there are about 500 responses per ad. I’m a Staedion [woning corporatie] member, and I receive 10 emails a week that warn me about rooms/studios available. But every time I answer the announcements, I’m told I haven’t been invited to see the house,” says Roos, a 19-year-old girl from Hoofdorp. And the problem it’s not just for the international students”Real estate agents sometimes invite us to take a look, but then they immediately make clear that with 100 people interested, the chances are very few. Another one told me to wait an extra week because they wanted to give priority to those who have a job. If there was anything available, they would have invited me at the end”.
Living in a tent or in a remote village
Besides Amsterdam, Den Haag has become one of the favourite destinations for Italian students looking for interdisciplinary and English language courses. But the countless opportunities the city offers are likely to remain on display only due to housing shortages as students end up sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a tent in the countryside. Francesco, from Milan, knows what it feels like: “Searching for a house was a daring experience”, he tells 31mag. “I signed up for every imaginable site and contacted dozens of agencies with an unpronounceable name. Most of them didn’t want students and even when I was able to schedule a visit, there was a huge competition: I had to go look for a house several times just to realize there were 10 other people at the same time”. So, Francesco’s enthusiasm for his new adventure in the Netherlands vanished quickly: after spending weeks on the sofa of a friend from Amsterdam, and since Airbnb and hostels were (and are still) very expensive, Francesco was eventually forced to move to one of the anonymous villages in the hinterland of Den Haag. And the price is still high: for rent and transport, he pays over 800 euros every month.
Students back off!
The ingredients ‘student’ and ‘international’, when combined, seem to create a lethal recipe. The owners shiver in fear if they just think about leaving their precious apartments to hordes of “barbarians” without income who threaten to devastate their apartment.
“I wasted days replying to posts on Facebook and contacting agencies when actually I should have started to study,” says Jane, from France. To get – or let us say “win”- a few square meters, she had to involve her family: “Since no one wanted to rent me a room, my mother came from France and managed to find one. The owners still think it’s her, not me and my roommate who lives there”. Everything turned out well for Jane compared to Kara, a German: after spending a couple of weeks in a tent, in a campsite in Leiden, she managed to get university accommodation: “I wasn’t too lucky – she tells 31mag – because I was living in a crumbling apartment shared with ten other students. Sometimes I miss that tent”.
And does the municipality of Den Haag know?
But what do the student organizations think of the silent war being fought in Den Haag? “In our opinion, the agencies are not working well; an example is DUWO”, says Wendy, an activist of the student organization Studentenvakabond. “What we should do now is sit around a table and decide what to do. We have a voice because we’re linked to the students and we have different ideas.
Unfortunately, many of the ones involved are not taking the situation seriously enough”. According to the union, the government and the municipality should help the students because not everyone, Dutch or not, can afford to pay the exorbitant sums demanded by the market. “Lately we have been receiving several complaints and every time we attend events or talk to each other, the question of houses always comes up, strictly,” continued Wendy.
They admit that the situation is getting more complicated for everyone: “We see some young people on endless waiting lists and others paying crazy amounts to get an apartment. We, Dutch students, have an advantage because we have relatives or friends, but it’s not always easy, even for us. For some homeowners in Den Haag, the popularity of their city as a university centre is a blessing: “Some people inflate the prices because they know that sooner or later there will be an international student who can pay that amount. Not to mention the agencies that ask for money to organize views: it is not legal to ask for money but obviously if you come from another country, you can’t always know these things.
Robert Barker, city councilor for the Party for the Animals in Den Haag, has the same opinion: “The problem with international students is that on the one hand we have invited them and attracted them through the universities, but at the same time we have created enormous discomfort because there is no place for everyone. It’s a problem and it has to be solved,” says Barker to 31mag. The problems would be the objective lack of real estate to satisfy everyone and their conditions: “The landlords should be more respectful of the law, according to the standard to be maintained in the accommodation they rent,” continues the animal rights adviser. “Broken windows and heaters that don’t work? It happens quite often in the rental world. Obviously, the high price remains the number one problem: “International students are the most vulnerable because usually they don’t speak Dutch and they don’t know the laws and their rights. It’s a huge disadvantage,” continues Barker.
His approach is “pro-active”: “We expect the students not to be plagued by the problem but rather to react: they have to know that the law is with them and supports them if they activate it. So it’s essential that they report abuse,” he says. But the political problem still goes on: “We have to decide: more skyscrapers or more council houses? This is a dilemma. Negotiations with builders are a complex issue: setting quotas for housing is a rebus and those for students, an even more difficult operation. Although the distance is about 30 kilometers, Amsterdam and Den Haag have never been so close.