Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Students Carré complaining
Carré, a former cigar factory, was transformed into a student complex last summer. Studios with your own shower, partly furnished, supermarket on the ground floor, the city centre within walking distance, and 24-hour service: that was the marketing pitch. It sounded great, and pricey with a monthly rent of more than 700 euro. But since the first students moved in, lots of things have gone wrong: leaks, bicycle theft, junkies in the stairwell, and a humming ventilation system. Inhabitants say that they are being ignored by management company Jules. “That is incorrect, we have shown our involvement from the beginning.”
“It leaks everywhere, this building is like a swimming pool,” says Walloon student Estelle Herbiet while she points worryingly at her ceiling. There are two buckets on top of the raised bed where her mattress used to be. She moved the mattress down onto the floor. The reporter climbs up the ladder to inspect the damp. Not a drop, “fortunately it hasn't rained”. Two months ago, we would have found two full buckets. The videos that Herbiet saved are hard evidence: water trickling down. “And the sound of that dripping, is enough to drive you crazy.”
The European Law School student rents the largest room in the building: 39 square metres. A sheer expanse of space, which includes your own kitchen, a refrigerator, a dining room table, chairs, a couch, a raised bed of 2 by 1,40 metre, and a spacious wardrobe. Two windows overlook the Tongerseweg. They can't be opened since they are sealed from the outside. The city council decided so. Herbiet pays 795 euro per month.
“If you look carefully, you can see the fungus growing on the beam.” The metal beam, with occasional yellow spots, hangs directly over her bed. The water damage has also left traces in other places on the concrete ceiling. Even one of the walls, where the old factory tiles are still visible, shows signs of damp and mould.
When Herbiet arrived last summer, she saw a circle on the cast floor. In the days following she realised that there was water dripping from the ceiling.
“This is a unique drama,” replies Karin van der Ven, owner of student services company Jules that is responsible for the management, marketing and letting of the 143 studios. Her reaction, “really dreadful. We have done hundreds of tests, even with smoke, to see where the water is coming from, but one thing is clear, it is not the roof.” According to Robin Cremers, manager at the Belgian student housing company XIOR, which owns Carré, torrential rain is the culprit. “Damp soaks up into the wall.” You would think: job for the owner. But it is slightly more complicated than that, because XIOR bought the building as of 1 September from property developer LIFE (Living in Funky Environments) which is responsible for the construction. The latter, in turn, passes responsibility on to the main contractor or subcontractor, and with a bit of bad luck they will pass it on to the company that actually carried out the work. In short, a complex situation. But that doesn't help the student. Cremers: “We think that by applying a kind of coating, like a plastic layer, on the outside of the wall, the problem will be solved. Anyway, we first have to find out if we need permission from the city council to do this. After all, it is a listed building.”
Jules offered her a different room, but Herbiet didn't want that. “I have too much stuff that wouldn't fit into a smaller space.” Didn't she fancy moving to a student house or even another studio in Maastricht? "I kept on thinking that the leak would be fixed since Jules kept on saying that they were in contact with the owner and roofing company. So I thought that it would only be a matter of short time before everything would go back to normal. Also, I didn't want to move out because finding a nice accomodation in the middle of the year is quite difficult, and I didn't really have time to search a place, organise a whole moving out." Jules recently agreed to compensate her with three months’ rent.
At one time, Carré housed a tobacco factory owned by the Philips brothers. According to the Maastricht online forum, the factory was set up at Tongerseweg 57 in 1921 and closed its doors again in 1967. A remarkable phenomenon is the square courtyard that now serves as a parking place for cars and bicycles. Renovations by LIFE have not spoilt the outer appearance; windows and facades have been left in their original state. The 143 independent accommodations are located on the first and second floors. Rooms are numbered and their doors open onto narrow pale blue, salmon pink, or green corridors. Just like the rooms themselves, these have been given a “rough and industrial appearance,” says Van der Ven.
The problems with damp that Herbiet is experiencing, are unique, unlike the sealant used in the showers. “There is a structural problem with the product used,” says Van der Ven. “That will need to be replaced everywhere.” Inadequate sealing causes problems for the neighbours below. Even in the Jan Linders supermarket – on the ground floor – water trickled down occasionally.
Another ‘construction fault’ is flaking paint. Nicole Bontekoe, a Dutch student at the Hogeschool Zuyd, regularly finds bits of paint in her shower and in her bed. Two months ago, the layer on the ceiling started to come away. She says that she reported it to Jules’ ‘campus manager’ several times. “That paint can't do any harm, she was told.” Van der Ven: “Action has been taken, all rooms will be repainted.”
Fault number three concerns the heating. Students complained to Jules about the cold. The radiators allegedly didn't produce enough heat for the space. Herbiet saw her thermometer reach 35 degrees in the summer and drop below 0 degrees in the winter. Van der Ven: “We measured it ourselves, because we are dealing with students from all corners of the world, some being used to more than others. But we did indeed conclude that the capacity is insufficient. We provided the inhabitants with electric radiators.” According to XIOR, it is mainly a problem for the eight corner studios, which are most likely going to be fitted with infrared panels.
