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The Housing Disaster: Analysing Our Generation’s Defining Crisis

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by Chloe O’Keefe – Editor at An Focal; Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter at The College TribunePaddy Henry – Editor at Student Independent NewsConor Brummell – News Editor at Student Independent NewsMaeve McTaggert – News Editor at University Express Elisha Carey – Features Editor at University Express.

Edited by Fiona Keeley – Editor at University Express.


We are living in a world with a growing housing crisis around the student population; something that is troubling to young people, parents, and guardians as a problem once someone reaches third-level education. This is not a unique problem that targets a single part of the country; tens of thousands of students return to education each year and face a housing crisis that is affecting their demographic across the country. As a collaboration of Irish student journalists we delve into the story from different corners of the country and illustrate the story of the housing system that students navigate each year.

 

Double the Rent – Same Accommodation

Ireland’s capital has become infamous for its rents, affecting students every year who make the move to Dublin. In February 2019, University College Dublin (UCD) moved to increase on-campus rents by over 12% over the next three years, much like other universities. The move was met with universal condemnation by student groups nationwide. The question is, how do these increases compare to previous years?

According to The College Tribune, back in 2006, a room in UCD’s cheapest accommodation block cost €3,544, with a further €353 for utilities and insurance. Fast forwarding to 2019, the main fee increased by 88.57% to €6,683, a raw increase of €3,139. The average yearly increase of 4.81% dwarfs the inflation levels of less than 1% annually. At UCD during the academic year 2019/20, it cost between €6,745 and €11,591 for two semesters to stay at on-campus accommodation – this is a rent increase of 76% in the last ten years.

According to the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), the national rent average in Ireland in Q2 2020 was €1,224 per month. The highest rent average by county was in Dublin county with €1,709, and lowest in Leitrim with €599 per month. The rent averages in the other major college cities in Ireland lie at €1,653 in Dublin city, €1,169 in Galway, €1,209 in Cork city, €971 in Limerick city and €799 in Waterford. 

 

“Bizarre” Price Increases

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is one group championing affordable accommodation. Speaking to The College Tribune, USI’s Vice President for Campaigns Craig McHugh says students require affordable housing – not luxury. McHugh wants universities to receive funding from the government to subsidise the construction and maintenance of purpose-built student accommodation, which will help control the average prices and keep it affordable for students.

After its latest increase, UCD’s most expensive accommodation will cost almost €13,000 between September and May. Despite university management maintaining this “will contribute to longer term rent stability”, students can’t help feeling hard done by in the midst of a housing crisis.

In response to UCD’s defence of building luxury accommodation, McHugh comments on this, saying “this idea that ramping up supply will bring down price is correct, but what is the type of supply and what’s the market price in which you’re introducing?”

“We are seeing a reverse effect”, McHugh explains, as supply increases so does the price. “It’s bizarre.”

 

The Rise of Student Accommodation

As recently as August 2019, tenants in student-specific accommodation gained largely the same rights as private tenants in all but their security of tenure and right to remain. Under Irish law, private tenants are entitled to certain minimum standards of accommodation. A property must be free from damp, with all internal and external structures such as walls, pipes, tiles, windows, floors in good condition. 

Every room must be adequately ventilated, with heating tenants can control. In addition, private tenants must have access to a washing machine and cooking facilities, this includes items such as a fridge, microwave and kitchen cupboards. To meet these minimum standards of accommodation, a landlord must provide a sink with hot and cold water, a fixed heating appliance in each room, and access to a separate room with a toilet, washbasin and fixed bath or shower. Local authorities are responsible for inspecting and enforcing these minimum standards.

According to the RTB, there were 28,414 Student Specific Accommodation tenancies registered in 2019 because of changes to the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) introduced on June 4th last year. This legislation placed a requirement on all providers of Student Specific Accommodation to register their student tenancies with the RTB. These registered tenancies were found across 169 Student Specific Accommodation developments, 13 of which were managed by higher education institutions, and 156 were private developments.  

The student specific accommodation providers are currently in the process of registering their tenancies for the 20/21 Academic Year. In response to the ongoing pandemic, as of midnight on October 21st 2020, a general ban on evictions was renewed by the government for the duration of Level 5 and any future restrictions of movement of up to 5 kilometres in response to the pandemic. 

