Housing Student life

Hospi Culture as Reality TV: Entertainment in a Housing Crisis

If you try to google whether it is easy to get into Wageningen, you might find out that it is statistically hard to not get in. Reassuring yes, but also not very validating for when you do end up getting in. However, the actual challenge of getting into Wageningen is not the university, but in finding a house to live in. There are two ways to go about house hunting: first, there’s the lottery of which incidentally has slightly worse odds than an actual lottery; The second way is to fire up the old Facebook account which hasn’t been opened since 2018 and start sending join requests on housing groups. That’s where you encounter A) Scams B) A surprisingly good deal on an air-fryer and C) the hospiteeravond or hospi dinners; where you get interviewed in the hopes of being selected for a rental contract in a shared student flat. 

A friend of mine was looking for a house — this was the case for a good 3 months. There were numerous sub-rents he kept finding, but also nothing more permanent than just a few weeks. When he got a hospi invite for a permanent room, he wasn’t sure he would be the charmer who landed the room; he did have a particular sense of humor. But as luck would have it, it actually worked for him — he got the house. Something about an inappropriate Russia joke he cracked that clicked with the vibe of the house. It is kind of strange, isn’t it? That of all the desperation and necessity that goes in finding a house that a silly little thing like an off-color joke is what cuts it in the end and lands the rental contract.

Two facts I would like to highlight here before going on: First, Wageningen has a housing crisis, this isn’t exactly news. Second, despite its tiny size, housing matters for the cultural and social fabric of this town. Where you live determines who you’re acquainted with, what parties you attend, and what values you espouse. Except in a housing crisis people just want a bed and roof to sleep under and cannot be brought to care about the culture or who’s who.

When I undertook the research for this piece, I was naïve about it. Naïve in the sense that I expected a straightforward story with two sides: anxious and desperate room seekers on one side, and overly picky houses playing a game of pretend frat-house on the other. What I found was that one: there’s a very fluid relationship between room-seekers and house hosts, in that room seekers become hosts and hosts become room-seekers again very quickly. Two it’s only a very particular subsection of students who participate in hospi culture; the rest of the students must simply dwell in Forum and undertake winter migrations to the library. What stood out to me in the research for this article was the act of selecting a housemate itself. The strange absurdity of it all. Applicants, in the range of a hundred, all message a tiny house whose members don’t even have fully developed pre-frontal cortexes and with no one to second guess these judgments. 

Hospi’s are a sort of hyper-real phenomenon, a Baudrillardian wet dream. I talked to a prolific hospi host who had hosted around 8 hospiteeravonds. He tells me that his house has a very specific personality. When I ask him how often he finds a housemate who’s an exact fit for the house, he responds by saying that it depends on the season. The academic intake seasons are the best times, and then there are dry periods when the house must settle on a compromise choice. Compromise in the sense that if, let’s say, the winner of the June hospi competed in the September hospi, they wouldn’t have even made it past the first round. This is when it clicks for me: the hospi system isn’t an ordinary social or cultural phenomenon: it’s a reality show. 

Let me show you what I mean: The show starts when a room becomes available. An ad is posted and all the contestants line up. They introduce themselves, sell their best and most likable qualities, and try to get the audience to somehow root for them. Then the showdown happens: they’re invited to dinner where they perform their best selves and try to outperform the other contestants. The practicalities don’t matter — it’s all spectacle where each applicant competes to be a better “housemate” than the other. Desperation is the fuel and life stories are mined for entertainment. Who’s the best fit? Who’s going to win? What will the judges decide? The suspense is set up as the ones not going to make it are discreetly informed when they’re ushered to the side. The winner is crowned and gets to be part of the judging panel for the next season. There are no real residents ever in the house, all the housemates are merely previous winners. The house is a permanent all-star residence. And the seasons never stop, the show goes on forever. 

Of course, that is making things a bit dramatic. It’s not really the student’s fault that the selective housing culture profits from an excess of students and a shortage of accommodation. The lucky residents are a bit spoilt for choice; why settle for a perfectly ‘average’ housemate when they can look for someone ‘extraordinary’? 

Houses and room-seekers both agree that what is most important in finding a match is the vibe. Sharing a vibe with the house means that you don’t have to spend a lot of time adjusting or changing much about yourself to fit in. You already fit in when you vibe with the house.

If you ask anyone how they can identify someone’s vibe they will tell you it’s a matter of authenticity. Something you can’t fake or imitate, and for which you must lower your social filters for others to see. Which is odd because hospi culture forces a performance of this vibe. Show up to dinner, meet us at this specific time, come perform your authenticity and lower your social filter. Hence the analogy with reality television, the contestants are real people with real struggles who are forced to reveal their private lives in the hopes of getting a prize or fame. If you knew these people in real life you would not be able to gain insight into these private lives unless you put considerable effort into friendship and earned their trust. Hospi culture makes you reveal your innermost life for almost nothing in comparison because it has the power to house you. In 30 mins you share more with complete strangers than you have with friends you’ve known for months. All done in the pretext of finding your vibe. 

But is the vibe something innate you’re born with? Unlikely because more than anything else, your vibe is determined by your socio-economic class and your cultural education. Houses in Wageningen aren’t very different from anywhere else in the world. The students don’t seem to realize it, but they do exactly what their grandma does — they gentrify. That’s the vibe.  Here, gentrification is not so much along economic lines but more along cultural lines. That happens slowly, maybe across years, decades perhaps. Certain wealthy hippies move into a house or a housing complex. They start recruiting other hippies into their houses. They think they’re aligning their views on vegan food, anti-capitalism, and climate change, but what really aligns them is their upbringing of privilege. The vibe of neo-hippie is more of a freedom to vibe because it is a freedom from those practical and material limitations that make you an uptight/boring person.   

In a now seminal paper, Thomas Schelling showed that people need to only slightly prefer members of their race for racial segregation to occur (Schelling 1969). There was no requirement for explicit racism, just a slight preference for having someone of your race as your neighbor. That was enough for racially segregated neighborhoods. I attended two Hospi as part of my study. On a personal level, I found both houses very friendly and hosted me well. I did not get the room, but I had a pleasant experience overall. My critique in this piece is not towards students preferring who they live with. My point is in the larger picture the price of preferences adds up.  

It’s hard to say how to fix this culture, especially when there doesn’t seem to be many people who see it as a problem to begin with. Is it a problem to be fixed? Students in Wageningen aren’t all looking to live in Wageningen, many would just like to act as if living in this town was a necessary sacrifice to study here. I don’t believe in living in a place in such a disconnected instrumental way. Habiting a space means acknowledging our interconnections with the place. Our connection to hospi culture and shared housing is more than just as potential residents, the very social and cultural fabric of Wageningen is built on these shared spaces. Disconnected spaces like Idealis towers do not produce culture, they only amplify disconnection and longing for “real culture” whether it is big cities or the internet. The relevance of hospi is in its contribution to the organic skeleton for student culture in Wageningen. If this skeleton doesn’t support the diversity of students it warps, contorts and leaves us unsupported in our time here. 

By Wega