Want to know what living in Amsterdam as a student can look like in the midst of a student housing shortage? E&M author Maria Taskinen interviewed her fellow students to find out more.
Every year Amsterdam welcomes thousands of international students worldwide to start their studies in the liberal capital of Europe. In 2020, this was also my case when, as a result of a somewhat spontaneous application process, I was accepted to start my studies at the University of Amsterdam. I had never visited the city before, nor did I know much about it, but curious about living in the Dutch capital, I was excited to depart. However, it soon became clear that one crucial element could make my new thrilling life chapter a stressful nightmare: getting housing.
While one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, the Netherlands has long struggled to provide housing already to its permanent population. In cities such as Amsterdam, where tourism and Airbnb businesses thrive all throughout the year, the situation has led to an increasing housing shortage among the locals, making rental prices expensive and competition for houses relentless. Add there the thousands of students coming to the city to study temporarily, and you have yourself a great mix of ingredients for a disaster.
Now, after living in the city for two and a half years, I consider myself “one of the lucky ones.” When I moved here, I found a room through my university, and after finishing the contract, I only moved once. I have never been homeless, always paid rent of fewer than 500 euros, and lived close to the center. Sounds relatively decent no? However, many also face other, much more peculiar realities. I interviewed some of my fellow students to hear what living in Amsterdam as a student in the midst of a housing crisis can potentially look like. Let’s hear it:
What is the craziest housing situation you have experienced while living in Amsterdam?
Madec: I used to live with a somewhat “mafia boss” in a room in De Pijp without registration. He had been in prison for seven years and was always dropping hints about potentially storing guns in the living room. He was extremely cautious about me living in the apartment and created several rules that I had to follow. I wasn’t allowed to bring friends to my place, say hi to the neighbors and open my window in case someone would see me. I also had to keep my place super tidy and empty so that it looked like no one was living there. He also asked for money from me and wanted the rent to be paid in cash. He always referred to the “company” that could do something bad in case someone saw me or if I didn’t follow the rules. While the situation was absurd, we sometimes would make jokes and have good conversations, making a living with him still bearable. Also, the rent was decent, the area was nice, and I just considered everything an interesting experience! Eventually, however, the situation got too heated, so I packed my things, ordered five Ubers, sent my things to some friends’ places, and moved out.
Merle: I have lived in ACTA for two and a half years in Nieuw-West, which is a former dentist clinic that around 470 students inhabit today. In my hallway, I have 17 roommates. While living here, I’ve, for example, experienced someone trying to break into our hallway several times by kicking the walls and the hallway door. That definitely was a creepy experience. Also, one time I found a homeless guy sleeping on the couch in our common area who I, unfortunately, had to kick out. It was kind of a sad story, given that he would return several times afterward since he didn’t have another place to be. Also, we have had a huge mice issue in our kitchen, and our roommates have become extremely creative in catching them. We have used vases, and art sculptures, you name it!
Ruben: While I never really have had trouble finding housing, I have had a lot of trouble with my roommates. Earlier, I lived in student housing close to the UvA’s Roeterseiland campus with 17 roommates, of which six were internationals with a maximum of a one-year contract. Just before the contract of one of them ended, she jumped from her bedroom window, five floors down on the street. We got police interrogations, and she was in a coma for two months. She survived though! Also, another roommate often walked almost naked through the hallway and kitchen, which would scare people in the hallway. He also had a knife collection that he would sharpen early in the morning. He (like the roommate who jumped out the window) was using a lot of drugs, and one day, he threatened to kill everyone. We called the police, and he stayed at the police station for two days, but the housing cooperation couldn’t do anything about him since he also had a right to housing. Eventually, we got him to end the contract by tricking him into signing the cancellation, but he was actually super scary.
Zsofi: My craziest housing experience has actually been positive since, during the lockdown, I was able to live in a houseboat in De Pijp. It was originally an Airbnb with crazy expensive rent, but since no tourists were coming to the city, it was rented to my two friends and me for 500 euros each per month. We all had our own bedrooms and toilets. However, in April 2021, when tourists started to return to the city, the rent got high again, and we were forced to move out. Afterward, I struggled a lot to find housing in autumn, and while being homeless the whole month of September, I failed all my courses due to house hunting and viewings. Also, I’m from Eastern Europe, and looking for a place, in general, was really difficult for me since while both of my parents are in well-paid positions, they do not get their salaries in euros, and when converted to euros, they did not earn enough to be my guarantors for most places in Amsterdam. This really made my experience in finding housing a lot more difficult.
Have you gotten used to your living situation in the city, or are you still finding it abnormal?
Merle: I did get used to it! I’m having a great time living here, the people are nice, and we have great parties. Also, when I moved in, I only had Dutch roommates, so I feel like I integrated better. So, all in all, I’ve definitely learned to appreciate the good parts of the experience. There is a lot of drug use, though, and when I moved in, I was probably the only one in my hallway that wasn’t consuming anything. Also, I think for many people, the uncertainty can be annoying since often there is only a one-month notice before the contract ends, which can put people in stressful situations when they realize they might not have a place to sleep within two weeks.
Zsofi: I got used to it and consider myself very lucky since I like my roommates and have my own room. We do pay a lot, considering that our windows do not close properly to keep the apartment warm and that we have mice and sometimes do not have hot running water. However, my place is close to my campus, and I do not have to bike or use public transportation a lot, so that is a huge plus.
What advice would you give to newcomers to the city regarding housing?
Madec: It’s definitely hard, so you should start looking for places in advance! If you can access housing through the university, go for it since it will save you a ton of hassle, and you can meet people more easily. If not, I recommend hiring an agent, if financially possible, who will look for a place for you and give you propositions. Otherwise, just sign up for as many housing websites as possible, such as Kamernet, Rentola, Sublet, etc, and keep searching. The hunt will be worth it since, in the end, I genuinely think Amsterdam is one of the best cities to study in, and you will enjoy it!
Merle: Be prepared for mice. They are everywhere, no matter how nice your neighborhood is. Ask everyone, post everywhere, and don’t settle for too expensive because there are definitely cheaper options as well. Also, biking everywhere is super easy, so living a bit further is not bad either!
Zsofi: If you are coming from Eastern Europe, find a friend or a colleague of a family member (whoever you can find!) who is making money in euros because so many places won’t take your parents as the guarantors of the rent. This was a huge problem for me. Also, pay the agent’s fees to find an apartment; it will be impossible if you do it alone. Facebook groups sometimes work, but mostly only when you are fine with unregistered places with a short-term stay. Also, it can still be difficult for internationals, so ask everyone; networks are the key to finding something. Finally, be ready to be homeless and spend money on an Airbnb!
“Be prepared for mice” and “be ready to be homeless” might not be the most attractive slogans one would want to hear when thinking about whether to move to this city or not. However, as pessimistic as these comments sound, they sadly are true. As I mentioned in the beginning, I consider myself to have survived with relatively minor damages when it comes to dealing with Amsterdam’s housing market. However, my “lucky” experience has also included living with mice, without heating or running hot water, and with peculiar roommates and homeless friends sleeping on my couch. All in all, the realities of the housing crisis are present in everyday life of nearly all students in the city, and engaging in a conversation with someone from your course will make you realize it at the latest. While I, like the others, have gotten used to the situation, one could debate whether getting used to uncertainty, being homeless, or living uncomfortably are beneficial to anyone’s mental health or study success. Therefore, while studying in Amsterdam has been one of my life’s best experiences, downplaying the housing experience’s negative impacts would give a wrong image of reality.
So, to all the newcomers (and why not the current residents), good luck! You will love the city – but you will most likely pay the full price for it.