 

Supports For Some, But Not All

Even with the help of the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) many students across Ireland will often find themselves still pretty strapped for cash on a month by month basis. It’s all down to budgeting, but when rent has nearly doubled in the last five years, and SUSI hasn’t increased in near the same amount of time the budgeting skills (or lack thereof) may not be the real issue.

This accommodation crisis is not unique to undergraduate students; masters students around the country face uphill battles too. SUSI having different thresholds for postgraduate courses restrict many students in further pursuing their education unless they have at least a part-time job. 

Though the margin for postgraduates receiving SUSI is quite high it’s not only postgrads that may suffer the consequences of not getting maintenance. Many undergraduate students are not in receipt of SUSI, and these in particular may face unnecessary stress. SUSI data shows there was a 6% fall in the number of recipients to the grant from 2015- 2018. This fall in applications means a lower percentage of students are now receiving SUSI compared to just a few years ago. This fall in applications and awardees is likely down to the income thresholds for grant eligibility being static for near 10 years.

In a report carried out last year by the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) and Trinity College Dublin it was revealed that over 2 thirds of 20- year olds still live with their parents, and most of them depend financially on them also. 44% of the 20- year olds surveyed said their main worry was access to housing.

One postgraduate student, Clara* was advised to reconsider doing a masters if she was going to be balancing a part-time job along with the full-time masters, “I was told to give a serious rethink of doing the masters along with a part-time job, but the reality is that I needed the part-time job to fund the masters, and I would need the masters to get higher on the career ladder,” she stated.

 

Living in “Constant Fear”

We spoke to a former Students’ Union Sabbatical Officer about her housing struggles throughout her time in college. Sarah* began college commuting 2.5 hours each way to Dublin. For logistical reasons and due to a tough home situation, she decided to move out – although without financial support from home. Sarah moved in with a friend in a “very, very small apartment”.

“The rent was just about manageable with the 15 hours of work that I was doing, but it was very tight.” Sarah sees it as “a bit fucked up” that she was forced to cut college classes to afford rent, in order to attend college.

The heating broke down one winter, and with the old building’s single pane windows, Sarah says “you could feel the wind from outside”.

“The amount of money that I had to put away for rent, those margins were very tight. So, if I wanted to get anything more comfortable, it was just outside of my reach.

She said that their rents were lucky enough to stay stable while the rest of Dublin’s were increasing, however, there was a “constant fear” that if she brought up maintenance issues, she would be kicked out for subletting. She says that if the rents were increased, they would have been “fucked”. As per the Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2015, rent can be increased every 2 years. 

Trapped in a mould-ridden house, with the “kitchen falling apart” and the windows not closing properly, she couldn’t afford a better option and was too afraid to complain to the landlord, for fear that being kicked out would force her back home.

Fortunately, Sarah’s situation has improved now, but not without years of hard work and a successful tenure on a Students’ Union team. “I learnt a lot in the process, but the thing is, I shouldn’t have had to learn that.”

 

What Are Your Rights?

While letting, a landlord is legally bound to give tenants a rent book or written legal agreement or lease to track and schedule all payments throughout the tenancy. There are obligations a tenant must follow while renting, to breach conditions of tenancy has the potential to impede any assertion of rights. These include avoiding damage, granting the landlord access to the property by appointment only for routine inspections, and to pay rent on time. All landlords must register with the Private Tenancies Board (PRTB), if a tenancy is not registered then substantial fees can accrue – increasing for each tenancy. Payment of security deposit is the norm amongst renters – a sum usually equal to one months rent held by the landlord to cover rent arrears, bills owing or damage – this deposit is not regulated or capped by legislation. Upon leaving the property, this deposit must be returned in full.

Rent Pressure Zones (RPZ) were introduced in 2019 as a mechanism to make the rental market more predictable as rents rise exponentially across the country. Such zones – which currently include Cork City Council and Cobh, most of Dublin and Galway City, Kildare, parts of Meath, Wicklow and Louth, as well as Limerick and Waterford cities – dictate that rent cannot be increased by more than 4 per cent per annum. As per the Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2015, rent can only be increased every 2 years.

