LPE Europe – Student Housing Series – Brussels

 With Bob Stoops

Conducted and edited by J.K. Langeveld

Rome, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Glasgow, London, Berlin. Affordable housing is a major problem in many European cities. International students often face even more precarious conditions, despite bringing so much to the local intellectual and economic life. In this blog post we discuss the situation in Brussels. With the help of Bob Stoops, who is part of the Student Council at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and also a student representative for “Brik – Student in Brussel vzw” (service desk for students in Brussels), we were able to receive input from representatives of the International Student Platform (ISP) and the director of Brik, named Jurgen Ral.

Could you describe what the current problems in Brussels are with regards to student housing, and in particular regarding international students?

ISP – There are numerous problems with regards to student housing in Brussels. To begin with, one of the issues are the large deposits needed in order to start renting. The amount of deposit depends on the landlord, but most of them ask for 1-2 months’ rent in advance. This can cause financial problems and make it harder to change housing because students can lose their deposit. Secondly, for non-EEA students it is impossible to visit the place physically to check whether the information on the website complies with the actual situation due to the requirement of having a visa to enter the country. Thirdly, sometimes it is impossible to sign the rental contract digitally, so the number of choices is limited for international students. Fourthly, most of the landlords offer long-term contracts (at least one year), so the number of choices is limited for Erasmus students. Fifthly, additional problems that students face are the scam schemes on Facebook groups and external web sites, irrelevant information, or landlords who do not respond to messages (for example, to get 1 answer, you should send 10–20 requests). Sixthly, for the resident’s card request, a tenant should be registered at the address provided by the landlord. Some of the landlords do not offer this registration, so the tenants can have problems with registration in the town hall.

In regards specifically to international students from non-EU countries, the options in the private market are very limited for students looking for both rooms and studios. Students from non-EU countries must be domiciled at the place they live at. When students are not able to secure housing from institutions like VUB that provide student housing, they are left to go to the private market where the number of places available is drastically cut because landlords are very hesitant to give contracts to non-EU students. This is due to domiciliation laws in Brussels whereby there are only X amount of people allowed to legally live in a building at one time. Despite a multitude of properties available, non-EU students must fight for the few landlords that will accept domiciliation.

Brik –

Together with Brik’s partner institutions (VUB, Ehb, Odisee, LUCA and KU Leuven Brussels campuses), we launched in April 2022 a ‘manifesto for contemporary, affordable and quality student housing‘. This publication is, on the one hand, an analysis of the various challenges surrounding student housing in the Brussels Capital Region and on the other hand, this text also offers a range of solutions towards the various stakeholders (authorities, developers…). The different answers you will find below, originate from that basic document, which we also use as a guiding framework for future student housing and new legislative framework.

There are two main factors that contribute to the student housing problem. Firstly, there is a clear shortage of student accommodation in Brussels Capital Region. We use a historical figure of 10,000 units, but due to the absence of clear monitoring, this figure is most likely a gross underestimate. Secondly, there has been a clear growth in the student population in the Brussels Capital Region. There are 37.000 students enrolled in Dutch-speaking higher education, 73.000 in French-speaking higher education (estimates, as no accurate figure available), giving a total student population of 110,000 students in the Brussels Capital Region, at present. This growth can be explained by three factors. First, the democratisation of higher education. Second, the proportion of Brussels schoolchildren studying in Dutch-speaking higher education is increasing (there is no clear picture of FR). Third, the number of international students continues to increase. We speak roughly of +/- 20% internationals within these figures, for higher education sides. This group almost always requires residency.

What position or view does Brik have with regards to student housing in Brussels?

