STU director dr. Karen Ali, on the accommodation of foreign students:
“We are doing all we can, but the files are tough”
16 december 2010 -
In September of this year, foreign students in Wageningen housed in a former hotel wanted to stop paying rent. Their accommodation was substandard and the rent was too high. In Eindhoven, Cursor also met with students who expressed their dissatisfaction with their current accommodation, the fact they have to sign a one-year housing contract, and the rent, which they think is excessive. At the Education and Student Service Center (STU) they are aware of the complaints and problems, but director Karen Ali stresses she can’t do the impossible. A little more effort from the city would be most welcome, for example.
This students isn’t very excited about the former night club’s cave room he’s renting. He doesn’t want to be recognized. Photo | Rien Meulman
Karen Ali doesn’t beat around the bush: accommodation for the ever-growing group of foreign students gives her and the university a headache. “There’s a major shortage of rooms for this group in Eindhoven,” she says. “Come to think of it, it’s no different from the rest of the Netherlands. The problem is threefold: there should be sufficient supply, which should be of good quality and a reasonable price. At the same time, we have to keep vacancy costs to a minimum. For us, the latter is a logistic challenge. We keep trying to attune everything in a process that is entirely reliant on demand. Within the set of preconditions, we do whatever we can to make things work. Unfortunately, we don’t always succeed. On top of that, housing shortage has prices go up, which doesn’t help us either. Commercial housing agencies especially tend to charge rates that don’t always correspond to the accommodations’ quality.”
In an attempt to face the problems, TU/e, the housing corporations and the city of Eindhoven are partner in the student housing covenant. Ali: “The other parties are aware of the problem, but it’s a slow system. Of the public housing corporations it’s mostly Woonbedrijf and its subdivision Vestide that contribute to the solution, and that’s not enough. The best thing would be for public housing cooperations to join forces to come to a decent offer with an acceptable price/quality ratio. The city should invite all parties involved and come to agreements concerning urgency and priority, and take charge. We do take responsibility ourselves as well, and are currently planning the realization of five hundred on-campus housing units. Being a university, though, we don’t have the means, which is why we invited parties to finance our plans. We feel a 400 to 450 euro rent for a furnished accommodation is reasonable.”
For now, Ali and her foreign students have to make do. “We are trying to increase the offer every way we can, for example by involving private housing cooperations. And although we set minimum standards, we sometimes don’t deliver on those. At TU/e, we regret that and so, when a problem is reported in time, we try to intervene. We also strive to inform and prepare students to the best of our ability.”
After inquiry with a group of international students, it turns out many of them feel their rent is disproportionate, especiallyin comparison with that of Dutch students. Ali confirms rents are higher. “But furniture is included and it’s an all-in rate: gas, water and electricity, Internet access and cleaning upon leave. You can’t really compare the rates with those of Dutch students unless you take these factors into account. Besides, the risk of vacancy is much higher with foreign guests. Should a student leave, accommodations are often vacant for months, so we have to account for that in the rent. And once again, it’s a matter of supply and demand, too. Demand is higher than supply, resulting in price-rises. Of course we want to change this, but it’s tough.”
Another thing that bothers students is the procedure: upon arrival, they have to either sign a one-year contract or promise to sign it, or they won’t get a room. In other words, they have to make promises before having even seen their room. A student that wishes to remain anonymous out of fear for repercussions says: “After I arrived in Eindhoven I waited six hours for a Magis real estate agent. I was shown three houses I could choose a room from. They were one and the same. By now it was ten at night and I had nowhere to go, so I didn’t have much choice and signed the contract.” He was given a room of ten square meters for 350 euro. I was told similar stories by others. “Blind-date contracts are very common for this group,” says Ali. “Other universities do the same, in the Netherlands as well as abroad. Vestide responded to this by explaining parts of the process online. “We inform people of the fact it’s a blind-date contract beforehand. This year, we started a test with Magis to not communicate the exact room right away, but wait and try to meet a student’s exact needs on the spot. And for early arrivals, the system actually works. For late arrivals, however, the choice is limited. We’ll reevaluate the system at the end of the year.”
Yet another complaint: it’s nearly impossible to get out of the contract. Students who terminate the contract early, lose their deposit, which is usually some 400 euro. According to STU’s director, it has everything to do with vacancy costs. “Someone has to pay for vacancy. If the students don’t, TU/e has to. An example: suppose fifty rooms are vacant for six months, then that would cost TU/e 120,000 euro. One-year contracts were designed to prevent this from happening. It’s very common in this field. Fontys uses the same system for their degree students.”
