Another thousand first-years will be arriving in Wageningen in August. Most of them will be looking for a room but many will be disappointed as there is a huge shortage of accommodation. But that same shortage has also generated some creative solutions. Why couldn't you live in vacant office buildings, for example? And what options does the battered owner-occupied housing market have to offer? Resource went in search of initiatives offering the prospect of a new approach to student accommodation.
On the one hand there are lifeless office blocks and unused school buildings while on the other hand a long waiting list full of students looking for accommodation. Why not bring them together, thought a group of Utrecht students, and that led to the Temporary Living Foundation (STW). The first project (144 accommodation units) was delivered in 2003 and now the current committee, which consists of four voluntary staff, is looking beyond the city limits.
Vacant office space in the Netherlands currently stands at more than seven million square metres. About twenty percent would be suitable for student accommodation. Chairman Maarten Spil, whose day job is as a lawyer, sees opportunities in Wageningen. 'We are already discussing vacant properties with Wageningen University and that could quite possibly lead to results.' STW is also active in Delft and Leiden.
The foundation asks the owners of vacant properties whether they are prepared to hand over the property for use by the foundation for a period of up to five years. The rental is determined using the government's points system. Students can reduce their rent by helping with the alterations. 'Installing dividing walls, minor demolition work and painting.'
This approach works very well, according to Maarten. 'Most students like helping out. They get to know their fellow tenants and are proud they are able to achieve something together. Of course you do sometimes get grumbles, especially about the working hours. The work is supervised by professional builders and they prefer to start work at around seven o'clock in the morning. That's a time when many students are just getting home from the pub.'
Rooms for foreign students
It all really began as a hobby, but now Hidayet Bahadin (24) and Dogan Yuksel (54) have built up quite a reputation with Room Rent Wageningen, certainly among foreign students. 'Students say they come to us first to ask if there are any rooms before they approach the University', says Dogan.
Dogan often used to come into contact with other foreign employees who were looking for accommodation when he was working as a researcher at DLO. He regularly rented out rooms in his own house, and he and Hidayet also used to arrange lets informally of second homes belonging to friends and family. When problems started to emerge with the housing of foreign students a couple of years ago, the two saw an opportunity and extended their services to this target group too.
'There was a lot of interest right from the start', says Hidayet, who also runs the training firm SES Training & Advies, in addition to Room Rent Wageningen. 'Foreign students don't have access to the housing market in the same way that Dutch students do. They can't go to Idealis, don't have a network here and don't speak the language. These are all barriers preventing them from finding accommodation.'
The two now have 45 rooms and are thinking of expanding further. The entrepreneurial duo is negotiating with a number of landlords for new property because there is a huge demand among foreign students. Hidayet: 'Everyone can see it but nobody is doing anything about it. I not only see the opportunities but try to utilize them as well.'
What Dogan and Hidayet like about their work is that their agency also has a social character. 'We provide a welcome programme with all kinds of extra information to make sure that students and employees feel at home here and don't get lost.'
Group house purchase
Wouldn't it be great if you could just buy a house as a student? That may soon be possible if Kees van der Ark has anything to do with it. The Biotechnology student, who chairs the W.S.V. Ceres housing committee, has been lobbying for more than two years, together with the Student Council, for a special mortgage scheme aimed at students. They now seem close to an agreement with the municipality.
Kees: 'In 2009, the Student Council discovered a scheme from the 1980s in which the municipality acted as guarantor for student mortgages. The Student Council was keen to resurrect this construction.' But that was easier said than done. The municipality was not at all interested in going back to using the dated scheme, while talks with mortgage providers and estate agents made it clear that buying a house without a guarantee from the municipality is not an option. 'The rules for granting mortgages have become incredibly strict because of the crisis. It is impossible for students to buy a house unless they have rich parents or a regular income.'
In the end, Wageningen was prepared to discuss a form of guarantee. The students joined forces with the Rabobank to develop a new plan in which undergraduates and PhD students can register with the Chamber of Commerce as a residential group and jointly take out a mortgage. The municipality guarantees part of the house purchase price. This marks a complete reversal in attitudes, says Kees. 'Students can now find housing completely independently of the University, Idealis or private-sector landlords. And they don't need rich parents to be able to buy a house. '
There is a risk for the municipality, for example if the residential group is no longer able to pay the mortgage. However, Kees says the risk is minimal. 'Twenty houses were purchased using the old scheme and none of those houses had to be repossessed.' At present, the municipality is working out the further details of the plan. Kees is optimistic about its chances of success. 'The responsible counsellor supports our plan, as does the municipal council. Hopefully a decision will have been made by September.'