I moved from Rotterdam to Amsterdam in July 2015. I went from a twenty-one-square meter room to a room the size of a tiny walk-in closet. I was about to start my study in Social Sciences and there was not even enough space in my new room for a desk. Despite this drastic downgrade in size, my new room was 160 euros per month more expensive. The location is similar in both cities, not in the city center but quite close to it. Recently, I moved to another room in the same apartment, which is five square meters bigger than my previous room. This ‘upgrade’ in size costs me an extra 75 euros a month. This amounts to a 235-euro difference from my room in Rotterdam which was still seven square meters bigger than my current room in Amsterdam.
One could argue it was my own choice to pay this ridiculous amount of money in order to live in Amsterdam. This is true, but what strikes me most is not the cost in terms of money but in terms of effort and energy to get a room like this in Amsterdam. I was one of the very lucky few that got a room quite easily. I sent out several messages and got invited to a couple of viewings (what viewings in Amsterdam exactly entail will be discussed below). The first viewing I went to I was chosen straight away to become the new room tenant. But this sounds like a dream to many students in search of a room in Amsterdam. I am aware of the fact that I was extremely lucky and an exception to the rule.
This is not how it usually goes when searching for a room in Amsterdam. I see friends and others around me struggling to find a room or even get invited to viewings. For example, one of my German friends did not have a room before his study started, so he stayed over at my place for a couple of weeks. The same applies to my boyfriend who stayed over for a month until he found a room for himself. My new roommate from Belgium stayed in hostels for a month until she got the room in our apartment. Furthermore, many of my friends are still living with their parents, even though they no longer want to. It is simply because they have not yet succeeded in finding a room. They are all at the age of gradually becoming an adult, and living on their own is key in the process of transition to adulthood. It concerns me to see that so many young people are held back in doing so, therefore I decided to focus my research project on the difficulties of student housing in Amsterdam. The topic is particularly interesting to me because I have been on both sides, I have been one in search of a room and I have been one renting out a room.
Renting a room in Amsterdam
Renting a room in Amsterdam is usually a long and intensive process in terms of effort. For example, I have been at a point that I found my room too small and did not like my former roommates, but I chose to stay instead of looking for a new room because I knew that pursuing the dream of a new room would give me an extra daily ‘task’, which was a bit too much next to my study, job, friends, sports, and so on. The same applies to one of my friends who lives at Uilenstede, which is a student housing campus in Amstelveen, right outside Amsterdam. She does not like to live outside of Amsterdam at all, but she did not find the time to try and get a room in Amsterdam, because she is really busy with her Medicine study. Besides the effort it will take to get a room, a major hurdle is the high cost of a room in Amsterdam. Rents of 600 euros for a tiny eight square meter room in the center of Amsterdam are common. I would say the average price of a room in Amsterdam lies between 500 and 650 euros.
After considering all this, the Facebook advert hunt begins. There are other ways than Facebook to find a room, but since all my respondents, apart from one, got their room via Facebook, I will focus on that. When responding to a room advert on Facebook, it is not unusual to be one of 250 candidates. To be one of those 250, typically, you must meet several requirements, such as a specific gender, age, nationality, or lifestyle. It is a very common requirement that you are either a woman, speak Dutch, or that you are at the end of your studies. This makes renting a room all the more difficult for men, international students, anybody just starting their studies and students in general. When you do meet all the requirements you must still compete with around ten others who also fit the criteria. Thus, as one of my respondents said, there is only a one out of ten chance of being the “perfect fit for the future housemates” after going through all the previous stuff.
I will cite a real advert to give an impression of what they ask for. With ‘they’, I mean other students who are searching for a new roommate. In some cases, they are working people instead of students, who do not mind having students in their house or apartment. The students and working people are all renting as well, so none of them really owns the house or apartment. In very rare cases it is an individual or a couple who do own a house or apartment and have a spare room that they would like to rent out. The last option is that parents of a (new) student buy a house in Amsterdam for their daughter or son and that they can rent out rooms in that house. When this happens the rooms usually go to the daughter’s or son’s friends, so adverts like these are rare on Facebook. But December 11th one of these adverts popped up on the Facebook page ‘Zoekt kamer in Amsterdam community’ (‘Searching for a room in Amsterdam community’, 2016). Two girls, who just started their studies in September, are looking for another girl. It was quite a long advert, demanding that their new roommate should be a girl and should be around the same age as them. In addition, the advert stated: “We are searching for someone who does not mind having a drink or ten, likes to go out seven times a week, is a really good cook, can sing every top40-hit and someone who likes to clean up after us”. Of course, they are being a bit sarcastic, but this shows how serious and detailed requirements for a new roommate can be.
