Responding to rent crises around Europe

Claudia Dalby looks at the student response to rent crises in Groningen, Heidelberg and Bristol

The rise of student rent prices is one that students are battling everywhere, and a common belief of university administration seems to be that because the rooms are being sold, the prices are acceptable.

Administration in NUI Galway, DCU, and UCD have all announced there will be a 4% increase in the cost of on-campus rents. According to the 2019 European Student Union survey, Irish students have among the lowest satisfaction rates for housing prices across Europe.

UCD President Andrew Deeks, in a February interview with the University Observer, said there was “absolutely no way” there would be any change to the rent increase.

This problem is not unique, and cities across the world are struggling with rising rents, which has an effect on the student populations, particularly as universities see the lucrative option of opening up places to more international students and not subsidising student housing.

UCDSU has responded to the recent announcement of rent hikes by supporting protests and direct action against the university. They have said that a 12% increase will lock young people out of education.

Direct action in Ireland has put varying degrees of pressure on universities to deal with the issue that is the cost of accommodation as a matter of urgency. However, European universities seeing similar increases in student rent may not necessarily have tried direct action, and may not hope to see changes without it.

Groningen - “There is housing, but only for select groups”

Groningen, a city in the north of the Netherlands with a large student population, has seen a staggering rise in rents since the university has opening up more places for international students, despite the lack of space.

Jan Willem Leeuwma, chairperson of the Groningen Student Board, says across the Netherlands there is a shortage of student housing. Media outlets report the shortage to be 12,000 rooms across the country, and substantial in nearly all universities. Problems with landlords are cited as central to the issues, who allow overpricing, low quality and overcrowding in their tenancies.

A scandal emerged in 2018 when for new students arriving in September, the university erected three large tents, housing 60 students each on military bunk beds. Dutch News also reported that university staff had been contacted by the university asking to house students in their homes.

“It was all over Dutch media. This was a turning point.” However, Jan Willem says Dutch students are “not really likely” to protest.

Instead, students see the university and the municipality as responsible for solving the problem, and the Student Board sits in on meetings to represent students.

“There has been huge debate between the university and the municipality as to who is responsible for producing housing for students.” The municipality claims the university is to blame for attracting the students, and the university says they are not responsible for housing.

Private investors have bought some of the land for apartment buildings, with rooms costing from €700-1200. “There is housing, but it’s only for select groups and not for everyone. It is only built for the upper-class and their BMWs.” Jan Willem says even residents of Groningen are being pushed out of the area.

“The short-term solution was building emergency housing. Now we are working on a better solution. I don’t know what it is.”

Heidelberg - “I believe it will get worse.”

Annalena Wirth works with the student’s representation in Heidelberg University, Germany. “There are 100k inhabitents in this city, and 40k of those are students. That’s almost half - it’s just not sustainable. Everyone wants to live here.

Heidelberg is the 13th most expensive town in Germany for students, almost the same as Munich which is a far bigger city.”

Housing options for students are on-campus university rooms, which are held with priority for low-income students. Members of the Catholic church can avail of exclusive rooms, and of course there are private student studios at disproportionate costs.

“A big problem is fraternities. They have a network of wealthy people who pay for most of their housing, with 20 people in an immense house with a pool. The university doesn't really do anything against them, as some professors are members of the fraternity.

Wealth disparity is also a problem in Heidelberg, where wealthy people will pay any price to live in the beautiful and historic town, and in doing so drive up the rents as space is limited. “Many students in Heidelberg can afford these rents because their parents have good jobs, and they pay for everything. Obviously everyone wants to pay less rent, some people are affected a lot but some people are just rich.

Many students are really angry and frustrated about this. I know there were protests a few years ago, but none this year.”

Instead, students here have innovative solutions. “Some groups of students bought a house together and live there. Some move into abandoned houses, even though it's illegal.”

Annalena herself struggled to find a room and instead moved to the neighbouring city of Mannheim. “In my experience, if you want a room that isn't cramped, and isn't an hour away from the university, you will pay more than €450.”

Of course, this is a bargain in Dublin despite being just about affordable for a full time student. “My friends all consider moving to Mannheim as it's only 20 minutes by train and it's way cheaper. Most of them have to take on a job to afford their living in Heidelberg.”

The student representation in Heidelberg University focuses on policy and student support. “We have a free legal service for students being taken advantage of by landlords.”

Annalena doesn’t feel optimistic about the future. “In Germany overall there has been a rise in rent. In Berlin they have introduced a rent freeze at 2% increase. They could do this in Heidelberg, but I don’t see it coming in the next few years.

I believe it will get worse, because very little is being done about it now.”

Bristol - “Rent strikes work”

In the University of Bristol, the SU is mandated by policy to support the actions of Cut the Rent, a UK student-led group which undertakes direct action against universities. “Most recently Rent Strikes took place in 2017 and 2019, which were supported by the SU,” Nicola, a spokesperson for the Bristol told the University Observer in an email.

During the rent strikes, 162 students withheld rent from the university totalling £100k in cost, attracted large media attention.

UK National Students Union Vice President Eva Crossan Jory, wrote of the rent strikes, “Liverpool Guild’s Cut the Rent campaign last year won the biggest yet securing almost £4 million in rent reductions for students alongside a range of other concessions. Bristol’s recent Rent Strike won a five-fold increase in the number of affordable bed spaces available to students and increases to the accommodation bursary. When we fight, we win.”

Cut the Rent Bristol in November 2019 announced a number of policy changes that had been announced since they had begun the rent strikes. They reported  “£130k in rent cuts for this year which sees students in halls this year paying a significantly cheaper rent than they would’ve done last year, and a £100,000 increase in the accommodation bursary pot for next year.”

The counterpart group in Trinity College Dublin, which led the sit-in and recent campus strikes, has been trying to get rent strikes off the ground.

However, attempting a rent strike requires sufficient support from the student body for it to go ahead. Cut the Rent Trinity postponed a potential rent strike until next year, stating to the University Times that they had “only a very small number of engaged tenants who were willing to go ahead with it.”

“We don’t think it’s fair to put them in that position unless there is a sustained mass behind them”, he said. Rent strikes haven’t been tried anywhere in Ireland so far.

Bristol Cut the Rent stated, “We are extremely proud of all the work that has gone into this campaign, of all the solidarity from the SU, and of all our 162 rent strikers who helped make this possible.” The group continues to insist, “rent strikes work, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.