Crowded Housing Market in Leuven facilitates  the Discrimination of International Students  

A survey conducted by Veto shows that many international students feel disadvantaged in Leuven’s rental market. The City of Leuven and KU Leuven Student Services (Stuvo) acknowledge that international student might bear the brunt of Leuven of Leuven’s oversaturated housing market, but the city’s urban design still poses many challenges for its administration and university.

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Although internationalisation is a key aspect of the university policy of KU Leuven, the rapidly accelerating saturation of the rental market in Leuven might facilitate the discrimination of international students. Those are the findings of a survey (*) conducted by Veto among 45 international students.

A mere fifteen percent feels like they are treated equally to candidates from Leuven. Non-European students and students with a limited budget feel particularly troubled when in search of housing. 'Leuven almost seems to want to position itself as the least hospitable place on Earth', one of the respondents rebukes.

Bank accounts, breakdance and mental breakdowns

In an interview, international student Sofia (*) shares she wasn't comfortable with the idea of signing a lease while still in Egypt. After all, she had  never been to Belgium before. Prior to her arrival, she had already made appointments to visit student rooms, but some of those were moved last minute and eventually cancelled.

Meanwhile, the World Breaking Championship in September caused a massive influx of breakdancers, transforming Sofia's perforce hotel stay into an unpractical game of musical chairs : 'Everything was fully booked. In a span of two weeks I had to stay in six different hotels.'

'To date, the city has not recorded any instances of structural discrimination against international students'

Katrien Devillé, domain responsible for Stuvo student housing

Sofia subsequently ended up in an administrative maze, as she needed an address to apply for a bank account, but no landlord was willing to sign a lease before she could even transfer the rental deposit from a European bank account. 

KU Leuven develops preventative policies

Katrien Devillé, head of Student Housing at Stuvo (KU Leuven Student Services), acknowledges that similar issues arise frequently, but emphasizes that possible solutions are in the pipeline: 'KBC has just started a trial project that allows students from outside the EEA (European Economic Area, red.) to open a bank account before they’ve obtained a lease. This initiative could be expanded further, provided that the project receives a positive evaluation.’

The kotlabel of a landlord was recently revoked following continued complaints about their behaviour toward international tenants

KU Leuven aims to support international students seeking accommodations in multiple ways.

'In recent years, those mails have warned students regarding the difficulty of finding accommodations in Leuven. Through a link to our web page, we try to manage students their expectations of the availability and pricing of student housing in Leuven', Devillé explains.

The increasingly early hunt for student rooms in Leuven

According to Kathleen Lambié, head of the city’s department of Living, Building and the Environment, local students' increasingly early search for student rooms is at the crux of the issue. Due to this yearly acceleration, international students consistently only enter the rental market once it’s almost entirely saturated. According to Devillé, a small group of Erasmus students even returns to their sending university after failing to find accommodations in Leuven.

Although the city of Leuven does use in-field tests to detect discrimination on the housing market, those tests are not done for international students. Lambié elaborates said policy choice: ‘At present, the city is not aware of any structural discrimination of international students’.

'When students suspect their foreign surname to be the cause of the lack of reaction, we sometimes make interns call those landlords for a kind of practical test'

Katrien Devillé, domain responsible for student housing Stuvo

Other factors, such as the requirement for an official address, might further explain the difficulty international students experience when trying to access the housing market. ‘As their stay exceeds a period of ninety days, they are legally required to register themselves in the Register of Foreign Nationals, for which they need an official domiciliation or primary residence,’ Lambié explains. 'However, landlords cannot be obliged to rent out their properties as primary residences and not as secondary residences.'

Discrimination and false advertisements

Nevertheless, some of the respondents to our survey did indicate that they also experienced discrimination on the basis of non-economic factors, such as their clothing or appearance, which was reportedly called 'unstudious' by landlords. Additionally, others allegedly were treated unfavourably due to their foreign surname.

Stef Storms and Maarten Van Mol, volunteers for Wetswinkel, an initiative run by law students which provides free legal advice to tenants in Leuven, emphasise that by law, landlords may only reject applicants on specific grounds. For instance, they are not allowed to inquire about the ethnicity of potential candidates, nor can they ask whether candidates are divorced. 

'That's decidedly not what's supposed to happen', says Devillé. 'When students suspect their foreign surname to be the cause of the lack of response, we sometimes make interns call those landlords, sort of as an in-field test.' A Kotlabel was also revoked from a landlord after multiple complaints were issued regarding their behaviour and language towards international tenants.

Renting via Facebook is discouraged

Another issue is that the accelerated saturation of the housing market indirectly pushes international students towards advertisements on Facebook. Members of Facebook groups dedicated to renting rooms are, however, urged to always be on the lookout for scams. Many false advertisements are placed by impostors, trying to lure unknowing students into a trap.

International students are a lot more susceptible to this scam technique, since they often aren't able to visit the advertised room in person before signing their contract. Devillé therefore advises against renting student accommodations through Facebook, although she understands that student seek out these alternatives in light of the general shortage of available rental properties.

Expansion into the periphery as a last resort for the middle class

Lambié acknowledges that the scarcity on the housing market goes hand in hand with discrimination. According to her, that's just how the market works: 'The bigger the supply compared to the demand, the fewer options a landlord has.'

'Should the supply for all types of housing increase, there'd probably be no more room for discrimination. The reality, however, is different', emphasises Lambié. 'These problems aren't just there for international students, but for all tenants in vulnerable positions.'

'The main problem in Leuven is still affordability'

Kathleen Lambié, department leader of Building and Living City of Leuven

Besides, the city has to keep the regular residents in mind, too: 'The shortage of student rooms is part of a bigger urban development context. Aside from students, we have to keep an eye out for groups like social tenants. Striking the right balance is proving to be more and more difficult as time passes.'

'It's a good thing that democratisation has allowed more people to access higher education system, but in terms of capacity we're reaching the literal limits of our city', Lambié continues.

'The main problem in Leuven is still affordability', Lambié poses. Veto's survey seems to confirm this as well: less than ten percent of the respondents thinks that student housing is cheaper in Leuven as compared to their home country.

Structural solutions

The city and its university's approach to broaden the supply of student rooms is multi-faceted. Lambié explains that the focus lies mainly on carrying out large-scale projects, with expansion into the city's periphery, as to utilise space as efficiently  as possible. The mayor of Tienen, Katrien Partyka, also told VRT NWS earlier this year that there are multiple projects currently in the pipeline to create more student accommodation in her city.

In addition, the residences owned by the university reserve a fixed percentage of rooms for international students. The agreements between construction developers and the university contain similar clauses.

'In practice, the city council only grants planning permission if there's an agreement with KU Leuven'

Kathleen Lambié, department leader of Building and Living City of Leuven

Those agreements specify how many rooms the new buildings are to contain, the proportion of basic and so-called 'comfort' rooms, and how many of the rooms are to be reserved for international students.

'It's not a regulatory requirement (yet), but in practice the city’s municipal executive only grants building permits for the reallocation of properties into student housing or for a demolition in order to construct new student houses if a partnership agreement has been concluded between the project developers and KU Leuven. This is, after all, the only way the city can guarantee the affordability of student rooms', Lambié concludes.

(*) Though this small survey only represents the ten thousand international students the university welcomes every year to a limited extent, Veto received numerous personal testimonies that confirm the alleged unfavourable treatment of international students cannot be entirely explained through differences in strictly economic factors alone.

(*) Sofia is a fictitious name. 

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