“We have been living on a building site for almost a year now”

“We have been living on a building site for almost a year now”

In one fell swoop, 600 new student homes in Randwyck: how did that go?

14-06-2023 · Background

In only a few months’ time, they appeared on the Sorbonnelaan in Randwyck last autumn: six buildings, each with a hundred prefab student studios – the so-called ‘container homes’. It prevented a rooms shortage in Maastricht, the owner says. Students still complain, however, and “just had it” with living in a place that is not ‘ready’.

The building site

“The noise of the machines often starts at seven o’clock in the morning, sometimes they are right beside your window,” a Polish student sighed back in November. Two months before she moved into a ‘container home’, right after it had been completed; sleeping with earplugs was still a necessity. “But fortunately it will all be over soon,” she said hopefully at the time. The last of the six buildings would after all be completed in two weeks, ready to be rented out.

Eight months later, at the beginning of June, it is still a construction site with machines working around the buildings. With every gust of wind, dust and sand blows everywhere, “if you forget to close your window, your whole room will be covered in dust,” a German student complains. The paving on the site only started a couple of days ago; before that, it was bare soil. Okay, they put down gravel during the winter, so that the students didn’t reach their front doors with mud-covered shoes. “But if you are a disabled student, you have a problem,” says a student from Kazakhstan.

A ‘building site’ is how practically all the students who spoke to Observant – about a dozen spread out over the academic year (names are known to the editors) – described the place where they live. The noise has not become any less since November. “I know a lot of people who ‘flee’ during the day, for example to the library, because the noise is driving them mad,” one student says. “It is very difficult to concentrate here.”

“We also would have liked things to have been different,” Joep Gubbels, contact person on behalf of Studenten Huisvesting Maastricht (SHM; owner of the buildings), said when asked. “Because of the situation in construction work, where the supply of materials has been delayed, it just wasn’t possible. Fortunately, we are now getting a lot of work done. We plan to have the site largely completed in August, so before the start of the new academic year.”

The teething problems

Four washing machines for more than 800 homes – the 600 homes plus the already existing 250 studios. That was the situation for weeks last autumn. “Huge chaos,” is how a German student describes it. “Through sheer desperation, I did my washing at my grandparents’ home in Düsseldorf.” The reason? Again, delays due to suppliers, says property manager Janou Sangers from Plaza Resident Services, which manages the buildings on behalf of SHM. “In the end, it was already December before we were able to set up a laundry area in each building.

So, they were suffering from multiple ‘teething problems’. Especially in the first few months, tenants regularly had to do without electricity or running water, a situation that could last from hours to sometimes even half a day. “This was announced beforehand, but often the exact time changed at the last minute,” multiple students said. “Then you suddenly have a discharged laptop.” Sangers agrees that things were often cancelled or changed. “But it filled us with apprehension to communicate that, because we knew how awkward it was. Often it was circumstances beyond our control: work couldn’t go ahead due to, for example, the weather or having to wait longer on a delivery.”

But the “mother of all problems,” says a German student, was the air-conditioning that supplies the studios with both warm and cold air. “It made a loud, ticking noise, even when it was switched off. I wore ear plugs in bed at night, otherwise it was unbearable. At one point, I bought an electric heater; if you switched the air-conditioning off it was less loud.” Despite frequent contact with the manager, no solution came for months, another tenant adds. “Enough to drive you crazy. At one point, we no longer heard anything from Plaza anymore. Until one day, after six months, the noise had suddenly disappeared.”

It was a complicated problem, Sangers explains. “The factory even sent experts from abroad. They had to manually change the settings in every studio. Obviously not without the consent of the tenants; it took a while before we got that from everyone. We didn’t communicate this because we had e-mailed so often before about repairs. You have to find a balance, otherwise tenants won’t read them anymore.”

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The terrain surrounding the building at the beginning of June, almost ten months after the first students moved in

The atmosphere

“We want to create a community here,” says Sergio Aspers, on behalf of Plaza, who was first a caretaker and now a property manager, as he walks across the grounds. He greets students passing by enthusiastically and starts up conversations with them. “Many students live far from their families. They should feel at home here.” He points to the places where they will soon be able to have a picnic and also where a square will be realised. “Maybe we will be able to hold a ‘Sorbonne Festival’ sometime soon.” They are also working on turning the laundry spaces into communal spaces. “We want to have televisions, magazines and a dartboard in each of them.”

