Travel or you’ll become racist,
And you’ll end up believing
That your skin is the only one that is right
That your language is the most romantic
And you were the first one to be the first one.
Gio Evan rhymes to make us realise the importance of bridging people by travelling, by going beyond our own judgements towards others and uniting before believing we’re in the right position to divide.
Something that has for long, and most notably in the past two months, fuelled division is the housing crisis; division between a private sector seeking for profitable deals and a student who looks for a basic need to be covered; division between the interests of the University to universally provide education and the limitations of a market that is undermining housing as a human right and only treating it as a business chance. How we heal the divisions between needs, interests and people is something to be discussed. How long solving this crisis will take depends on the pressure that those in charge feel.
In order to better understand the new dimension of the issue, we have interviewed Alexander Lurvink, member of the city council fighting the fight in the gemeenteraad and Freddy Leppert, representative of the KAN Party at the University Council and board member of SOS Maastricht.
Why is there a housing crisis and how bad is it?
September 2021 was the tipping point for the housing shortage to reach its limits. After a year of relative calm, many students made their way to Maastricht to engage in on-campus education once again. Yet, as Alexander Lurvink found out through a virtual town hall, more than 400 students did not find a stable place to stay by the beginning of the academic year. That’s not even counting the people who didn’t express their needs.
Such an approximate number implies that, even more than forty years after its foundation, the University has not yet implemented a mechanism that allows a reliable registration of enrolled students seeking for accommodation, as Freddy Leppert told the MD. It could be a new mission for Maastricht Housing, an agency that tightly works with UM, to keep a census on the actual demand, which so far has not been the case. This only shows the tip of the iceberg though, if we consider that housing shortage is a nation-wide structural problem that is affecting other university cities such as Groningen, Utrecht, or Amsterdam.
One of the reasons why there is a problem in Maastricht lies in the decision of not having a full campus but rather choosing to blend the buildings into the city. While being out of our possibilities to disclose why, this has visibly boosted the economic activity and vibrance of the city centre. However, as good as it can be, student activity has grown so fast that both interest from the private sector to make profit as well as detachment from the local residents towards the student community have risen.
Put in numbers, roughly 55% of the 22,000 students of Maastricht University are of non-Dutch nationality. Students represent over 15% of the Maastricht population and contribute largely to the city’s economy through (not only) their academic duties. However, it seems the importance of students is disregarded when it comes to providing a solution to their urgent need of housing, which is by far not a new scenario in Maastricht.
Exhausting, endless and often abusive, the search for a place has proved not to be “relatively easy”, as was stated in the website of Maastricht Housing until October of this year. All over the Netherlands, students are facing the effects of a shortfall of accommodation that is currently at 26,000 units. This results in a market of unaffordable prices. While fruitful opportunities for developers, it also paves the way for scammers and leaves students, especially internationals, in a vulnerable situation. Two reasons back this year’s increased shortfall: the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. Many students had postponed their studies during one year, adding their enrolment to the usual first-year student wave. Moreover, Dutch universities have been the most popular alternative to British universities after the tuition fees in the UK have increased for EU citizens as a result of Brexit.
How is housing sustained in Maastricht?
Overall, the housing market is bi-dimensional: the housing corporations and the private sector. The former are government-regulated entities aiming to provide affordable housing in Limburg and the entire Netherlands. These control 30 percent of the housing market in Maastricht, whereas the private sector runs the remaining fraction of the market for profit. This refers to both real estate agencies and individual local owners. And as irony wants it, only five to ten landowners control half of that branch in Maastricht, as Alexander shared with the MD.
To make this market fair, the municipality had to implement certain regulations such as the ‘distance criteria’, which aimed to alternate between a student and a resident house in the city centre of Maastricht. However, this was unable to prevent developers’ interest from ruling the housing market, the city centre became a hub of student presence. This failure led to the introduction of the 40-40-40 scheme which sets an annual limit of refurbishments in the city centre to prevent developers from taking control of the housing offer. This implies forty apartments, forty homes and forty historic buildings to be refurbished so as to create new individual units. A sum of 120 theoretical locations which clearly does not cover the real demand. Astonishingly, this year alone more than 400 students have exceeded this demand. And it is here that one mistake by the University comes to light – it being trusting the usual “through-flow” of students, from graduates’ dorms to the newly arrived as the main way to alleviate the shortage.
