“Am I the only one who's sick of seeing ‘girls only’ apartments on the Maastricht housing groups? Can't they fuck off to their own ‘girls only’ housing group on fb? Tired of having to sort through it.” The student who is complaining on the largest Facebook housing groups in Maastricht - Rooms/Kamer/Zimmer in Maastricht, with more than 40 thousand members – has had it. And he is not the only one, as appears from messages posted regularly. Often, it is the seekers who are complaining, male students from abroad who are tired of the many Dutch only advertisements. But sometimes those who have a room for rent also poke fun. “Room for rent. No, not for German girls (you already have enough choice).”
One of the administrators of the popular Facebook group, Robin Vander Heyden, posted a survey last August, because he was wondering if he should now remove the Dutch only advertisements from the page. After all, everyone has the same rights, he feels. Almost nine hundred members were in favour of removal; 530 were against. It hasn’t led to any action yet.
In between the comments, placed at the bottom of the survey, different views were heard. There is a lot of understanding for the letting agent or landlord who only wants to let to Dutch students, because “foreign students leave quickly again. It is also handy if the letter and tenant speak the same language.” Someone else, on the other hand, argues in favour of legal action to be taken against letters who only rent to German or Dutch girls. Another says it is pure discrimination.
“Discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnicity or gender is prohibited by law,” says Randy van Duuren from the Anti-Discrimination Service Limburg (ADV Limburg), a complaints and knowledge centre for cases of discrimination, diversity and equality. “But this discrimination takes place so openly on Facebook that I wonder if people are even aware.” Everyone who offers a room in public, even on Facebook, behaves like a professional letter. This comes under goods and services where you are not allowed to discriminate.” It’s a different story if you, as a letter, ask around for a suitable tenant during a family meeting, or if a student asks around within his fraternity, Van Duuren explains.
Observant approached a number of students via the Facebook group who had posted such a Dutch girls only advertisement. Why do they send such an advertisement out into the world? Are they the oldest in the house and therefore responsible for how things are run? Did the landlord give them that task? Also, why do they want a Dutch girl? Is it a condition imposed by the letter? A sorority house? Nobody responded, except for the odd one, such as a Dutch student from Zuyd Hogeschool (who otherwise wants to remain anonymous). She says that it is a condition laid down by her landlord. And she understands that. “I feel that you should be allowed to set certain conditions. Not everyone is comfortable speaking another language at home. Some students just can’t.” She herself prefers a ‘Dutch’ house. “It is easier. My English is not so good, so there would be completely different conversations.”
Throw of the dice
Language is one of the reasons why landlords opt for Dutch tenants, says also Huib van Gastel from the Vereniging Verhuurders Woonruimtes Maastricht (Association of Maastricht Accommodation Letters, or VVWM). “The average private landlord is over sixty and doesn’t speak a lot of languages. Moreover, the old-fashioned sign on the notice board at the supermarket, where advertisements for rooms were once snapped up eagerly, has been replaced by Facebook groups. These ‘older’ landlords aren’t really adept with social media. One solution at hand is: the student who is leaving or one of the other tenants places an advertisement. What you see is that every student seeks their own sort”, Van Gastel suggests. “Serious seeks serious, pleasure lover seeks pleasure lover, German seeks German, Dutch seeks Dutch.”
Van Gastel, the representative of the letters of almost two thousand rooms in Maastricht, notices that some landlords have a “slight preference” for girls. “They clean better and more often. Guys are by nature more relaxed.” The best ratio? “Six girls and four boys. Imagine you have only girls in the house and there is a power cut. You can already see them running around grabbing their phones: ‘Help, what now?’ Guys immediately start flicking switches in the meter cupboard and solve things by themselves.”
You also hang on to bad experiences from the past, says Van Gastel. “If someone makes a pigsty of your home, you will be more careful next time. Nobody wants to have to continually hire a painter or contractor, because something has been broken yet again.” There are also essential cultural differences “that you can’t close your eyes to. Think of cooking habits (pungent odours) and cleaning mentality, but also payment of the rent. In general, Germans are reliable tenants, who pay right on time, as do the Belgians. The average Italian or Spaniard is a little laxer in that regard.”