 

Cork Students Take Action

Things in the south of the country cast a mirror image of what is happening in the capital. In February this year, 200 University College Cork (UCC) students rotationally camped on the Quad to protest the planned 3% rent increase for campus accommodation for the 2020/21 academic year. The protestors braved the elements for 17 days before the onset of the pandemic ended the occupation.

As September approached, a new host of troubles unfolded for student renters as the new academic year began, set against the backdrop of an unwaning global pandemic. With the uncertainty surrounding timetables and on-campus hours, many UCC students reported feeling unsure of whether it would be necessary for them to rent accommodation in Cork or not. 

We spoke with 1st year Government and Political Science student, Danny Sheehy, who expressed his frustrations over the puzzling messages coming from the Cork University in relation to accommodation. Danny spoke about an email he received from UCC as part of his registration, which instructed him to organise his accommodation “as you would have done if Covid-19 did not exist.” The email indicated that the University was “planning to implement face-to-face teaching where safe and possible” and urged students to be “proactive” in their search for accommodation. “I was 100% excited and rearing to move”, Danny said, and after receiving the email he proceeded to take out a student loan to pay for his housing. 

“An email like that” Danny said, “confirms the dream you have of having a normal year.”

Indeed, as some might have expected, it was not a normal year, with all third-level institutions being moved to Level 3 before the new semester even began. Students, just like Danny, who felt assured of face-to-face teaching, suddenly found themselves no longer needing accommodation in the city but having paid for the semester, or even the full year. With rent hikes of 19% in the last three years across all their complexes, UCC Campus Accommodation has been the subject of some of the highest rent increases in the country.

While one can be critical of some of the early messages coming out of UCC in relation to accommodation, the University could be commended for its decision last month to offer refunds to any student living in campus accommodation who decides to return home due to the ongoing pandemic/lack of campus hours. This decision came following a UCC Students’ Union meeting with UCC Campus Accommodation after the announcement by the university that the majority of courses will be taking place entirely online for the remainder of the semester. 

Joe Leogue, Media and PR Officer for the University explained the rationale behind the decision: “UCC understands that for many students, campus accommodation is their home. However, the university acknowledges that some students in campus accommodation are living away from support networks such as family, relatives and friends and may wish to return to these environments during the current public health restrictions.” 

Reacting to this, Council Chairperson Mr. O’Riordan said: “It’s encouraging to see compassion from the University by offering refunds for Campus Accommodation, however UCC should follow the lead of statements from colleges in Limerick and elsewhere and let students know what second semester will look like so they can adequately prepare. It’s also now time for our politicians to pick up the slack and implement similar protections for student renting in private accommodations.”

 

Expensive Accommodation A ‘Barrier To Education’

The level of income generated by the university sector from student accommodation at large was estimated to increase from €51 million in 2014 to just under €120 million in 2024. The sector is growing exponentially as the numbers of students seeking accommodation increases. These soaring prices were a huge worry for students long before Covid-19 came into our consciousness. Commenting on the matter UCCSU Council Chairperson Stephen O’Riordan said: “The cost of campus accommodation can be exorbitant and only acts to create further barriers to education.” UCC spokespeople continue to assert that “campus accommodation rates are significantly below rates provided by private operators.”

In 2017, the Higher Education Authority estimated that there was a demand for 57,104 student bed spaces in 2014. It was projected that by 2024, such a number should rise to 68,670. The level of income generated by the university sector from student accommodation was estimated to increase from €51 million in 2014 to just under €120 million in 2024. The sector is growing exponentially as the numbers of students seeking accommodation increases. 

A tendency by property developers to build ‘luxury’ accommodation complexes has been a key characteristic of the student accommodation crisis in Ireland. Over recent years planned developments across the country have been offered student lodgings with incorporated elements of grandeur not typically associated with student living. Complexes advertised as ‘state of the art’ have been seen to demand higher prices, by comparison to the standard student house.

One such example is Cúirt na Coiribe, a privately owned student accommodation facility in Terryland in Galway City that currently provides 405 bed spaces to students in NUI Galway. In 2018 a decision to impose steep rental hikes, some as high as 18% in the facility caused controversy. Cúirt, which advertises itself as a provider of ‘luxury’ student accommodation defended the increases at the time stating that they were imposed to bring the complex in line with the wider student rental market in Galway City.

