Erasmus University wishes to play a more active part in international students’ housing. Last month the Executive Board decided that the university will establish its own housing services unit. This unit is to support international students in finding a place to live, but will also help them sort out contract-related matters. “The International Office is currently making preparations for such an organisation, so we are not quite there yet,” a university spokesperson tells us. “We hope to get started this summer and be completely operational by next year.”

The new organisation will come too late for Argentinean student Lía Barrese. She is completing her International Master degree in Global Markets, Local Creativities (GLOCAL) this summer, but hasn’t lived in Rotterdam since March. “My lease expired at the end of February, and I haven’t been able to find a place since,” she tells us.

Unexpected turn of events

In September 2018 Barrese embarked on her year at Erasmus University. She is doing an Erasmus Mundus joint master degree, which means she gets to study at three different universities over the course of two years. Before she came to Rotterdam, she spent four months in Glasgow, as well as eight months in Barcelona.

When she first arrived in Rotterdam, Barrese took a six-month lease on an apartment she had found without the university’s assistance. “I was planning to move to Barcelona, since I’d been offered a job there and was told I’d be able to start in March,” she says. So she was planning to write her thesis in Barcelona. “Which is why I only got a six-month lease.”

Lia Barrese
Lía Barrese at campus Woudestein Image credit: Feba Sukmana

However, in late February there was an unexpected turn of events. The start date of her new job was pushed back to September. As a result, Barrese was able to stay in Rotterdam longer than expected. Since she was unable to extend her lease, she immediately contacted SSH, the room rental agency. By that stage, there were no longer any adapted rooms available in the Hatta Building. Instead, Barrese was offered a non-adapted room. “But that room is unsuitable in nearly every regard,” she tells us. “The bathroom hasn’t been adapted, for example.” She then contacted many EUR units for assistance, ranging from the Diversity Office to Student Affairs, but to no avail. “They all say housing is not their responsibility. Some units didn’t even bother to reply.” In the end, only one course of action remained open to her – returning to Buenos Aires.

Attentive course coordinator

Irish student Amy Hassett is wheelchair-bound as well, and lives in an adapted room in the Hatta Building. She completely understands what Barrese had to deal with. “I was fortunate enough to have a very attentive course coordinator,” says the master student in Neuroscience. “Right from the time I enrolled she reserved an adapted room for me at Hatta.”

Hassett says that without her course coordinator it would have been impossible for her to find housing. “I have no idea how I’m supposed to find an adapted room in the Dutch housing market. There is hardly any English-language information on the subject.”

Amy Hassett_Milena
Amy Hassett in her room in the Hatta Building Image credit: Milena Chopova

Her lease expires next month, as students are only allowed to stay at Hatta for one year. SSH offered her a non-adapted room – i.e. without grab rails and without a seat in the bathroom and toilet – but she rejected it. “The room is on the fifteenth floor, and I don’t think it would be safe to live that far up,” Hassett explains. “If there’s a fire, the lift won’t work. So how will I get downstairs in my wheelchair?”

Thankfully, her course coordinator once again helped her find a place to live. Hassett has been offered a room at the Student Hotel. She likes it, but there is a bit of a problem: “I can’t afford the room. It’s twice as expensive as my current room.” She is in the process of applying for an EUR allowance towards the cost of the adapted room. “I hope it works out, because I simply don’t have that much money lying around.”

No central register

“The main thing I found missing was some engagement on EUR’s part,” says Barrese. “I’m a student with a functional impairment, but they left me to sort everything out by myself.” Hassett completely understands why Barrese feels that way. “EUR doesn’t have a separate department where students with a functional impairment can turn to for help,” says Hassett. “When I arrived, I wanted to let the university know that I’m in a wheelchair, but my course coordinator told me EUR doesn’t have a central register for this sort of information.”

The university has established a ‘Studying with a Functional Impairment’ student panel, but does not yet have a centralised department where information on students’ impairment status can be registered. Furthermore, international students are often subject to different arrangements than their Dutch counterparts. For instance, there are only a few situations in which international students are eligible for an allowance by the Student Financial Support Fund (‘profileringsfonds’) in the event that they fall behind in their studies.

Exact number of rooms unknown

“We’re expanding our number of rooms,” says an EUR spokesperson. At present, some 25 percent of newly arrived international students can hire rooms from the university. “In a perfect world, we’d like to be able to offer 60 percent of new students housing, but it will take us a while to get round to that.”

EUR currently collaborates with housing agencies such as Xior, Stadswonen and SSH to provide international students with housing. Officially, Stadswonen and Xior do not offer any specially adapted rooms because there is ‘little to no demand’ for them. “But that is not to say that we don’t have any suitable rooms available,” explains Enrica Bruyninckx of Stadswonen. “We seek to get disabled students rooms through personalised solutions.”

SSH has three adapted rooms in the Hatta building specifically designed for international EUR students with a mild impairment (generally students who use a wheelchair). “We always reserve those rooms right until the last moment, just in case a disabled student asks for one,” SSH’s Madelon van Gameren explains. “They can be rented for at least one semester, up to one year.”

Barrese thinks it is ridiculous that there are so few rooms in all of Rotterdam for international students with a functional impairment. “In Glasgow they have at least one adapted room on each floor of each student housing complex,” she tells us. “Of course there will never be an enormous demand for adapted rooms. After all, we are a minority in society. But institutions such as EUR should have a better understanding of the vulnerable position in which we find ourselves,” she says. “Which is exactly what I found missing at this university.”