Away on exchange? Sublet your room to another exchange student

Foto archief DUB Maarten Hartman

Jimena is concentrating on the piece of paper in front of her. It lists descriptions of seven houses she’s interviewed at for a room – but to no avail. She came to Utrecht from Mexico this September, for her master’s at the UU. “And then there was the eighth house where I think they only invited me because I speak Spanish. One of the housemates was going to go on exchange to Panama, so he thought it’d be convenient to practice with a native speaker. That was fun, but getting that room seemed like a long shot.”

The 27-year-old is one of 1500 international students who come to Utrecht each year. Interviewing for rooms was, until recently, part of her daily routine. She found a room online right after arriving in the Netherlands. The room itself is fine, but the house is in poor condition, which is why she’s started searching for a new room. “You can see the mold on the walls, and the kitchen floor has never been fixed, so you can see parts of it rotting away. It feels like everything could stop working at any given time.” It’s also unclear who exactly lives in the house: people come and go and one person is only using the house to pick up his mail.

sara-2.jpgSara Loli had more luck after arriving in Utrecht. “I found a temporary room because I have friends here,” she says. The Peruvian student came to Utrecht on exchange, but then decided to apply for a regular UU program and is now studying Economics and Business Economics. “My situation was definitely an exception. I know a lot of people who are unable to find a place and have to keep staying in a hostel or Airbnb – sometimes for months!” The first eighteen months she’d had to move a few times, but now she has her own, permanent apartment.

‘No international students’
Utrecht has the second highest room shortage of all Dutch university cities. In 2016, 5100 students were unsuccessful in their quest to find a room. The pressure is even higher for international students. The UU arranges accommodation for approximately half of all incoming international students. A few others get a room on the International Campus in one of the University College houses. The others have to try their luck on the free market. The UU tries to help students by providing information and advice, but student houses aren’t always eager to welcome housemates they have to speak English with. Several Facebook groups for student housing make the same proclamation in all caps: NO INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS.

Internationals also experience a lot of problems with crooks who are active on Facebook. Rooms are often completely different in reality than was advertised on Facebook, or worse: don’t actually exist at all. Jimena encountered the same problem: her landlord’s passport showed a completely different name. International students often leave after a few months. Landlords have nothing to fear from them, she thinks. “That’s what I hate the most: you know you’re paying far too much for a horrible room. But finding housing in Utrecht is so incredibly difficult that you’ll take whatever you can get.”

Students on exchange switch rooms with students on exchange
Sara Loli is student ambassador for the platform Housing Anywhere, which was launched in Rotterdam in 2009. She joined the platform with the goal of making the search for housing easier for international students.  The idea is simple: students who are going on exchange, can use the platform to sublet their rooms for a fixed period to a student coming from abroad.

Providers can set their own rental prices. The incoming student pays the first month’s rent to Housing Anywhere. If the house doesn’t meet expectations, the platform will return the money. If the room is acceptable, they’ll pay the rent to the person subletting it.

Because anyone can offer rooms for rent through Housing Anywhere, students face the same risk of getting scammed. “Although we do work together, that’s the reason we don’t have an official collaboration agreement with the platform,” says Lenn Lamkin, policy advisor for the UU’s International Office. “We received a lot of feedback from students this summer, who ended up with landlords who asked far too much rent, or ended up in rooms that looked completely different from the advertised photos,” Lamkin says. That’s a problem that occurs most often in rooms that aren’t put up for rent by students, like Jimena’s landlord. Housing Anywhere and the UU is now trying to encourage more students to sign up.

The opportunities lie with Dutch students who are going on exchange abroad. If they – and their housemates – are open to the idea of sharing their house with an international student, at least. “I do sympathize – it’s your own house, you want to be able to speak your own language,” Sara says. “But if Dutch students would look at sharing your house with other nationalities as a unique experience, I think more and more people will join.”

Thanks to her network, Jimena has now found a house she’s moving in next week. Have her experiences left a bad taste in her mouth? She shrugs. “I didn’t mind the interviews. I even found my boyfriend that way.”


Who wants a Housing Platform?

Hester (21), student of History at the UU. Is currently studying in Ireland for a semester.
“Before I went on exchange, I read a lot of experiences from students who’d spent time in Ireland. They mostly said: if you receive an email with a housing offer, reply immediately, or you won’t have a room. I’m not living with an American girl in an apartment in Cork. Other students were less fortunate. I know people who had to spend weeks in a hostel before finding a room.

“I don’t think I’d ever sublet my room to a foreign student I’ve never met. I understand that as an international student, it’s nice to have a room. I would’ve had to find alternative solutions, too. But you’re trusting someone with your stuff and you’re not there to monitor things. That’s not a problem you have with someone you know.”

Marju (26), freshman student of Arts & Society at the UU. Is from Finland.
“I’m traveling between Maastricht and Utrecht about three times a week. That takes four hours. I did try to find a room in September through Couchsurfing. I found an ‘anti-squatting’ group, where everyone states what they can afford to bring into the community. I said I could give haircuts. They liked that – a free hairdresser – but in the end, I said no. It was a building that was going to be demolished, and I prefer to have something more stable.

“During my studies in Maastricht I found a decent apartment easily. I’d love to live in Utrecht, but I’m not optimistic about finding a room. A platform like this could be the solution, I’ll try it when I start searching for housing again. But I have no interest in living in a moldy student house. My current place is too good to give up for that.”

Sabien (25), alumna Urban Geography at the UU. Spent a semester in the United States in 2015.
“In America, a lot of students live on campus, so you get a room through the university. If you wanted to live off-campus, you had to find a room on Craigslist. The university was rather hesitant about using Craigslist, so I got a room through the university and that was fine, although the communication went less than smoothly. I arranged to come a day early, which they knew and approved of. I only found the registering desk after driving around campus for hours in a taxi– it was almost midnight by then. The room only had a mattress and I couldn’t get any blankets, because everything was closed at that hour.

“I would’ve liked staying in a real American dorm; the people who did that, had a great time. But as an international student, you do want to be 100% sure you have a room. If you use a platform like this, you can only get that same certainty if the university guarantees it.”