Boats, containers and AirBNB – Students struggle to find a home

A lack of affordable housing makes students vulnerable to being ripped off by unscrupulous scammers. While Danes can draw on their networks, international students are particularly at risk. But while Copenhagen's mayor has 6,000 new affordable homes planned for the city, the government's plan to relax housing development laws could scupper his vision of a city where rich and poor live side-by-side

There was no mistaking that it was me in the profile photo of a Facebook account advertising a room for rent in Vanløse. Except the profile belonged to an Aminah P Shas. When I sent Shas a message demanding an explanation, I received a curt apology before Shas’ profile photo changed to that of another girl holding a cat.

Shas was advertising a room in one of many Facebook groups used by students to find accommodation. But with low supply and high demand, the market is fertile ground for unscrupulous scammers who demand deposits up front, before disappearing with the cash. Such is the magnitude of the problem that the University of Copenhagen (KU) has a page on its website called “Don’t get scammed”.

“I have never experienced anything like this,” says Tim Warin, a British student attending the Copenhagen campus of Aalborg University, referring to the number of fake accommodation scams on Facebook. While apartment hunting, he had a Skype call with a woman who promised him a room. Except her story didn’t seem to add up.

“I could see her face, but she was giving me the usual scammer excuses: she couldn’t show me the room, she would have to leave the keys with some friends, but I still had to pay in advance, which of course I would not do. It was unbelievable to see somebody lying so shamelessly. But what does she care, at some point somebody would have trusted her.”

Housing pressure

Between 2010 and 2014, Copenhagen’s population grew by 9% to 739,000 residents. Among the new arrivals are a growing number of students at Copenhagen’s four universities – KU, the IT University, the Copenhagen campus of Aalborg University, and Copenhagen Business School. In 2014 there were 63,000 students attending these universities, a sixteen percent increase since 2010.

The growing population is not being met with an equivalent increase in new affordable, housing, however. Across Denmark, the student population has grown by 13,000 since 2010, but according to figures from Statistics Denmark (Danmarks Statistik) only 1,052 student accommodations were built during the same period. But it’s not just students who are having a hard time finding a home. According to construction lobby group Dansk Byggeri, the rising populations in Danish urban hubs will require the construction of 120,000 new homes before 2020.

While everyone needs a place to live, for the 4,000 international students currently enrolled at KU finding a home is especially important. It is hard to receive a civil registration (CPR) number without having an official address, and without a CPR number it becomes difficult to open a bank account and register with a doctor. The shortage of accommodations means that many students find themselves stuck in a limbo with neither a CPR number nor a home.

Alternative solutions
Many resort to extreme solutions. Before finding a home in October, a Danish classmate let Warin stay on a sailing boat in Nordhavn for free. It was a long bike ride to the Aalborg University campus in Sydhavn, especially when he had to make do without basic living facilities like a kitchen and a bathroom.

“It was quite hard, I had to adapt. I took a shower at the university before classes and spent most of my day there. Looking back, it is insane the amount of falafel I ate for dinner during the period.”

Despite the long journey and cramped conditions, Tim was still lucky to find a cheap, temporary accommodation, even if it meant living on a boat. Others have resorted to Airbnb, where the average cost a night in Copenhagen runs around 500 kroner.

Giorgia Ussaggi, 22, moved from Italy to start a master’s degree at CBS. Unable to find an apartment after arriving in the summer, she ended up spending 9000 kroner staying three weeks in an Airbnb apartment in Østerbro.

“This is situation is absurd, but I had no other alternative. It is the price I have to pay, I do not want to think this is money down the drain.”

At the end of September she moved again for two week to another room she found through Airbnb, and then again to another apartment for two months. In mid-December, she was again looking for a new place.

Denmark’s second biggest city Aarhus also attracts a lot of international students who face the same housing shortage. To address the issue, the student union Studenterhus Aarhus launched Startup Housing with funding from the local council. The temporary homes (below), made out of containers, each house four students, which could be rented for 650 kroner a week, before the programme closed in October.


“The project started last year and we could accommodate 150 students,” said Karl Nielsen, one of the project managers.  “Seventy percent of the guests were international students. But we also had some people from elsewhere in Jutland, and even a couple from Copenhagen.”

Some improvements

A 2011 joint-study by the Danish Agency for Universities and Internationalisation and the Danish Pupils and Students Dorm Council, found that 29 percent of full-degree foreign students only found accommodation after arriving in the city. Unlike exchange students, they are not guaranteed a place to stay before they arrive and are urged to look for housing through their network or on the open market.

They can also try their luck through the independent University of Copenhagen Housing Foundation (UCPH), which has 1380 leases available for international students and researchers.

“We are experiencing an increasing pressure on housing as the number of international students rise, which is why we are adding 300 more rooms in 2016 and 200 in 2017,” said Director Charlotte Simonsen.

“The housing market in Copenhagen is very competitive, also for Danish students, which makes it even more important to be able to offer affordable accommodations for international students applying to UCPH. We at the housing foundation are working hard to address the housing issue and we are working closely together with Copenhagen City Council. The problem we meet is that it is hard to find rooms at the right price.”

Copenhagen mayor Frank Jensen has made it a priority to build more affordable housing in the city. Before 2025 he plans to finalise the construction of 6,000 new affordable student homes, which would cost just around 3,500 kroner a month, making them less than the 5,000 kroner student grant (SU). According to Copenhagen City Council, there are currently only 11,000 homes in the 2500 and 4000 kroner a month price range.

The ambitious new construction plan was made possible thanks to a law passed by the former centre-left government, which mandated that 25 percent of new housing projects be earmarked as affordable, up from 10 percent. The government furthermore allowed public housing associations to take 50-year interest free loans worth up to 500 million kroner in total to buy land in major cities.

Copenhagen may have to scrap its plan, however. The current Liberal Party (Venstre) government introduced a new Growth Plan that includes rolling back the 25 percent mandate, arguing that the higher mandate would prove to costly to private developers.

The mayor has openly condemned the decision, arguing there is a lot to lose by focussing so narrowly on economic growth.

“Growth has nothing to do with making sure that a city has affordable homes – the city is experiencing great growth. We just want to be able to secure, that around 25 percent of the new homes in the new living areas of Copenhagen are affordable to make sure we don’t end up like London or Paris, so that rich and poor can continue live alongside each other,” Jensen told The Murmur. M

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By Daniela de Lorenzo

By Peter Stanners

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