Hoping to curb the cold airflow – and have less buzzing – the inhabitants have shut off the ventilation pipe. Bontekoe shoved towels into it. “All these manual adaptations have played havoc with the system,” says Van der Ven. “Because if one inhabitant shuts off his or her own pipe, the two neighbours will have more air and more noise. They will have to be reset in all the rooms.” Cremers: “And then we will put a sticker on them straight away: do not touch.”
Dissatisfaction. That is the problem, and especially with the first batch of about thirty tenants who moved in last summer and for whom the problems have accumulated. Some complaints have been solved; others have not or only partly. The students who were interviewed feel that they have not been listened to from the start and feel that the service offered by Jules is below par.
“My bicycle was stolen, because everyone can just enter the premises,” say American student Andrew Gold, who assumed that there would be a lockable shed. “My windows don't open, just like Estelle's, there are junkies lying in the stairwell, and doing a single wash in the washing machine costs 3.50 euro.”
He found the studio when he walked into Jules' office during Maastricht University's open day. “I had a good feeling about it. Carré seemed great.” He moved in on 15 July 2016. Carré was still a construction site, many of the rooms were uninhabitable. Builders just walked in and out, says Gold, “and always unannounced.” Bontekoe was actually taking a shower on one occasion when a builder walked into her studio.
On 6 August, eighteen inhabitants, including Bontekoe, Gold and Herbiet, wrote a letter to Jules and the rent tribunal, listing almost twenty complaints. To mention a few: the absence of curtains, slow and faltering Internet, damage to the raised bed, PUR foam on the wall, a poorly finished wall, chunks of cement falling from the ceiling, a collection of old metal wires that have not been removed or finished off, too high a price for the washing machine and dryer (5 euro each time to wash and 3.50 euro for the tumble dryer, “while the amount of 1 to 2 euro was mentioned several times,” say those who signed the letter). Gold: “The rent tribunal, however, does not deal with group complaints, only individual ones, but many students don't have the time or energy for that.” He eventually didn't follow it up either.
In a reaction to the letter, Jules talked to the tenants, after which a number of solutions were offered. The washing and drying machine rates have been lowered by 1.50 euro. Compensation for Internet was given in the form of Jan Linders coupons. Bontekoe: “Last January, I received a coupon for 25 euro.”
“A room in a new city is the first acquaintance you make, you have to feel at home, that experience has to feel right and good,” says Van der Ven. “It was a disappointment for everyone, for us too, students complained and rightly so. It is a brand-new building, but the trouble is that first inhabitants usually have more problems with things apparently not working or not working well. It was LIFE's choice to start renting immediately. Looking back, maybe they should have waited a little longer."
In the meantime, Jules has extended its opening hours on the premises for students to report issues or come by with their questions. According to Van der Ven, the noise disturbance from the ventilation pipes is a priority. There are also ideas for a lockable bicycle shed. She expects approximately 30 per cent of the tenants to give notice after one year, “because many master’s students will have completed their studies.” Gold wants to leave, but Herbiet and Bontekoe can't decide. Both feel that the location is ideal and are full of praise about the size of their rooms. “Try and find that elsewhere in Maastricht.” Herbiet: “Jules and the owner have come to the conclusion that it will be difficult to find a new tenant for a room in such condition, so they really want me to stay next year. The owner has offered me 150-euro reduction on the monthly rent as long as the damp problems have not been solved.”
Road to the city council
Peter de Hulster, the father of one of the inhabitants, law student Fleur de Hulster, approached Maastricht city council some months ago. Mimy Erens, who works for the department that checks all building permits, visited Carré on three occasions. Once unannounced and twice with notice.
Peter de Hulster's main points of criticism were: fire safety, noise disturbance, and accessibility of the building. “If a fire were to break out in the corridor, it could easily get in under the doors. Unscrupulous,” referring to the owner and the manager. There are fire detectors, but according to De Hulster's daughter, they go off so often that if there really was a problem, like recently, when a student had a small fire in her kitchen, nobody pays attention to the alarm. As far as the noise is concerned, Jan Linders' cooling unit is right under his daughter's window. She is sleeping poorly because of it. And that is saying nothing about the noise from the neighbour upstairs. “The sound reverberates right through.” Daughter De Hulster, just like the other inhabitants, has had enough of the junkies who come to sleep off their intoxication in the stairwell, “the cocaine bags lying beside them”. Peter de Hulster: “It is of course up to the students themselves in the first place not to open the main door to strangers, but door-springs could solve a lot of problems. They were not present or were badly adjusted.”
During Mimy Erens’ last visit, all entrances had been provided with self-closing doors, she says (although the students say that still one entrance hasn't). The level of the noise disturbance from Jan Linders' cooling installation will be measured again soon, at night-time. “Our first attempt, during the day, failed because there was too much background noise.” As far as fire safety is concerned, Erens states that the building meets with all “technical installation” requirements.
As far as the closed windows at the front of the building are concerned: “Exemption has been granted. Noise from traffic on the street was supposed to exceed the allowable noise level inside a room.”
Erens expects the building to meet all requirements fully. “The last boxes still have to be ticked, but that is mainly an administrative issue, some reports still have to be submitted, including the one about constructional fire safety measures.”