When meeting the requirements asked for, the candidate must send them a message to let them know that she is interested and would like to come to the viewing. She should tell a bit about herself in the message, such as what she studies, what her hobbies are, and why she would be a good roommate for them. She must make sure that she is convincing and funny, because they will probably get around 250 messages. So stand out! Once the ones renting out a room have made a first selection, they will send around ten invitations to a viewing. A viewing is an evening where the candidate can go and check out the room and meet the potential new roommates. During this viewing, it is very common to be seated in a circle with all the others; there will be drinks and the ‘landlords’ will ask questions. This usually lasts about one or two hours. Thereafter, the ‘landlords’ will choose who they liked the most and they will send this person an email or phone call to ask them as their new roommate. Overall, then, the search for a room in Amsterdam takes much effort, money, and persistence, and once selected for a viewing it is very important for the candidates to stand out, speak up and make sure they are being noticed and liked. This stressful reality is what many students in Amsterdam go through.
The aim of my research is to find out how the process of renting a room for students works, what problems they come across and what they do when they do not succeed straight away. How do students, wanting to rent a room in Amsterdam, cope with the scarce supply of student rooms? With ‘student rooms’ I mean the rooms available for students in shared apartments in Amsterdam. Considering the many requirements that a student must meet in order to be selected for a room, I will also examine how discrimination plays a role in the process of student housing, and whether it is more difficult for international students than for Dutch students to get a room for that reason. Finally, I will examine what alternatives there are for students who do not succeed in finding a room straight away. Since there must be many students who are practically ‘homeless’, in the sense of not having a room for themselves, I am curious to see what they do about their situation.
First, I will explain three concepts that are relevant for my research: transition to adulthood, shelter, and discrimination. Transition to adulthood is the phase one goes through from being a youngster to becoming an adult. The period and length of this phase depends on various factors, including cultural and national context, while it can also vary among friends. Parents and upbringing play an important role in this process, too, as parents transmit personal values on what they find appropriate for their children at what certain age. Overall, being able to make one’s own decisions and living on one’s own are important matters in the transition. But are students at the age of 21, who are legally adult, really adults now? This is being doubted since the age of marriage and other traditional markers of adulthood, as well as length of education, got pushed back. Arnett calls this ‘emerging adulthood’:
This period is not simply an “extended adolescence,” because it is much different from adolescence, much freer from parental control, much more a period of independent exploration. Nor is it really “young adulthood,” since this term implies that an early stage of adulthood has been reached, […] and many of them feel they have not yet reached adulthood. (Arnett, 2004)
According to Arnett, there is ‘a longer road to adulthood’ for youth nowadays, which resembles the notion of ‘waithood’ coined by Muldering (2013). Although Arnett and Muldering use these terms to describe other youth issues, both can be used to describe an aspect of student housing in Amsterdam as well. Living on your own is a major part of becoming an adult or at least starting the phase of transition to adulthood. The scarce supply of student rooms in Amsterdam hampers students in this process, which means this period can be seen as ‘waithood’ and therefore ‘a longer road to adulthood’.
Second, I wish to highlight the concept of shelter. Having shelter may seem very normal to us Dutch youth in our twenties. But the world is bigger than our own and there are many exceptions to this rule. While it is part of our general knowledge that there are certain poor countries, cities or even specific neighbourhoods where having shelter is not a given, we are less aware that this lack of shelter can happen to middle-class youth as well. For example, in Japan, where ‘the socioeconomic equilibrium […] has been shaken’ due to several factors (Allison, 2012), material or social security for many of its citizens is no longer guaranteed, which leads to homelessness among significant numbers of people, including youth. Allison points to the phenomenon of ‘net cafe refugees’, or homeless people who do not have shelter and thus live in 24-hour internet cafes, and the prevalence of (young) adults who continue to live at the parental home. These are all middle-class people that had to change their dreams because of the negative change in the socioeconomic equilibrium (Allison, 2012). The situation in Japan is worse than in the Netherlands, but in theoretical terms this homelessness can be linked to the situation of student housing in Amsterdam. Due to the shortage of student rooms and the discrimination that comes along with the process, there are many Dutch youth who simply do not have shelter and therefore must solve this otherwise. They will stay at their parents’ house longer than they would have wanted, or stay at friends’ houses or hostels. This can hardly be compared to really poor people because these Dutch youth will never have to sleep on the streets. Still, it is striking that so many (mostly white) middle-class youth cannot find shelter in Amsterdam.
