“Landlords” From Hell: How the Dutch Housing Crisis Leaves Students Vulnerable

By Ana Leskovic and Lukas Stock

Trigger warning: This article mentions sexual harassment and contains disturbing language

Hanna* does not feel comfortable going to IKEA anymore. The last time she went, she had a feeling the man she used to live with was following her. She does not want to go anywhere near the area where they used to live together. She is too afraid. At least he is not messaging her any longer.

It began in August 2021. Like many other international students – at least 600, according to the housing activist group SOS – she was still homeless at the beginning of the academic year.

The pressure of finding a room to sleep in was rising. She was 20 then and was just about to move into a foreign country.

An older man, who she estimated was around 50, contacted her through Facebook after seeing comments she wrote underneath multiple posts. Without drawing up a legal contract, he offered her a room. Having replied to around 100 other room offers with no result, she felt inclined to accept.

I didn’t feel like living with an older man. But this was my ONLY option

The broader crisis

The Netherlands is currently in the state of a severe housing crisis. According to the Borgen Project, there is a shortage of at least 300 000 houses across the country.

According to Numbeo, the price for a single-room apartment in a Dutch city center averages around 1081 euros. As most students do not have the budget to afford these apartments, there is intense competition for the few low-cost rooms available.

In September 2021, the country was at the peak of the housing crisis due to the influx of students who arrived at the start of the new semester. A Dutch rental agent who asked for anonymity said: “For every room I put up on my website, I do get at least 200 requests. I can, however, only pick one person to live there.”

This situation leads to a lot of suffering among the student population. The primary result of it is severe – student homelessness. But there is a range of secondary effects as well.

“Did you hurt yourself…?”

One of these effects is that the housing crisis enables certain wrongdoers to exploit the vulnerable situation these students are in. This includes scammers, landlords who intimidate their tenants, and sexual predators.

Hanna, who was contacted by the older man offering her a room, reluctantly moved in with him on the 29th of August 2021. The situation started getting worse soon after.

The man kept reaching out to her, wanting to talk and have dinner together. She, on the other hand, never tried initiating a conversation. He was asking questions about her personal life, such as if she has a boyfriend or what the marriage laws in her home country are.

He commented on her bodily features, namely the scar she has. “Did you hurt yourself,“ he asked, “because of your boyfriend?”

She moved out a month later, on September 24th, when she found permanent housing. Before leaving, however, the man tried to convince her to stay, even suggesting she does not have to pay for the room any longer. But Hanna’s struggle was not yet over.

The man kept on messaging her every second day for the next several weeks, asking if she would like to have dinner with him and how and what she was doing. He praised her looks, stating that the “few times she put on make-up, she looked awesome.” 

One of these messages arrived when she was in IKEA buying furniture for her new apartment, making the store a place of discomfort for her. She told him she does not feel obligated to keep the conversation going. The response to that left Hanna shocked.

The man admitted to having romantic feelings for her. Confused, Hanna replied that she does not feel the same way. She asked him not to say things like that multiple times. He, however, continued, asking if the reason she turned him down has anything to do with his nationality and age.

Hanna told her parents what was happening.

“I was in a situation where I honestly wanted to cry and beat him up. It’s hard to say that I want to beat people. But I was so angry at him. So, I called my dad and I was crying about the whole situation.”

She wrote him a long message stating she does not want him to contact her anymore. She then started ignoring their conversation, and he stopped messaging soon after. But the damage was done. Hanna is still struggling to make sense of what she experienced.

“I don’t really know how I feel. I just know that there are still a lot of things I haven’t cleared my head from,” she says, her voice shaking.

The hotline

Hanna is only one among many who have experienced uncomfortable situations due to the lack of adequate housing.

Groningen Student Union (GSB) set up a hotline in collaboration with the Groningen municipality, where students can make complaints about the wrongdoings of their landlords or situations such as Hanna’s.

The secretary of the Groningen Student Union (GSB), Ale ten Cate, said that, while they regularly receive complaints (about 305 since 2019), they mainly hear about landlords refusing to do house repairs. The number of complaints about inappropriate behavior is much lower.

But he acknowledged that there is a number of incidents that do not get reported and that there is a culture of impunity as he never heard of a landlord losing their license for misbehaving. 

Our research seems to confirm this, as none of our sources who experienced harassment called the hotline. One, however, did contact the authorities.

“Temporary place for girls only”

Maiya Dario is an exchange law student from the Philippines. She was 21 when she experienced online sexual harassment. Much like many others, she turned to Facebook to find a room before coming to Groningen. Instead, she found a person whose messages left her in disgust.

Maiya replied to a post published in late August 2021 by “Mary Bakker”, claiming to offer a temporary residence to girls until they find something permanent. Through Facebook Messenger, she sent general facts about herself and asked some questions about the room.

Screenshot 1 from Maiya Dario: The original facebook post of “Mary Bakker”

Having learned about how often students get scammed on the Dutch housing market, she openly asked if “Mary” was a scammer. The conversation took a twisted turn.

“Fuck you,” replied “Marry Bakker”. When Maiya accused the person of verbal harassment, “Mary Bakker’s” response was “no that was literally fuck you like i want to fuck you when you are in the room.”