Our vision can be divided into three points. To begin with, we need a lot more student housing in the short term.  We state in the manifesto that an additional 20,000 to 55,000 student rooms are needed by 2030. That is a huge amount. Secondly, there is a clear need for affordable student housing. We notice that property developers mostly build projects with ‘individual student housing’. Being studios, where a student has their own room, sanitary facilities and kitchen. However, there is an urgent need for affordable rooms, following the profile of ‘collective student housing’. This is a basic room (of e.g. 12m²) where students in a living group (e.g. 8 persons) share sanitary facilities and kitchens. This model will position itself below the more expensive studios in terms of rental price, which will improve affordability of housing. Thirdly, a clear framework is needed on what constitutes quality student housing in the Brussels Region. In a nutshell: there is currently no solid framework in the Brussels Region on what (quality) student housing should be, or what the minimum standards should be at all (some standards that do exist even contradict each other). This lack of clarity urgently needs to be addressed in the legislation currently being prepared (with working title ‘Good Living’). In addition, it is important that this new regional legislation is coordinated with any municipal regulations (because there are certain municipalities that have their own rules around student accommodation).

To what extent does Brik think the legal structure/laws regarding student housing are influencing the crisis?

Brik – I can be brief: the Brussels government, in the first place the Brussels Capital Government, but also the local municipalities, have a huge responsibility to make decent and affordable student housing possible. Clear rules (which do not exist today), ensuring safe student houses (from ‘smaller’ landlords, for example), ensuring that project developers will obtain permits more quickly (which can accelerate growth and reduce the price because of lower costs – the average lead time for a project today is 5 to 7 years (!) in the Brussels region) and ensuring that students in need of accommodation are not exposed to all sorts of malpractices (scams, unsafe rooms, or having to co-habit in a flat and thus not giving Brussels residents a chance to have their own affordable accommodation).

Do you have ideas on new laws or changes to the law that would help the situation? 

ISP – There should be more promotion of the laws regarding domiciliation in Brussels, as many landlords are not aware that non-EU students need it for their residency card to reside in Belgium legally. Landlords from Brussels never allow domiciliation in their student houses to Belgians, and because they are unaware of the position non-EU students have with their residency cards, they have a tendency to, as a blanket rule, not allow domiciliation under any circumstance. More awareness will increase the number of listings that are open for non-EU students that might be trying to secure housing from outside of Belgium/Europe.

Brik – This is very specific to the Brussels context.

  1. Regional Urban Planning Regulation ‘Good Living’ (Gewestelijke Stedenbouwkundige Verordening): the new legislation is being drafted, but still has many problems to solve. But, if properly adapted, it could be an important lever for more and affordable student housing. Please note: this legislation is for new projects only. See No 5 for current properties.
  2. Brussels Housing Code (Brusselse huisvestingscode): this legislative framework provides clarity on rentals (including student rooms). However, it urgently needs an evaluation.
  3. Monitoring student houses: we have no overview of the number of student houses in Brussels, due to the maze of urban planning. Nevertheless, there are possibilities to start measuring the numbers (e.g. by linking existing databases – make student housing leases compulsory and have them registered). The Brussels government must urgently work on this, otherwise we will continue to sail blind.
  4. Have municipal regulations adapted to the new regional rules (Gewestelijke regels)
  5. Regularisation of existing student houses: draw up minimum standards for existing student houses, with derogations (without compromising safety), so that the existing buildings can be put in order as far as possible in terms of permit, fire brigade, etc.

Does Brik think student housing is a local, national or European/international problem?  

It is a combination of a number of parameters, as described in the first question. However, it is a problem that exists in many cities (including in Europe) and the problems and challenges are often the same. However, it is up to the cities themselves to put in place effective policies. Nevertheless, sharing good practices can be more than useful in this.

What does the student council at VUB and/or BRIK do to promote/advocate their position on student housing?

We try to seek as much publicity as possible. To illustrate, here are some examples of press coverage since the launch of our manifesto on 26 April 2022.

De Morgen: ‘Three years ago I saw lots for 400 euros, now rents start at 500 euros’.

BRUZZ: Student organisations sound alarm: ‘Student houses are becoming unaffordable’.

Metro: A Bruxelles, les kots deviennent inabordables pour les étudiants.

La Libre Belgique: Un Manifeste d’Universités et de Hautes écoles flamandes pour un logement abordable à Bruxelles.

 

 

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