What’s more, students don’t seem to be aware of their rights. Students renting space boxes, for example, have the right to a housing benefit, yet nobody informs them. Ali: “We had our financial department, the Dutch tax Administration and KPMG look into that, and it turns out the situation isn’t that clear-cut. Based on their type of contract, students cannot register for a housing benefit. If they did, they could even end up paying taxes over their student grants. It’s inconvenient. Vestide is investigating which rental plan is the most suitable.
Students can file their complaints with the national Renting Committee, but they are often unaware of that, too. “If students want to get in touch with the national renting Committee on their own accord, we help them,” says Ali. “We don’t underline its existence. Magis pointed out their rents meet the point system. By the way, the committee is focused on Dutch students. After all, students have to be able to present a Dutch contract or their complaint won’t even be taken up. Magis as well as Vestide obviously provide English contracts, so that’s a stumbling block.”
Since rooms for foreign students come furnished, mediation and service charges apply that Dutch students in private student accommodation usually don’t have. The extra costs are an estimated 100 to 150 euro a month, which seems to be quite a lot. Ali: “Like I said before, this includes both furnishing and vacancy costs, and then there’s the matter of supply and demand. Anyway, TU/e pays for the mediation costs, so students don’t have to worry about that. Every student city is confronted with complaints on the excessive charges for furnished rooms. Next year, Tilburg will start a trial with unfurnished rooms to hold down extra charges and create a wider spread of risk. A bare room can easily be rented out to a Dutch student, and so the risk of vacancy will be reduced. TU/e is closely observing these developments and already showed an interest.”
STU-director Karen Ali.
Photo | Bart van Overbeeke
350 euro for 8,5 square meters: “I had no choice”
Daniel Vallejo Gonzales checks his rent with the Rent Committee. The test reveals he is overpaying 46,43 on bare rent. He started a procedure for rent reduction.
Photo | Sjoukje Kastelein
For many foreign students in Eindhoven, living conditions leave much to be desired. They feel they pay too much rent for what they get. Students that go room hunting on their own are often better off than those who arrange accommodation through university.
Mexican student Daniel Vallejo Gonzales pays 350 euro for 8,5 square meters. His central heating is tucked away under a floor grate and since there’s no thermostat, the heat is unbearable unless he opens his door.
Another student, who wishes to remain anonymous, was offered a room of about ten square meters in former night club De Grot in the Hemelrijken district. They didn’t bother changing the interior much: it has brown walls, a kitschy, black-marble mirrored wardrobe and stalactites hovering over his desk. He also pays 350 euro. Both students got their rooms through TU/e’s International Office, part of the Education and Student Service Center (STU).
It’s the excessive rent that is the main cause for complaints. Prices range from 350 to 450 euro for rooms with a surface area of ten square meters to attic rooms that measure up to 25. In a survey that was held among international students that started studying here in September 2009, the International Student Barometer, ‘housing costs’ scored a satisfaction rate of only 42 per cent. During interviews with Cursor, dozens of students pointed out they feel they are overpaying.
Complaints: a selection
• Pretty much all students that were questioned mention the high housing costs. A furnished room measuring 10-15 square meters costs between 350 and 400 euro on average. Upon finding out it’s possible to rent a similar room in Eindhoven for about 250 euro (albeit unfurnished and exclusive of services such as cleaning, Internet access, etc.), outrage ensues. A student that prefers not to reveal his identity says: “International students don’t know Dutch market value for housing. Most international students don’t know that they are being ripped off until they talk to Dutch students. As I made Dutch friends, they were all outraged at the prices International students paid.”
• The binding construction: the contract is usually signed for a period of one year. Students can’t disband the contract. The only option for extremely dissatisfied customers, is switching to another room of the same cooperation.
• Student Eindhoven is “hard to get in touch with” and their responses to complaints are “belated”.
•“Information provided by the International Office prior to arrival does not match reality.” Students feel misled by the website’s statement that 400 euro is a regular room price for Eindhoven standards. On top of that, they are often disappointed by the price/quality ratio of what they get.