Earlier this month, plans for a major expansion of the Cúirt na Coiribe were granted by An Bord Pleanála which would see the facility double in capacity. Crucially however, within the plans provisions for the construction of a gym, games room, lounge facility and study spaces for residents were also included. The necessity of these facilities have been widely questioned and criticised by the student body and their representatives.

NUI Galway Students’ Union President Pádraic Toomey expressed his hope that the trend of accommodation providers offering costly luxury accommodation to students ends.

“We just hope that we don’t continue to see massive luxury accommodation that’s costing too much. We just hope that for students and for their families that the prices go down with the likes of this planned development.”

Cúirt na Coiribe is not the sole example of expensive luxury accommodation being rolled out across the city either. Recent on campus developments in NUI Galway such as Goldcrest Village have also seen hikes in prices coming hand in hand with opulent lodgings.

 

Fighting For Housing Rights

Students who have not been able to secure accommodation turn to organisations like Threshold. Threshold is a registered charity, established in Ireland in 1978 with the aim of securing a right to housing, particularly for households experiencing the problems of poverty and exclusion. 

New research from Threshold suggests Irish renters are increasingly unable to afford permanent housing. The findings also show higher percentages of income demanded for rent and just 15% are renting by choice. One expert heavily criticised the “lack of trajectory” from the Housing Ministers, demanding departmental reforms. Carried out in July of this year, the survey of 150 renters “paints a grim picture”, according to Threshold’s Policy Officer Ann Marie O’Reilly.

A spokesperson from Threshold commented on the situation: “Young workers and students, living in house shares or as licensees, were the first groups hit by the impact of COVID-19. Even before the country went into ‘lockdown’ Threshold advisors were receiving calls from young people, forced to leave their accommodation with a few hours’ notice. […] Licensees had zero protections, even under the moratorium on evictions. These groups have been hit again by the second ‘lockdown’ with the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors shutting down and the colleges going online.”

“Threshold’s Student Housing Survey 2020 found that 21% of those seeking accommodation for the new academic year were asked to pay four months’ rent or more in advance. We see now as the colleges closed down students out of pocket and forced them to return to the family home.” Whilst Covid-19 has shone a light on the shortcomings of the private rented sector as a place to live and make a home, organisations like Threshold say that young people are expected to rent until they “settle down” and buy a home.

“Co-living has been proposed as a suitable housing option for young people. Such complexes, where a developer’s goal is to the maximise profit per sq metre, are not suitable for most people, with high rents and limited living spaces. They do not provide homes. Unfortunately, housing policy does not address the needs of young people and those who do not buy, whether out of choice or not, their own home. Policy makers do not treat renting as a legitimate tenure. […] Rented homes are real homes,” the spokesperson finished.

With the growing housing crisis in the country, and the student housing crisis branching off, another aspect to consider is the cost of living for a student in Ireland.

“From 1st to 4th year I’ve seen properties go from less than €300 to over €400 for poor quality houses. As a working professional now, I’ve seen more poor quality houses advertised for over €500 per month,” says Mark* a 2018 graduate of the University of Limerick (UL).

“As a student the prejudice was if something went wrong – students were always to blame. There is an age bias. Experiences are much more pleasant now; landlords are more cooperative and understanding. I don’t have to pay by cash.”

However, students have experienced that working professionals, or recent graduates going into the working world can either experience prejudice or see a prejudice towards students when living with them. James*, a Business graduate at UL says he got a nicer and cheaper house when he took a year out for his Co-Operative placement, he was with all working professionals and believes that the location he secured for his placement year was far superior due to him being considered a working professional. The rise in demand in houses has always been evident but the lack of a rent cap could see them potentially increasing furthermore.

Claire McCarthy, a recent graduate at UL speaks of how her part- time job didn’t cover her rent and bills month on month. “If I didn’t get support from my parents then I would have to work endlessly to make ends meet, and as a result would probably have failed college.” Similarly, Erin Smyth a recent graduate at the UL says she struggled with trying to find affordable accommodation with rent being around the €500-600 mark, having increased from between €360-480 from last year.

 

*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals.

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