Who is “Mary Bakker”? They claimed to be German and a friend of the landlord of the house in question. They had a Facebook profile and an Instagram account under the handle @beauty_arround_the_world. According to Maiya, the latter was filled with provocative pictures of Asian women. Neither profile exists anymore. Although the name indicates the person is female, messages such as “you are not gonna suck me and let me fuck you” might suggest otherwise. At least Maiya believes so.

“Mary Bakker” continued making sexual remarks, asking about threesomes, and offering Maiya to set her up on a date with her friend in exchange for free housing.

“I just felt so small. I couldn’t believe I could be talked to or treated like that. It’s degrading. It’s dehumanizing,” she says.

She responded by telling “Mary Bakker” that they could be held liable for fraud and sexual harassment and stopped the conversation. She found permanent accommodation not long after, but could not forget how uncomfortable the situation made her feel.

“A lot of people say it’s verbal. It’s just online. You weren’t actually, you know, raped. But if you let this go on, it’s going to escalate to that. Are you only going to act when rape happens or an abduction happens? It’s best to stop it now,” she says.

Maiya reported the harassment to the Dutch police in October 2021 but did not hear anything from them afterward. We talked to the Groningen police on February 7th, 2022, and found out that the case of “Mary Bakker” is closed. The police officer told us there were more victims involved. However, they gave no further specifics.

Maiya says she would still like to know what happened to “Mary Bakker”.

Additionally, she reported the harassment to her University of Groningen exchange coordinator. She was initially left disappointed with her reaction.

“She told me that I should not be so polite (in my responses) because the Dutch are blunt and that it’s a cultural difference. I was just quite frustrated that she didn’t take any further action.”

We contacted the coordinator in question and asked for her perspective. The coordinator said that she “cannot give any information regarding the personal circumstances of our students”.

Maiya contacted the coordinator again on the 11th of February to clarify the situation. The coordinator explained to her that the University of Groningen does not have a clearly defined system of dealing with sexual harassment. She, however, noted several of Maiya’s ideas on how to improve the situation and explained the University’s staff is going to undertake a training program on the topic soon.

The coordinator’s clarification gave hope to Maiya. “We should try to do whatever we can to change the situation. There should be a reporting system that could collect data and end the shame around sexual harassment,” she says.

Even though the situation left her disgusted, Maiya was in a position where she did not have any contractual obligations towards “Mary Bakker” and never had to see them in person. She had the option of blocking them and never hearing from them again.

This was very different for Susanne*.

She, too

Susanne became a victim of the housing crisis – not just once, but thrice. After being scammed for a significant sum of more than 1000 euros (that she luckily received back after getting in touch with the bank), she finally found a room in Groningen.

Together with her mother, she went to visit the rental agent who managed the room. The agent insulted her after she pointed out a mistake in the documents. “You are a stupid girl if you think this matters. Stupid, stupid girl”.

All of this happened while her mother was sitting right next to her.

“I was so shocked, I didn’t really say anything back. I just felt really bad about it. Not just the whole day, but for days after.”

She would only find out later that this particular rental agent has a notoriously bad reputation, and has extensively been reported on by local media about his harassment of tenants.

Things would, however, get even worse. On the 2nd of November, the rental agent was visiting her friend and roommate to presumably “take pictures” of the room for a future lease. With him, he brought an unknown man – without any prior announcement – who, he claimed, was interested in the room.

Susanne could hear them talking from the hallway and she heard the rental agent making an inappropriate comment: “Oh, well, at least the girl who lives here is pretty.”

She was shocked. “Even though my friend was standing right in front of him, he was speaking about her like she was an object.”

She then joined them, so her friend would not have to be alone with these two men.

Once Susanne entered her friend’s room, she noticed that the rental agent “all of a sudden” started paying attention to her. “He was staring directly at my boobs, not breaking his gaze but staring directly at them.”

He then asked her where she was from. Susanne replied with her country of origin. But “he was in a trance almost, so mesmerized, looking at my chest, he couldn’t even talk straight.”

Still staring at her, he asked again “tripping over his voice” what country she is from.

Even the man presumably there to check out the room noticed how distracted the rental agent was and pointed out to him that she had already replied to his question.

“I immediately crossed my arms in front of my chest as it was so obvious what was going on,” Susanne says. “I was so uncomfortable, I was really upset, the worst thing was that I had an exam that day and all I could think of was that man, at least three times my age, just staring at my boobs, unable to speak, so mesmerized. It was so uncomfortable, it still makes me feel weird talking about it”

Thinking about the situation made her uncomfortable for weeks, especially since it happened in her own home.

Susanne has moved out of that room by now, and agreed to speak to us only after she received her deposit back. She was initially concerned that the rental agent in question might withhold the deposit if she spoke out against him. Moreover, she recalled how her roommate did not receive her deposit back until she left a 5-star review for his services on Google.

An interesting factor is that all of the sources we found were women. There is, however, little data on this topic. Ale ten Cate from GSB does not have any official statistics on this, but he is not surprised: “It’s logical that it’s just females,” he says.

The cases described above are only three out of potentially more. There is no official data on how many Dutch students are harassed by their landlords, or by other actors that exploit their vulnerability in any way. Based on our research, it can be assumed that this number is likely higher than the 305 cases reported to the municipality.

*While these sources gave us their real names, they prefered to remain anonymous. This is why we changed their names.

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