Finally, I wish to highlight that discrimination is a major problem in the student housing process. It strikes me that many Facebook adverts demand that the new roommate is an older or nearly finished student rather than a new student. While these are all students in Amsterdam, and thus part of the same ‘scene’ in a way, there seems to be a conflict within this scene nonetheless. During my research, I got the feeling that older students tend to stereotype younger students as “party animals or trouble makers,” as one of my respondents put it. This conflict within the same scene resembles Barone’s (2016) description of a conflict between old guard Tunisian metal fans and new or younger Tunisian metal fans. The old guard does not accept the new group, even though the old and the new are part of the same scene (Barone, 2016). This is interesting to me as I used to see discrimination as something that only occurs between different groups, scenes, or classes, and not so much something that also occurs within one and the same category of people – in this case, students in Amsterdam. As I found out, within this category, discrimination in terms of gender, language, personality and appearance is quite prevalent, and it affects the student housing process.
To investigate how students experience these processes in their quest for a room in Amsterdam, I interviewed three Dutch students (two female and one male) and three international students (again, two female and one male), from Belgium, Austria and Germany. All the interviewees are between the age of 21 and 24, and currently have a room in Amsterdam. Besides these six interviewees, I discussed the topic with two other students who were struggling to find a room at the time of my research; I found their experiences to be very similar to those my interviewees went through.
“Appearance and personality” was the most common answer my respondents gave to the question ‘what does it take to get chosen as the new tenant of a room?’ I noticed that this question really made them enthusiastic; they sat up, laughed and started a speech on how ‘nice’ or ‘cool’ you need to be to get a room. All of them mentioned to have paid extra attention to their appearance, like clothing, hairdo or makeup, on the night of a viewing. Interviewee 3 told me: “you have to be social and you are probably getting judged on your appearance, so it totally depends on what they like and you have to apply to their taste […] you only have one moment to shine”. This suggests people who are renting out a room are extremely picky in terms of personality and appearance, but who can blame them? They usually have the option of choosing between 250 persons, so how are they supposed to be ‘not picky’?
Being picky about appearance or personality looks a lot like discrimination, but now I’ve done my research I have a hard time really calling it that. In a sense, it is discrimination, because they are literally treating one person differently from another. But there are simply too many students wanting to rent a room, so how is it even possible for the ‘landlords’ to be objective. In terms of personality or behaviour I would like to cite interviewee 4, who made me laugh hard with her answer to the question above:
You need to be nice, actually you need to be so nice that it seems fake to you, but it shouldn’t look fake to them. So, you should pay attention on coming across sincere, although you are secretly exaggerating how nice you are. You cannot be boring either […] What is really important is that you adapt to what they like, but you shouldn’t nod at everything they say either because it is important that you show them that you are independent as well. It really depends on the people and it can be different at every viewing. Some people want a super spontaneous new roommate and others prefer a calm roommate, you never know. Every viewing is a new adventure where you must adapt to the situation and the people.
All the contradictions on how to behave made me think of Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of everyday performance. Goffman states that every individual is an actor, who prepares his role at a backstage (e.g. the bedroom or other private place) and performs it at the front stage (the viewing). He points out that life is all about impressing others (Ritzer, 2011). Amusing situations aside, it also proves the seriousness of the problem of student housing in Amsterdam. It is almost impossible for any individual to meet all the requirements asked for, let alone people who are introvert or shy.
In order to get invited to this kind of test, one should write a fantastic email or Facebook message in response to the advert. Interviewee 6 told me he had spent over two hours putting up a standard message, even though he had to adapt it a little every time he sends it to a new advert:
I wrote a message on how nice, how good of a cook I am and how I love to clean the house […] apart from that you really have to stand out, so for example, you send a picture with the message if you are really good looking, or you make funny jokes in the message.
Besides writing a great message, one should also pay attention to the impression made on one’s Facebook profile. My interviewees were one hundred percent certain that future ‘landlords’ will check out the candidates’ Facebook before inviting them to a viewing. Interviewee 1 mentioned:
Well, my brother for example, he is a really great, spontaneous and good looking boy, but his Facebook profile does not show that at all […] so he probably comes along very boring and I guess people would never invite him to a viewing because of that.