Van Duuren from ADV Limburg realises that letters don’t want any fuss. “But they often have – negative and positive – prejudices about certain groups of tenants. If they have good experiences with their present tenants, they will often opt for someone with the same profile.”
‘It is my house, I determine who is allowed to rent it’, Van Duuren has heard letters say. “Then I say: ‘My car is also mine, but that doesn’t mean that I can drive it at 140 kilometres an hour in town.’”
A foreign student who was approached by Observant via Facebook (and who wants to remain anonymous) and also experienced discrimination in her search for a room, reckons that “unconscious prejudices” play a major role. She doesn’t have a solution. “I don’t think that anything can be changed about the situation.” The thing that really sticks in the student’s throat is Maastricht University’s branding. “The UM sells itself as an international university, but at the same time, international students have trouble finding a room.”
“Taking on more and more foreign students comes with a moral obligation,” wrote higher education medium ScienceGuide last March in reaction to research carried out by a master’s student in Utrecht. He interviewed eighteen foreign students about their experiences on the housing market in Utrecht. Most said that they felt neglected by their university. And evenings organised to interview for a room? They turned out to be no more than an instrument of barefaced racism, ScienceGuide quoted.
The Romanian Oana Amuza-Conabie had the same experience during her search for a room in Maastricht. Observant already spoke to her about the subject last years. Tipped by a Dutch friend, she ended up at just such an evening where you could interview for a room. “I got there and found myself to be the only non-Dutch person in some sort of popularity contest. There was a round, in which everyone introduced themselves in English, then they switched to Dutch. I speak German so I am able to understand some Dutch. I heard one of the flatmates saying that he's not going to speak English ‘cause they are looking for a Dutch person anyway. Then the spokesperson asked whether I'd be willing to learn Dutch, what I'd be willing to do to fit in. I left because the vibe was way too creepy. I know it was a very isolated incident but given the shortage here in Maastricht, people should be more open-minded.”
Human rights council
Anyone who wants to make a point and who feels discriminated against, can file a complaint. But to do so, you first need to know where.
“You can approach us, the Renting Team, (Huurteam Zuid-Limburg) [previously Housing Helpdesk, allied to Maastricht University, ed.] or go straight to ADV Limburg,” says Rick Blezer. The next step could be the College voor de Rechten van de Mens (Human Rights Council). But according to Blezer, nobody goes that far. “Students most likely want as little fuss as possible. If you don’t get the room, you just keeps looking.” Those who do take things further, mainly do so as a matter of principle. “You want to make a stand against the landlord. You go for the ‘greater good’.”
Van Duuren from ADV Limburg, about the procedure: “Every report that comes to us, we check to see if it is a violation of equality legislation. If that is the case, it depends on the person filing the report if they want to take the next step. Mediation with the opposing party could be an option. And subsequently, as an “ultimate last step” the College voor de Rechten van de Mens. “We only go there if we are convinced that the opposing party is discriminating and mediation has failed. The Council will assess whether they can take the case. If they can, it can take up to half a year to nine months before the case is heard. Judgement is passed about eight weeks later.”
Van Duuren and Blezer are hoping for more awareness among potential tenants and letters. Tackle them about the matter, they said. At the same time, he feels that Maastricht University and the city council should play a greater role. “Last year, we organised an evening at the UM for letters. This subject was also discussed. Moreover, I feel that the city council should not only discuss safety regulations but also discrimination.”
Maastricht Housing, the official mediator for Maastricht University, is by now aware of this persistent phenomenon. “We are working on delivering a new letters’ portal. It will no longer be possible for letters to submit preferences such as gender,” says Camille Nafzger. You cannot completely prevent it; the letter can adapt the text in the advertisement. But the team does regularly look at the content of the advertisements. “If we find something that is undesirable or just not allowed, we will remove it and communicate this to the landlord.”
Wendy Degens, with co-operation from Lieve Smeets