That is great, but should have been done sooner, the students reckon. For a whole year, they have been complaining about the lack places where they could meet. “I am surrounded by 800 students, but I hardly know anyone here,” many said. “Several fellow students live in one of the other buildings, and still I never bump into them here. Only at the university.” Yes, one block of studios on the premises has a common room, but they rarely go there. “I don’t feel very welcome, you always see the same faces there,” says a German student. Otherwise, mainly bare corridors. And sitting outside together has not been possible yet. “It is even dangerous, in between all those machines,” another one says.

Moreover, in the beginning, when a lot of people just moved in, the atmosphere was unpleasant. Employees from Plaza regularly walked around to keep an eye on things, for example, to point out if bicycles or bin bags were in the wrong place. “One of them was known to act in an aggressive and threatening way,” a tenant says. “This caused quite a few conflicts. I did not feel welcome at all, as if the managers are against students and think that all we are good for is demolishing the place. Fortunately, things have been better lately.”

Aspers confirms that. “For the past nine months, the relationship with the students has been very good. The person who was involved in some incidents in the beginning, no longer works here.” But, he says, it is important that personnel set limits. “This concerns things like fire safety and noise hindrance. Some young tenants who find themselves living by themselves for the first time, can’t deal with the freedom very well.” He does understand the dissatisfaction among students in that initial period. “But now that everything is starting to take shape, you see that they are becoming more enthusiastic.”

The costs

“They try to make as much as possible from you,” an Italian student complains. He is referring to the high cost: 8 euro to wash and dry a load of washing, 75 euro for cleaning costs if your room is not clean enough when you leave (“the checks are strict, and yet I was given a dirty room when I moved in”). But it is actually the rent that is a thorn in the side of students, sometimes even a reason to move. Including service costs, furnishings (in most buildings) and an advance for gas, water and electricity, the rent comes to almost 600 to 700 euro per month, depending on the floor. “The basic rent is determined using the government points system,” says Gubbels, the contact person for owner SHM. “The students have a lot of their own facilities, including their own bathroom, kitchen and air-conditioning. Also, it is under the limit for rent subsidy. So we are definitely taking affordability into account.”

“But then you live in a place that is not ‘finished’,” a student remarks. “If you put a complex like this together so quickly, I understand that things can go wrong. But we do pay a considerable amount. If the rent had been lowered, I would have had less of a problem with it.” Has the owner ever considered compensating students for the problems? No, says Gubbels. “The studios themselves were simply finished. Also, we always offer an inspection beforehand: the students knew where they were going to live. Moreover, we tried to limit the nuisance caused as much as possible.” And don’t forget, Gubbels adds, “construction work was carried out fast for a reason: to prevent a shortage of rooms in Maastricht.”

The occupancy

“The situation has improved somewhat, but so much has happened that I have completely had it,” a German master’s student sighed. She is even willing to pay the ‘fine’ of 250 euro: the cost of getting out of the minimum lease period of one year (a type of contract that is no longer being offered since last September, a spokesperson for Plaza states: from that time onwards, only temporary contracts with an opportunity to terminate per month have been issued). “I would rather pay than stay longer. You can earn that fine back with a lower rent elsewhere.”

Another three students who spoke to Observant in spring of this year, have by now moved or are planning to do so. Is it correct that there are a lot of unoccupied homes? “The buildings have not been completely full yet,” says Gubbels. “Partly because some buildings were completed in October and November when there are fewer new students.” At the beginning of February, the next influx moment, eighty homes were unoccupied. “That number has since then risen to about a hundred. But that compares to what we see at our other locations in and outside Maastricht. Students simply change homes rather easily. Moreover, practically all studios have been reserved for the next academic year.”

The beginning

“A tremendous operation”, is what Maurice Evers (head of Maastricht Housing) called throwing up the 600 prefab homes in Randwyck last autumn. It wasn’t until the end of 2021 – having just left the terrible rooms shortage crisis of that year behind – that the idea was cautiously presented. The predicted influx of students (which ultimately would turn out to be lower than feared) pointed towards a possible shortage of a thousand rooms. Six hundred extra homes on wasteland owned by UM on the Sorbonnelaan, next to a place where developer SHM had already built more than 250 ‘container homes’ in 2020, could be a solution.

Plans were made in great haste. The first permits were applied for in February of last year, construction work began only in June. Despite delays and personnel shortages in the construction industry, the first buildings – each with one hundred studios – were completed and ready before the start of the new academic year, on 1 September. Until halfway through November, a new block followed every couple of weeks.

Photos: Joey Roberts

Tags: container homes,student housing,room shortage,randwyck,prefab,student rooms,students,instagram

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