News - June 23, 2011

Arguing about accommodation

Relations between the University and Idealis had seemed to be improving, but the precarious understanding between the two has once again become tense following a disagreement about a new building project. What went wrong between the University and the student accommodation provider?

What was Idealis director Hans van Medenbach thinking of when he lodged an objection at the start of June to the construction of temporary student accommodation on Haarweg road by Wageningen University. Idealis's intervention will probably mean a delay of two months in building work, as a result of which the 150 extra rooms for foreign students will not be ready by the time they arrive in mid August. Van Medenbach was irritated and wanted to put a spanner in the works for the University, say sources at the University and Idealis. They prefer to remain anonymous because this is a sensitive topic.
The difference in opinion between the University and the student accommodation provider seems at first sight to be a technical matter. The University wants to build the new temporary units at a distance of twelve metres from existing Idealis accommodation. That is too close, says Idealis but the University says it's fine. The temporary accommodation is being built on the foundations of the old shed belonging to Agricultural Plant Breeding - the distance was never an issue then, says the University.
Why didn't Idealis just call the university to see if it could increase the distance? And why is the university not contacting Idealis now to discuss that distance? Idealis does not wish to comment at this stage. And Wageningen UR spokesman Simon Vink says: 'We do not have the impression there is anything to be gained at this stage by discussing the matter. It is up to the municipality now - it needs to make a decision.' Statements such as this do not suggest a healthy relationship.
Housing shortage preferable to vacant property
The University and Idealis have not been getting on for a long time now. The underlying problem is a difference in business philosophy. Five to ten years ago, when student numbers were still falling, Idealis was having to deal with a surplus of accommodation. The accommodation provider was only able to fill vacant properties with difficulty by letting rooms to young locals, and eventually it decided to demolish the Rijnsteeg flats. The experience of those 'crisis years' is still influencing current policy.
Idealis aims for very high occupancy rates and therefore stands to benefit from tensions in the accommodation market. It wants to avoid unlet properties. In the past, the accommodation provider's goal was to have all students on the waiting list housed by the beginning of November. Then that deadline was moved to 1 February, and now it is set at 1 May. Which means that Idealis does not have any vacant properties until 1 May. 'That is a firm internal target', says someone in the know. 'That is why the corporation has an extremely low occupancy rate of one percent.' Which does mean that many a student has to spend eight months commuting or is forced to find something in the private sector. Some of them even have to make do with a caravan.
The university is not pleased with this situation as it wants students to get accommodation quickly. The demand for accommodation is rising fast but it has taken a long time for Idealis to come up with plans for extra accommodation. And now they are finally able to build new student accommodation at the site of the Rijnsteeg flats, nothing is happening. First it was said construction would start at the beginning of this year but now Idealis wants to start after the summer holidays. Apparently, Van Medenbach does not want to start construction work until he has a waiting list of 350 students he can install immediately in the new block of flats. People at the University are complaining that while there is an acute need for housing, Idealis is deliberately aiming for a long waiting list. Others are saying that the accommodation provider is not being very entrepreneurial.
Forcing a breakthrough
The impression that the University is irritated by the 'monopolist' Idealis seems to be confirmed by the increasing number of contacts with new players in the accommodation market. Another party was chosen to construct the first emergency accommodation for foreign students that the University had built on Haarweg road. The University has also done business with the hotel operator Jaap Veenendaal and a holiday camp in Hoenderloo, both of which did respond fast and flexibly to the increasing demand for student accommodation. 
This in turn annoyed Idealis. What is more, sources close to Idealis say the corporation was irritated by the fact that the University did not align its student policy with Idealis's accommodation policy. Some people say there would have been no problem with the new units at Haarweg road if the University had held earlier and better consultations with its 'neighbour' Idealis about the construction work. Instead, Idealis was only shown the plans at a very late stage. What is more, Idealis was again not given the job of managing the new units. Some people involved think that is one of the reasons why Van Medenbach wants to block the construction work.
Isn't he simply cutting off his nose to spite his face? For hadn't Idealis just agreed with the University that it could build 350 new permanent student accommodation units on campus? Wrong. The papers for the construction of this building have not yet been signed. Insiders say new differences of opinion have arisen. Some say Idealis may have lodged the objection to force a breakthrough in the campus project. At any rate, no one thinks that the view from the rooms of the Idealis students is the real reason for this step. But spokesperson Vink is clear: 'We are not going to get involved in any horse-trading.'
'It's the students who lose out'
Those involved say personal factors are playing a role in this conflict as well as the commercial considerations. Van Medenbach and Executive Board member Tijs Breukink, responsible for accommodation at Wageningen UR, do not get on, and Breukink's accommodation advisers have also got pretty fed up with the stubborn and assertive Idealis director.
Van Medenbach in turn is apparently irritated by the University's two-faced behaviour: on the one hand asking Idealis to provide sufficient affordable accommodation for students, on the other hand demanding the full price for the land on which that accommodation could be built.
But the University is increasingly disinclined to pay attention to Van Medenbach's opinion. Its former partner is now simply one more market player. But as yet there have not been many other market players. No construction companies or real estate investors have come forward offering to build student flats in Wageningen. Buildings for emergency accommodation for foreign students are also still in short supply - the University is still looking for one hundred additional rooms for the coming season.
Meanwhile, the students, the people for whom this accommodation is needed, are watching the conflict with increasing dismay. Things did actually seem to be going better between the University and Idealis this year, says Martijn Kullen of the VeSte student party. But Idealis's notice of objection proves that the reality is rather different. 'It would be nice if the two parties were to take a cooperative attitude and try to solve this problem', says Martijn Kullen. 'Now it is the students who lose out'.