College accommodation: Secure, affordable housing proving a real challenge

Helen O’Callaghan on the difficulties students face in living away from home.

College accommodation: Secure, affordable housing proving a real challenge

Helen O’Callaghan on the difficulties students face in living away from home.

A surge of ‘luxury’ student accommodation is being built but it’s not what students and families want or need.

Aoife Duff of the Union of Students in Ireland says the current rental market is taking advantage of the vulnerable, with landlords countrywide upping rents to unaffordable prices.

Insisting that “affordable, quality and secure student accommodation” is an educational necessity and a human right, Duff says:

Students don’t want luxury accommodation, [yet] accommodation being built is overpriced and not sustainable for them or their families to afford. What comes up time and again is the need for affordable, secure accommodation.

Duff says rental scams are a huge issue for students, particularly for international students who can’t view accommodation beforehand and who are forced to secure it ahead and pay deposits online.

And, while the introductions of rent pressure zones is a positive development, she says new buildings don’t fall under this measure, so it may not solve the issue of highly-priced student accommodation.

Adding that the accommodation-hunt has been tough for freshers for several years now, she says by the time CAO offers are released, a large portion of student accommodation is already taken.

“What we see is a race for first year students to get a deposit down on anything they can afford,” she said.

“Students who receive second-round CAO offers suffer the most, as at that point most rooms are taken.”

UCC Student Union president Ben Dunlea says the timing of the CAO results (August 16) and the beginning of Orientation (August 29) leaves students from across the country a window of less than two weeks to find a bed, an incredibly stressful experience for people starting out on in third-level.

He agrees with Duff that while there has been legislation to slow rent increases, there has at the same time been increased interest from the private sector in profiting off the housing crisis.

“Last year a new student accommodation [complex] opened targeted at UCC students which charges €210+ per week.

"The same company is expanding in Cork and are currently developing a new site in the city centre, which will again be aimed at students. They know students have few options other than to pay,” says Dunlea, who calls for Government action to stop the private sector introducing extortionate prices.

Aisling Fagan, vice-president for welfare and equality at DCU, points to the same trio of problems facing students searching for their home-away-from-home: insufficient numbers of beds, high rents and advantage-taking landlords, as well as a fourth problem: students’ lack of knowledge about their rights.

Last year, the average national monthly rent for students was €430 while this year, the average figure has increased to €469.

In Dublin, the average figure is projected to be €574, compared with €541 last year. Rent in Dublin can vary widely from less than €495 per month for a shared room, up to €1,976 or more for a one-bedroom unit in Dublin 2.

Fagan says the accommodation crisis is hitting students big-time.

We hear horror stories: students staying on couches with friends or living in camper vans, students not being able to return or go to college in the first place because they can’t find suitable accommodation. Students are taking out loans or deciding not to come to college in Dublin.

She says prospective students should first look into purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), though acknowledges this may be unaffordable for many. Digs are cheaper and she encourages students to look at this option if money’s an obstacle.

Adding that the local community around DCU is very aware there’s a university in the area and that students are in need of rooms, she points to the database on the Student Union website, which has a list of hundreds of digs locally.

“Home-owners contact us and input all their information: room, address, price.”

Rent a Room scheme captured in database

With the Rent a Room scheme seeing home-owners able to earn €14,000 annually tax-free, Deidre Falvey, accommodation officer in CIT student services department, says she now has over 300 registered digs/owner-occupiers on her database.

“Five years ago, I’d have had about 80. My digs list has increased every year for the last few years because of the Rent a Room scheme.”

While many first year students might long for PBSA-style accommodation or a shared house, finding these options can prove impossible. The former’s often booked a year ahead.

“I got calls last September for student apartments for this September.

"People will ring in the next couple of weeks for September 2020,” says Falvey, adding however that cancellation will arise when CAO offers come out and some students don’t get their desired course.

She urges those hunting for cancellations to contact student apartments directly by email/through their website. (“There’ll also be movement in the first weeks of college life in October,” she says, adding that when the year commences and students are registered they’re welcome to call her office if looking for cancellations for student apartments/shared houses.)

With many landlords cherry-picking more mature students for shared houses, digs are the option that bridges the accommodation gap, says Falvey.

“There’s no reason for students to be living in their car or travelling up and down to college or not being in a safe home environment — we have plenty digs to offer and, that way, enough accommodation to cover everybody.”

And while some students mightn’t want to go for digs, it can “end up a very positive experience with some staying for the full four years,” says Falvey.

However, Duff warns that those opting for digs don’t have any legal protection, and home-owners are able to set their own rent price.

UCD Students Union does not encourage digs. Its president Joanna Siewierska, says: “You’re not a tenant or a licensee, which means you don’t have a legal relationship with the people you’re renting your room from.

“We have heard of students not having permission to use the kitchen at certain hours. Also digs might only be for five days a week, so you have to travel home every weekend, which adds extra cost.”

For this reason UCD Students’ Union is hugely promoting its invaluable commuter guide, which explains the best way to travel to college each day if you haven’t secured local accommodation.

But, says Siewierska, it creates a lot of stress when students are travelling from even farther afield.

“We’ve seen students from Limerick trying to commute. We have Wexford, Dundalk and Drogheda bus connections for students from farther away who are trying to keep their place.

It creates a lot of stresses,” she says, adding that the vast majority of students who find Dublin-based accommodation work part-time to alleviate financial pressure on parents.

In Cork, Dunlea would like to see Government improve transport networks around colleges.

If we can get transport networks right, this opens up possibility of students living further away from university and will decrease demand on housing in the immediate area, and lower cost of accommodation.

Siewierska says by the first quarter of 2019, the Government had delivered 6,362 purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) bed spaces countrywide since the launch of Rebuilding Ireland.

Since the first quarter of 2019, just over 6,000 PBSAs were under construction, while planning permission had been granted for a further 6,005 and another 2,880 were at the planning application stage.

“We want to see more of this kind of accommodation delivered,” says Siewierska.

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