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Organisations warn of housing crisis for students in Brussels and Flanders

Illustration picture shows a student's room in Brussels on Wednesday 17 February 2021. BELGA PHOTO JUSTIN NAMUR
06:02 27/04/2022

There is a huge shortage of affordable and high-quality student housing in Brussels, reports Bruzz. Student organisation Brik and its partner institutions claim that affordable housing sector in the capital is in “free fall” and warn that the problem is also spreading in Flanders.

The rents for student housing have risen enormously over the years. According to the Belgian student housing market report Kotkompas 2021, the average rent for a student toom in Brussels amounts to around €490 excluding costs. "The affordable segment is now completely in free fall," says Jurgen Ral of Brik. "Only the top segment is being fully expanded today."

Brik demonstrates this with the prices of rooms that are offered on the Mykot platform. "Of all the private student housing that we added to the database in 2021, only six rooms cost less than €400 per month. The majority of new student housing is in the more expensive range, with prices higher than €500 per month," says Ral.

It's difficult to determine what is affordable in the student housing market. Brik uses the limit of €500 per month, although €350 to €450 seems a more realistic amount.

It's not only a Brussels phenomenon. Organisations in Flanders have noticed a similar trend. "The biggest problem is the shortage of affordable rooms," confirms Julien De Wit of the Flemish Association of Students (VVS). "This problem has been around for some time, but it is only now getting worse. It’s not only students in precarious situations who have difficulty paying for their room, but the middle classes also experience this difficulty."

According to the VVS, this is not a luxury problem. "Expensive rooms are an attack on democratic and accessible education," says De Wit.

Manifesto for cheaper student accommodation

In a series of 25 recommendations, the VVS asks for the policy on student housing to be improved. For example, the governments should focus more on the construction of 'the basic room'.

"You can see that there's a lot of luxury accommodation on the market, with a TV room for example," says De Wit. "But many students need a standard room with a desk, chair, closet and bed. The authorities should draw up a definition of 'the basic crate' and ensure that a quarter of the rooms meet that definition."

Due to the shortage of affordable rooms, certain students can no longer stay in student housing; a problem set to increase. Brik estimates that due to the expected increase in the number of students in Brussels, between 20,000 and 55,000 extra rooms will be needed by 2030. That's why Brik, together with its partner institutions VUB, Erasmushogeschool, Odisee, LUCA School of Arts and KU Leuven Brussels, launched a manifesto for affordable and high-quality student housing in the Brussels region.

The manifesto contains a series of recommendations to the Brussels government, but also to the local authorities, the Flemish government and private developers. The recommendations focus on providing sufficient supply, keeping rents affordable, stimulating the construction of high-quality rooms with shared facilities and improved monitoring of student housing in Brussels.

For example, the regional government should "adapt" the Regional Urban Planning Regulation (GSV) to the needs of students. Anyone who wants to build new student rooms needs an urban planning permit. In addition, the standards of the GSV must be met, which currently stimulates the construction of studios. Project developers therefore mainly choose to build studios, which automatically leads to higher rents. "We therefore ask that the Brussels-Capital Region include collective student housing as a separate domain within the GSV," says Ral.

The new GSV should also be better aligned with the Brussels Housing Code (BHC), which includes the regulations for the rental of homes. According to the cabinet of state secretary for urban planning Pascal Smet, this is currently being worked on.

Among other things, Brik is also asking for closer cooperation with the private market to increase the supply of affordable standard rooms. "For example, in the new GSV, the region could require that at least 20% of standard rooms with shared sanitary facilities and shared kitchens are provided for large-scale new student housing projects," says Ral.

Brik also makes a number of recommendations to the Flemish and local authorities. Finally, private developers play a major role. According to Brik, they should focus more on student housing with qualitative shared facilities. This would not only help in terms of affordability, but also the mental well-being of the student.

In addition, the supply must be mixed, with enough rooms in the cheaper market segment. According to Brik, project developers are therefore sure that all rooms will be rented out. At the moment, this is already the case, but only because there is a shortage of student rooms. "But you don't know if students or the parents are going to be able to continue to pay for that," Ral says.

"At the moment there is a big shortage and there is just plenty of building going on. The top segment is a very profitable model, so now that is very interesting for project developers, but that may change in the future."

Call to protect students' rights in housing disputes

In addition, the VVS considers it important that there is a central information point where students can go with questions about their rental contract, what their rights and obligations are or what they should do in the event of a dispute with the landlord.

"For future students, this can be a great help in the search for a room. The transition to higher education is already a big step. The stress of searching for accommodation is then added to that," says De Wit. Here too, the VVS believes that information for both students in Brussels and students in Flanders should be included.

More information needed for international students

There should also be more centralised information for international students. That group is only increasing and will grow even further in the coming years. This growing number of international students only adds to the need for the student housing offer to be increased.

According to the Kotkompas, there will be a shortage of 95,000 housing units by 2030. One of the proposals of the VVS is therefore to convert vacant buildings into student accommodation. "We know that there is a lot of vacancy in big cities. By providing student housing there, you immediately work on a solution to two problems," says De Wit.

With this series of recommendations, the VVS wants to sound the alarm and call on the authorities to take action. "We are very hopeful that within 20 years we will not still have to talk about overpriced rooms."

Written by Nick Amies