I was born and raised in West Dublin, and until a few months ago, I had never really left. Having grown up in Ireland, I’ve learned to understand – and begrudgingly live with – its severe housing crisis. However, it did not prepare me in the slightest for what awaited me in the Netherlands.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Go back to the year before. I’d just been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It was really affecting the way I saw time, I was having bigger burnouts and things that should have been easy, were hard.
Dublin’s everlasting seasons were only making this worse. But then my girlfriend and I both got the opportunity to move to Amsterdam, and the gloom lifted. The air of new opportunity set in, clarity hit my bloodstream.
My relief was premature. Unfortunately, I’d missed the deadline for international student housing with my university. But, as this was due to my ASD and there are countless studies on executive dysfunction and autistic burn-out, I thought I should try to reach out to the services that Amsterdam had to offer.
Instead of being met with understanding, I was told I would not be considered for priority housing – in fact, I wouldn’t even be put on their waiting list.
“If you are finding it so hard so far, Rachel, you should probably just stay at home.”
This interaction sums up so much of what I was yet to learn about the Netherlands. But this isn’t a story about disability, it is a story about housing, and for me, the problems were only getting started.
The problems with ‘first come, first serve’
The housing market in the Netherlands is effectively split in two.
The first sector my girlfriend and I dove into was the ‘public’ or social housing. This includes university-sanctioned student housing (from which I had already been rejected), but also third-party student housing and general social housing. Some websites such as Kamernet fall under this umbrella too.
What unites these sites is their ethos of supposed egalitarianism – first come, first serve. As internationals we were used to similarly motivated student accommodation, so this was the most appealing.
We soon found every room was sold out on every website for student accommodation, with expected wait times being around 12 months. This makes sense as students outnumber rooms by tens of thousands. We soon began to see the flaws with this system.
Kamernet is maybe the most popular Dutch housing website cited on the internet. We avoided it like the plague. A premium paid membership is necessary to even reply to listings. The deciding factor in which applicant gets the room is sometimes the length of time they have been subscribed to Kamernet. As in, how much money you have already paid before even putting down a deposit and starting to pay rent. I’ve seen current students advising prospective students to sign up for Kamernet years before they even apply for university.
Another website worked by email notifications. You signed up to a shortlisted cohort of about ten properties. I abandoned dinner, leapt out of the shower, and discarded work every time a notification popped up. Every time, no matter how quickly I replied, the list was always full.
After a few weeks, we weren’t any closer. We honed our system, saving crucial seconds by memorising all our card and passport details. Yet before I could even type my last name, all of the apartments listed that week were gone. That’s when we realised the system was overrun by bots.
So, we turned to the private market. This is the realm of subletting, renting rooms in family houses and going to house viewings. A million messages on WhatsApp, Gmail, Messenger. There are many sites for this, but Facebook – Facebook Marketplace, as well as the hundreds of Facebook groups – is a giant in this. But yet again, more than half the listings are bots or scams. We also began to notice patterns in the listings that remained.
With the overflow of demand versus supply, landlords can be as picky as they wish, especially so for long-term listings. This is where the intolerant side of the Netherlands came out in full force. “No Internationals” was a common mantra, same as “Dutchies Only.”
Among the few listings which would accept internationals, aside from extortionate (and even illegal) levels of rent, you’d notice that a lot of them would say “registration with the government is not possible”. An important thing to note here is that you need to register your address (along with other things) with the government in order to get the all-important Burgerservicenummer. A BSN is required to get a job in the Netherlands full stop, but also open a Dutch bank account and receive medical treatment.
So here continues the cycle. Without a job, you can’t get a house. Without a house, you can’t get a BSN. Without a BSN, you can’t get a job. But, for me and my girlfriend, it could have been a lot worse.
Attitudes towards non-Western immigrants
Though the odds seemed stacked against us, we finally managed to secure an apartment – but it was surprisingly difficult for a country that prides itself on its progressive policies, actions and mindsets. Although, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Apparently there is a renewed sense of nationalism creeping into the general Dutch psyche.
Subscribe to shado's weekly newsletter
Exclusive event news, job and creative opportunities, first access to tickets and – just in case you missed them – our picks of the week, from inside shado and out.
A 2018 study cites an attitude shift since the turn of the millennium, as the Netherlands moved from a country with both open borders and an open mind, to a country with a particular sense of scorn and distrust towards immigrants, especially those from non-Western backgrounds.
As a white Irish person, I had undeniable privilege: English is my native language (my clunky Dutch didn’t hide the fact I was an “international”) and I have the full right to work and live in the Netherlands as an EU citizen. Given this, I wanted to hear from someone who didn’t enjoy the same circumstances. I spoke to Lori, who moved to Amsterdam from her home in North East China in 2019, aged 18. She had also struggled to navigate the housing system, however, her issues were compounded by her inability to speak English and how far away from home she was.
She ended up taking student accommodation after months of waiting to hear about a housing decision – but in a horribly ironic twist, because this accommodation exceeded basic rent, she wasn’t entitled to any financial aid or student finance.
“I didn’t get any other help from the university,” she tells me. “I went to the registration point, picked up my student card and that was it.” For Lori, orientation week ended up being a five-day long party, where she was shown a lot of bars, but no helpful institutions. “I had to explore that by myself, and try to make friends, all with my bad English,” she tells me. “It didn’t go well, so I ended up going just to church because people were nice there.”
Lori pays four times the amount for her university fees as a Dutch national. She is also not entitled to other amenities such as free student travel and is only allowed to work a 16-hour work week. “I was a bit isolated by the student culture. There were no other student activities going on. We all went to our classes and went home.”
In the height of COVID-19, Lori went back to China for remote classes, which she describes as “a relief”, albeit a temporary one. Now she’s back in Amsterdam, she’s in another precarious situation. Her roommates must apply for a permit to rent which means they need consent from the neighbourhood.
“There is a man who doesn’t want the house to be rented to us because we make the neighbourhood ‘less local’,” she tells me, exposing a racist attitude that shocked me. And her tenancy is even more shaky by the fact she has to pay by cash. “It’s not even a nice place,” she says. “I’m not satisfied by the condition it’s in, and it feels unsafe. But at least I got housing…”
While the Netherlands continues to be celebrated for its seemingly forward-thinking attitudes to creativity and healthcare, we need to be wary of its creeping nationalism. I for one will return to Ireland knowing that until they reform their exclusionary and racist housing policies, the Netherlands does not deserve the progressive title it currently holds.
Expat Centres are a really good place to start. Naturally, they can’t help any individual find their perfect home, but can help make the process as smooth as possible. For example, Expat Centre Leiden works directly with many trustworthy real estate agencies. They help combat the complicated dance between BSN, working and finding a permanent address. They allow immigrants to register at their employer’s address so that they can get their BSN before finding permanent accommodation. They also have a help desk where people can get free information and advice. There are Expat Centres in almost every major Dutch destination.
One-stop-shop service for international newcomers in the Amsterdam Area