German student Julia (24) lives with four other housemates in Rotterdam-South, near the Feijenoord football stadium. “This house is actually not meant for five people. Of the five of us, only three are officially allowed to register at this address with the municipality.” Which is why Julia and one of her housemates are still registered at their former residential addresses.

Just like the address, the stairway to Julia’s apartment is shared with another household. Two doors and three flights of stairs up and you are standing in the living room. The apartment has two floors, with the kitchen, living room, shower, toilet and two bedrooms on the lower floor. Up the next flight of stairs, there are three more bedrooms, a large bathroom and an extra toilet, which is somewhat awkwardly installed in the passageway. Two extra rooms have been added to the house by building in extra wooden walls. “That’s how the landlord earns another couple of 450 euros on the side,” Julia comments snidely. On the top floor, a large room has been split into two small rooms and on the lower floor, the view from the living room to the street has been blocked off to make room for an extra bedroom.

Black gunk out of the shower drain

An additional bathtub and toilet were also built next to the kitchen. This renovation seems to have been tackled rather ineptly, as is evident from the recurring blockages. “When someone does the washing up in the kitchen or uses the shower, the pipes get blocked and the water doesn’t flow away. Sometimes dirty, black gunk comes up from the shower drain. That’s really not nice. It doesn’t go back down by itself either, so you have to get it out with your hands. It doesn’t look like food that might have been washed down the sink either, we don’t know what it is.”

When the problem cropped up again for the third time last year, Julia phoned the landlord, who then sent a plumber to the house. He cleaned the pipes and told them that the kitchen drainpipe was connected to the bathroom drainpipe, so the water was unable to drain off properly. If this was not sorted out, the problem would keep on recurring. “But the landlord disagreed. He felt that we, as the tenants, had done something wrong and so he sent us the bill. When we did not want to pay that, he informed us that the costs would then be deducted from our deposit.” Since then, the same problem has happened four times in three years, and it was dealt with in the same way by the landlord each time.

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Uncertainty about their position as tenants

Even when there was a problem with mice in the house and when the fridge and microwave oven broke down, the landlord considered himself under no obligation to offer any help. “According to him, the fridge and microwave were a gift to the previous tenants and were therefore not included in the contract, and we supposedly attracted the mice ourselves. According to the landlord, the small holes in the added-on walls were not the problem.”

Some of her housemates (international students just like Julia) feel uncertain about their position as tenants. “They are probably slightly less aware of their rights and we absolutely do not want to pick a fight with the landlord,” Julia adds. The fact that some of them are not registered at the address also adds to the pressure. “If we go to the municipality, you have to tell them that and then we could get into trouble. You would then have to look for a new room during a pandemic in a city where there is no housing available and where you are not always wanted as an international student.”

A party streamer of plaster

Studentenhuis stucwerk
The garland of plasterwork in the kitchen Image credit: Ferayed Hok

Yet such problems are not exclusive to international students. Pleun (22) lives with three others in a student house in Delfshaven in Rotterdam-West. The house is in a narrow street near a primary school. Once through the front door, you walk into a dark corridor with the kitchen on the right. Pleun shows off a ‘party streamer’ of plaster here, next to an actual party streamer.

“It’s a terrible mess,” she apologises. “The plasterwork is falling from the ceiling, we have problems with the sewage system, there is a hole in the kitchen floor and the bathroom is a tangle of pipes that go everywhere and nowhere.” There are also moving boxes all over the place and the rooms are already half empty. The house is clearly in need of renovation, which is why the landlord wants the tenants out as soon as possible.

Sewer stench in the kitchen

Studentenhuis badkamer
Pipes and cables are plentiful in the bathroom Image credit: Ferayed Hok

Yet he was not always so eager to carry out any repairs in the past. “As much money as possible for as little effort as possible,” is how Pleun describes the tenancy situation. “We pay service charges, but when you call for repairs, half the time there’s no answer. Emails are not always answered either. The landlord is nice enough, but nothing much ever happens

When a sewage stench spread through the house some time ago, Pleun notes that it took four months before the landlord wanted to do anything about it. The PVC floor in the kitchen was ripped open to see where the problem was. It was then discovered that there was a direct connection between the kitchen and the crawl space under the house through a hole in the wooden floor. “Fortunately, I don’t have much of a sense of smell now because I’ve had corona, which is a blessing in disguise. But apparently it smells pretty bad,” Pleun chuckles.

Her flatmate nods in agreement. Despite the wide-open windows, a nasty smell permeates the kitchen and room on the ground floor. “So, we always open the windows in the house as a matter of course to get rid of that stench,” she explains.

Forced to move

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A hole in a pipe is ‘fixed’ with some duct tape Image credit: Ferayed Hok

At one point, the stink became too much for one of the housemates living on the ground floor. She decided to move. Owing to the way in which the contract was drawn up, this immediately had consequences for the other housemates. The landlord could refuse to accept a replacement tenant, so Pleun and the other housemates either had to cough up the rent for the empty room themselves or move out.

In one week, Pleun will be in her new room in Middelland. “I’m looking forward to it, but I really regret having to leave. We live here just fine, but the landlord refuses to spend any money on the house.”