Evidently, then, searching a room through Facebook is not for everybody. Because of this and the effort it takes to get a room, all my interviewees agreed on the fact that it is easiest to get a room in Amsterdam via others. But this is only feasible for students who already have an extensive social network in Amsterdam.
This makes it all the harder for international students. I interviewed three international students and found that the process of renting a room in Amsterdam takes them much longer even than it does for Dutch students. All three international students had to find temporary shelter when their studies started, before finding a proper room. Interviewee 1 stayed at a friends’ house for three weeks before he got a room for himself, interviewee 2 rented two different Airbnb’s for a month before getting a room herself, and interviewee 5 stayed in a hostel for about five weeks. Furthermore, interviewees 1 and 2 experienced discrimination, as they came across many adverts that required them to speak Dutch, and they did not speak Dutch very well at the point of searching a room. Interestingly, interviewee 5, who is from Belgium, experienced discrimination in a different manner. Since she speaks Flemish, which of course Dutch people can understand, she did not have trouble with the language requirement. Rather, she experienced discrimination in the fact that many adverts demand that the candidates have a life of their own in Amsterdam, so that they would not be dependent on the roommates. Since she did not know a single person in Amsterdam just yet, so she knew she would be home a lot of the time, she did not dare to respond to adverts that demanded the ‘life of your own’.
These international students thus experienced a stage of ‘waithood’, having to wait to dive into the process of transition to adulthood (Muldering, 2013). Nothing is more adultlike than to go and live on one’s own, but these students had to wait for that. Contradictory to this, I feel this whole process of renting a room helps them develop in becoming an adult. Renting a room and everything that comes with it is something they never had to worry about before, because shelter is something their parents provided for them. Interviewee 5 had lived on her own before in Belgium, but one of her friends’ parents bought that house for her and three friends. So, finding a room there was not a problem at all. She said:
Renting a room in Amsterdam, and especially having to stay in hostels before that, really made me realise what comes to living on your own […] this was so hard compared to [my experience in] Belgium.
The process of renting a room in Amsterdam can be intense. My research findings further suggest that a form of discrimination does play a role in the process of student housing. By this I mean discrimination on the basis of gender, age, personality, appearance, lifestyle or language. Most of this discrimination occurs at the very beginning of the process, namely through the requirements found in the Facebook adverts. In most cases these adverts ask for girls, who are nearly finished with their study, speak Dutch, and have a ‘life of their own’ in Amsterdam. Personality and appearance are being ‘tested’ by the landlords through the messages to these adverts and the viewings. It is best to act very social and outgoing at viewings. Yet it is extremely difficult for students to stand out like that and get chosen for a room. There are simply too many students searching for a room in Amsterdam, which allows landlords to be picky and discriminating. I interviewed only white middle class students, and thus I am not able to say anything about discrimination on race. Therefore, my recommendation for future researchers would be to do interviews with people from different backgrounds. At this moment students have to come up with alternatives, like staying at hostels, friends’ houses or Airbnb’s. Of course, this is undesirable situation and much too expensive for students, who after all do not have a lot of money.
Concluding, there is indeed discrimination in the process of renting a room and there is not much students can do about it. Throughout this research, I got the strong feeling that all of this would be different if there were more student rooms, because we simply cannot expect landlords to be objective when choosing a new roommate out of 250. I feel like the Amsterdam government could and should try to realize this. After all it is extremely important that every youngster on this planet has shelter and gets the opportunity of developing themselves into an adult. For now, Amsterdam students respond to each and every advert on Facebook, take time in writing a nice message and do everything they can to leave a good impression at viewings. As interviewee 4 put it: Be strong, do not give up and most of all, be ‘so nice that it seems fake to you’!
Allison, A. (2012). Ordinary refugees: Social precarity and soul in 21st century Japan. Anthropological Quarterly, 85, 345-370.
Arnett, J.J. (2004). A longer road to adulthood. In Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties (pp. 3-26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barone, S. (2016). Fragile scenes, fractured communities: Tunisian metal and sceneness. Journal of Youth Studies, 19, 20-35.
Muldering, M. Ch. (2013). An uncertain future: Youth frustration and the Arab Spring. Pardee Papers, Boston University Pardee Center for the Study of the Long-Range Future, No. 16.
Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological theory. New York: McGraw-Hill (pp. 218-219).
Zoekt kamer in Amsterdam community (2016, december 11). https://www.facebook.com/groups/zoektkamerinamsterdam/?fref=ts