• Several students that rented a room from Student Eindhoven last year point out that the renter deducted 50 euro from their deposit for cleaning. Many current tenants, however, noted their rooms were dirty upon their arrival. In other words, no one seemed to have actually cleaned the place. The weekly cleaning service is also serious cause for complaint.
• Although Student Eindhoven tenants pay a monthly fee of five euro for green area maintenance, the accommodations’ outside areas are “hardly” or “not at all” being kept. Gardens are being describes as “jungles” and “big forests”. According to Student Eindhoven, gardens are trimmed and tidied twice a year.
• Many houses lack a proper common area to share meals, for example. Indonesian student of Embedded Systems Vidya Vijayasankaran says: “The only place to have dinner at our place is an outside table. Most of the time, we all just eat in our own rooms.”
Sharing dinner in winter doesn’t appeal to these students much. The only common area with room for a kitchen table at their Brugmanstraat house is outside. Photo | Sjoukje Kastelein
“The city of Eindhoven doesn’t build housing units”
In Eindhoven, office buildings currently make up fourteen per cent of the total accommodation. Ever more of this number is marked as ‘unsalable’. Mid-November, the city announced they wanted to prevent vacancy, resulting in the checking of 112 buildings for a potential conversion. The check resulted in a shortlist of fourteen properties, among which are the former Philips offices at Vonderweg 11 and the city’s TD building.
The city is more than willing to take a proactive stance in the conversion of said buildings into housing facilities for students and knowledge workers, or into budget hotels. “But this conversion shouldn’t be taken all too literally,” says drs.ir. Jessie van Rooij, program manager at Housing Construction, “since the city doesn’t own these properties. So, any reconstruction relies on the owners’ willingness.” According to Van Rooij, the city can contribute by providing the necessary zoning plan changes or by including office transformation in current area development plans. “The city itself doesn’t build housing units. We don’t have the means. Still, the matter is given high priority by B&W for next year, too,” Van Rooij assures us.
Student Eindhoven: “The sudden increase is to blame for high number of complaints”
A disproportionate number of complaints concerns Student Eindhoven, a subdivision of Magis Real Estate Management. Daan Kuil, coordinator for Student Eindhoven, and Bart Schillings, managing director at Magis Real Estate Management, partly blame the suddenincrease of students for the high number of service-related complaints. Last year they had to find 60 students a room, this year there were 230. They managed to house every student, yet they didn’t have enough time to fix everything in all the houses and rooms.
According to Kuil, their service improved. “E-mails are responded to within 24 hours and should a problem need resolving, we always check with the tenant afterwards to see if everything was handled ok. So far, we only had positive feedback on this approach.”
Rent is the main cause for complaints. Student Eindhoven charges a monthly 150 euro service fee. The amount is exclusive of the basic rent and an extra 50 euro for gas, water and electricity. And since November 10, new tenants pay even more: 165 and 65 euro respectively. Cursor was provided with a specification of the service costs. The most striking is a monthly 41.67 euro charge per person for ‘soft furnishing’ (carpet and curtains). Cursor feels this amount represents the total monthly fee for the whole house, and thinks Student Eindhoven didn’t divide these costs among all tenants as they did with all the other items. Upon repeated inquiry, Cursor is being given the same answer: “It’s all been calculated according to the Rent Committee guidelines.” Still, the guidelines we are referred to don’t mention anything that justifies charging each tenant with the full costs meant for the whole house. In other words: they multiplied rather than divided the costs by the total number of tenants living there.
Due to the high number of complaints, Cursor decided to check out four random samples of Student Eindhoven accommodation. The first thing that catches our attention is the fact that the hallways and common rooms of all four houses are significantly cleaner and in better condition than those of most ‘Dutch’ student houses. Carpet, curtains and furniture is fairly new and each room is equipped with a smoke alarm. Downsides are the small kitchens, lack of common areas to sit or eat, and the messy gardens.