The dimension of the demand has become a magnet for profit and has opened the door to exploitative and discriminatory behaviour by some landlords. Think of the famous age-related, “German girls ONLY” or “DUTCH male” requirements to be selected as a new tenant or the indecent conditions many students find themselves to live in – no windows, mouldy and wet dorms, or mice. Yet, that does not make up for everything. Racism and age discrimination are not the only forms of extortion: sexual chantage has arisen several times as an intolerable way of profiting from students’ despair. Also, excessive monitoring by landlords, scams and a huge lack of information on legal protection available, have also undermined students’ rights as citizens.
Such an attitude by landowners essentially results in unequal opportunities among students. Thus, housing has progressively led not only to a race between dorm seekers but also to a hierarchy where those on top enjoy being chosen first simply because of their nationality. Discrimination perpetuates inequality. And inequality can easily lead to social division, which is not far from being the reality of Maastricht. This is visible when considering the gap between students and local residents. Language, culture, and age are among those traits that hinder smooth laces between the two sides. If these act as barriers instead of enacting bridges, students are likely to feel less need for creating strong bonds with the local community and therefore remain temporary visitors of the town. This not being reversed and Maastricht will lose the chance of making students feel socially and politically necessary for the city.
So what can be done?
So far, and out of urgency, a resolutive reaction by the students and University was effectuated. The University’s new executive board provided twenty-six units in Heksenstraat initially intended to become offices as temporary accommodation for students and extra units in Gerlachus. An emergency fund to cover transport expenses of students living outside Maastricht was also launched and the possibility of following online classes was extended for students facing housing difficulties. Despite these urgent solutions, according to Lurvink, “the University has no authority to implement a long-term plan ensuring housing to current and prospective students”, which implies the responsibility to be both in the hands of the municipality and the students themselves. By law, the Dutch universities are not entitled to house students. However, as a student interviewed told the MD, no refund has been made by the University to cover his daily 7,4 euros trip to Maastricht. The student, who has opted to remain anonymous, has been living in Vaals as the only alternative to having not found a place in Maastricht. Despite his intention to move out, the contractual requirement of 12-months in the XIOR complex he lives in could not be avoided. In any case, there seems to be little ways to compensate for the daily two-hour round trip, lack of leisure time and aggregate stress he undergoes only to be a Bachelor student of a city that is not even able to house him.
Students, in being the most affected while the least ‘equipped’, have enacted solidarity towards each other. The digital townhall organised by Lurvink in September allowed more than a hundred students to share their personal struggles regarding housing and evidenced the dimension of the problem. As Freddy Leppert told the MD, the desperation of so many students urged KAN and United Students of Maastricht (USM) to found SOS, the Shelter Our Students initiative, at the end of September. SOS was born in Groningen as a peer-to-peer couchsurfing to accommodate as many of the 600 students in need as possible. Simultaneously, three students who also attended the meeting, formed Student Housing Now (SHN) as a platform that aims to give a loud voice to the students suffering from the housing crisis by disclosing its structural problems.
Students have stood up to lobby the municipality for short, medium, and long-term solutions that prevent housing from being a marketised human right. In the short-run, sheltering students in the Overmaze former prison of Limmel should be reconsidered as one of the most effective ways at hand of the city council to cope with the crisis, without being politicised by the different political parties. In this regard, interests amongst the electorate have pushed many parties to be against this initiative so as to preserve their voters, which essentially concerns local residents of Limmel. The neighbourhood association already opposed the project in a formal letter to the city council, after years of complaints about the trouble students cause in the area. All in all, in the medium and long-run, urban planning based on now outdated housing demand and student inflow must be reformed.
Yet, crucial in the equation, social bridges between local residents and students need to be the point of departure. The integration of international students within the local community could have been the initial way to prevent such an issue from being politicised in the first place and from showing such a deep fracture between residents and university students, more significantly of non-Dutch nationalities. Such an integration will further students’ sense of belonging and of responsibility to be actively part of the city and country. After all, as a source of young talent and energy, students can bring Maastricht forward in terms of a sustainable, egalitarian, and prosperous development.
As Gio Evan rhymes, travelling teaches us to be beyond those false beliefs that separate us from others. Since Maastricht has already been a trip for many of us, why don’t we try to be beyond those divisions and empty distinctions from here, where we feel at home, and share with the whole community the sense of warmth this city embraces day by day.