When I arrived in Utrecht, I must say that I was very lucky with my housing situation. I was able to nail a "reserved accommodation" room from SSH, which is part of a limited amount of furnished rooms that the University books for their international students. I booked it in April, to start my studies in September. And it was one of the last ones. My good fortune came at a price, though: 500€ per month, and leaving after 1 year, for the next round of international students, despite the fact that my program lasts for a minimum of 2 years.
The fact that I consider myself lucky represents the extent of the low expectations about housing. People just cross their fingers and hope to be able to find anything, wherever, at whatever cost, for however short term.
This problem does not exist only in Utrecht, of course, but it is becoming increasingly hard to find a decent place to live in here. So let's look at some of the aspects of the problem in Utrecht and figure out what we might be able to do about it.
Increasing the number of internationals increases the pressure in housing
The dutch students definitely feel how hard it is to find a place to live, but it isn't any easier for internationals. The universities in Utrecht host more and more international students, and they must have a place to live. Contrary to their Dutch counterparts, international students can't travel home at the end of their classes. This increases the amount of people looking for rooms, which is high already in any given time. The university does warn students that it is really hard to find rooms, and they have a deal with a hostel in case you haven't found anything by the time you come to town, but, given that they actively recruit students, that doesn't solve the systematic problem.
Internationals have a harder time in "hospiteers"
If you apply directly for a room, as opposed to applying through a real estate agency, you will likely have to "hospiteer", meaning that you have to go in for a small interview with the other roommates to see if you are a good fit in the house. This is all fine, because after all we all want to get along with the people that we live with, but it is especially challenging for internationals. If the add doesn't say already "No internationals", it is very hard to be picked at a hospiteer, because the people in the house might think that having someone that doesn't speak Dutch in their home will not create a very "gezellig" atmosphere.
I would know. After my first 1-year contract was about to be over, I had to find a place through the regular channels. I went to a lot of hospiteeravonds, and in some I was told that yeah, they liked me, but they wouldn't choose me because I didn't speak Dutch. Eventually some kind souls saw past that and offered me a roof, and the same story came to be when I moved again. I was always able to find a place, but this particular aspect can make you grow some thick skin. It also gives you confidence that you end up in a place where people welcome you with your differences.
As long as you can find a place, it is ok to move
Just as my first contract had the maximum duration of 1 year (if it was longer they couldn't terminate it anymore), it is very normal that the average time of rental is very short. In fact, people have incentives to sublet their room when they go away for some months, because the rents are so high. On a first glance, you can think this is great, you are not using your room and someone is looking for one, and indeed this is better than nothing. But if you look more closely, this perpetuates the very low expectations that I was talking about in the beginning.
The human loss of this scheme of things is immense. The mental strain of looking for several rooms and moving while trying to study can be unbearable, and it should not be normalized not to have a fixed roof over your head. You also loose the ability of creating small geographic communities, of getting to know your neighbors, or sometimes even your housemates properly.
Rent will certainly be high
Because there is so much demand and so little offer, it is normal that the price of rent will be extremely high. Normal, hein? Well, at least it is what we are used to, but it shouldn't be like this. There is unused office space that could be turned into room space, and there are laws that allow only two adults to live in a house with more than two rooms. Though this might benefit other sects of the population, for example the new couples that want to settle down, it sends a message that you can't just rent a place because you have the money to do so, and you will behave; it puts extra demographic strains where there needn't be any. Rents are a bit lower and availability is a bit higher when you move out of the city center, which ends up being the solution found by many internationals, but which translates in added transportation costs.
The big elephant in the room is, of course, that there are political and entrepreneurial interests to keep the prices high. What this will create in the future, however, is that only students that can afford the living costs will be able to come study in Utrecht. And I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty bad to me.
What can you do to change something?
The first thing that you can do is realize that this is not a personal problem. This is a widespread problem, and if you can't find a place to live it is not your fault directly.
What you can do next is try to connect with people who have been through similar situations, and see for yourself that you are not alone. With this in mind, the We Want Woonruimte was created by Dutch and international students fed up with having to move all the time! The aim is to create a platform to discuss ideas about how too bring people together so that our politicians and institutions can see the dimension of the problem.
If you haven't yourself had problems with the housing in Utrecht, I'm sure you know someone that has. And that is not OK. It is also not just bad luck.
What have been your experience with housing in Utrecht? What do you think should be changed? Share your stories and suggestions in the comments!