Christian Panajia’s private landlord was nominated ‘Eindhoven slumlord of the year’ last year. Christian started a legal procedure with the Rent Committee. His contact at the committee thinks he stands a good chance of getting a rent reduction. Photo | Bart van Overbeeke
Facts & Figures
• International students are especially dissatisfied with the costs of accommodation. Satisfaction score: 42%. Quality scores 72%. Students could also point out the importance of both factors: 98% and 99% respectively. (Source: International Student Barometer, entry wave 2009)
• In total, TU/e is using over 600 Vestide housing units and another 300 from other cooperations, around 200 of which belong to Magis (Student Eindhoven). (Source: International Office)
• Out of this year’s 230 new Master students, almost 210 made use of TU/e’s housing services. Of the 150 exchange students, that number was approximately 135. For at least another 140 new staff members (toio’s, aio’s postdocs, professors, etc.) housing was arranged as well. (Source: International Office)
• This year, Student Eindhoven housed 230 new international students. Of these students, 160 study at TU/e, others at Fontys. A total of 400 students rent from Student Eindhoven. Student Eindhoven offers students that are displeased with their accommodation the chance to move to another one of their rooms. According to the cooperation, so far 2 out of 230 students took up that offer. 90% of the international students prefer a furnished room to an unfurnished one. Should an unfurnished room be 75 euro cheaper than a furnished accommodation, this percentage would drop to approximately 50% that would settle for unfurnished. (Source: Survey International Students TU/e, spring 2010 by the International Office)
• It’s not allowed for renters to make a profit on service costs. (Source: spokesperson Rent Committee)
• It’s not allowed for renters to access your room without your consent. (Source: Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment)
• Dutch law overrules the terms and conditions stated in your contract.
Several students requested anonymity. As one of the reasons, they mentioned they are unaware of their exact rights and want to avoid getting in trouble with their housing cooperation or the university. Although Cursor trusts none of the students will be in trouble because of voicing their dissatisfaction, we can imagine they feel vulnerable being in the position they’re in. By way of exception, we decided to grant them their anonymity. The editorial staff knows who they are.
According to the rent check, Erick Hernandez is overpaying 32 euro a month for his room. Photo | Sjoukje Kastelein
What can tenants do?
Although Cursor is confronted with a lot of dissatisfaction, students often refrain from contacting their renter or TU/e about their complaints. Their reasons: they are busy studying, they’re “not complainers by nature”, or they “don’t want any trouble” with either renter or university. And students that did file a complaint before said the handling took ages. A second or third time a problem occurred, most students didn’t feel like making an effort anymore.
In the Netherlands, tenants’ rights are well-protected. If you’re wondering whether you’re paying too much rent, whether the services included in your service costs are actually provided, or when you feel your renter doesn’t properly handle your complaint, you can take action. In some cases, you can effect a rent reduction and get some of your money back. Even if the service charges of your former renter were too high and you moved, you still have rights.
The most important aid agency is the Rent Committee. This independent committee establishes guidelines for both tenants and renters and acts as a mediator in disputes. You can check whether the rent you pay is reasonable. The Rent Committee’s verdicts are final.
The Rent Committee’s website (www.huurcommissie.nl) is in Dutch, but don’t let that get you down, because taking action might save you a lot of money. If you want to check your rent, be sure to call in the help of someone who speaks Dutch.
It’s best to do a rent check and possibly start a legal procedure within six months after the start of your contract period. Should you be put in the right, you will be granted a rent reduction as well as a refund on the first six months’ rent. After six months you’ll only get the rent reduction.
The Rent Committee has a consultation hour on every first Wednesday of the month from 12-2PM at KBC, Kennedyplein 5-12 in Eindhoven.
Finding a room yourself via the Internet is a cheap alternative to accommodation arranged through university. You can only start your search after you arrived in the Netherlands, though. In the Netherlands, student houses work with so-called ‘watch evenings’ during which you (and others that are interested) can visit the house you’d like to move into. Those already living there pick their new tenant themselves, so you have to be willing to keep trying and try your luck. Rooms are usually not furnished and extra services are limited. Upside: it’s much cheaper. The going rate for a room of 15 square meters is some 250 euro. One of the most popular websites is www.kamernet.nl/huren/kamer-eindhoven.
Student Eindhoven service charges*
Advanced payment energy costs (G/W/E) 65,-
Extra Service Charges:
Heating maintenance 5,-
General expenses 15,-
Council taxes and other levies 12,-
Inventory tenant 12,-
Common inventory 5,60
Soft furnishing 41,65
Safety appliances 1,25
Greening maintenance 5,-
Maintenance and inspection service 4,-
Vacancy loss 4,-
Total Extra Charges 160,-
Total Service Costs 225,-
(*These are the costs per tenant as of November 2010, based on an accommodation for seven students. Magis-director Bart Schillings said that in 2011 every new tenant will get a custom-made tenancy agreement, in which the service charges will differ)