Catherine Conlon: Housing is an academic, health and wellbeing issue — students demand change

Protest a response to the cost-of-living crisis, specifically the emergency surrounding housing, rent and accommodation that is making the ability to live on campus in affordable accommodation impossible
Catherine Conlon: Housing is an academic, health and wellbeing issue — students demand change

Students make their voices heard at the USI student walkout protest at University College Cork on Thursday. Picture: Larry Cummins 

Third-level students walked out of lectures on Thursday to protest at the lack of accommodation available for new and returning students. They are using their voice to demand change and they are right to do so.

The protest is a response to the cost-of-living crisis, specifically the emergency surrounding housing, rent and accommodation that is making the ability to live on campus in affordable accommodation impossible. 

The students are calling for a ban on evictions, rent cuts, affordable quality housing and public funding for public housing. Student unions from third-level institutions all around Ireland are encouraging their students to walk out to boost support for the cause.

UCC Students' Union has called for renters' rights for those staying in digs, as well as the abolition of the controversial Student Contribution Charge. 

Additional demands include funding for higher education, reform of the Susi grant and raising the minimum wage to reflect living costs. 

Students claim on-campus accommodation is booked out and private rented accommodation has disappeared post-pandemic, with many students commuting up to five hours to get to their lectures.

Incalculable harm

The students are calling for a ban on evictions, rent cuts, affordable quality housing and public funding for public housing. Picture: Larry Cummins
The students are calling for a ban on evictions, rent cuts, affordable quality housing and public funding for public housing. Picture: Larry Cummins

This crisis is causing incalculable harm to the health of young people. The lack of availability of any kind of secure, affordable housing for either students or young adults entering the workforce is not acceptable. Students voicing their protests are taking a valuable first step in ensuring the status quo is changed.

"A lack of affordable housing can impact the academic, health and wellbeing of students, as they face not only a high level of stress, but also a socio-economic burden that can further marginalise them and reproduce social hierarchies, and class, gender, racialist or ageist divides," said Luisa Sotomayor, associate professor of the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Toronto.

This stark effect on health is intuitively understandable. Who does not recognise the feeling of opening the front door, dropping a bag, and breathing a sigh of relief that you are home — whether it be the end of a school day, a long work shift or returning home from a night out?

But new forecasts from Davy Stockbrokers this week state the number of homes completed next year will fall because higher costs are already prompting developers to delay schemes. The outlook for 2023 may be even worse if the supply of apartments, which can have a longer lead-in and build time than traditional homes, goes into decline.

Added to that, attempts to address the housing crisis are repeatedly met with a culture of nimbyism that stalls progress. 

The most recent example is the objections being raised to Government plans to build 500 modular homes to house Ukrainian refugees — homes that are planned to be rapidly installed and available within months. 

Modular homes have the potential to address not just the crisis of housing refugees but also be a key element in the provision of student accommodation as well as social housing. Part of the solution to the provision of affordable, sustainable homes for this generation and the next.

Culture of nimbyism

UCC Students' Union has called for renters' rights for those staying in digs, as well as the abolition of the controversial Student Contribution Charge. Picture: Larry Cummins
UCC Students' Union has called for renters' rights for those staying in digs, as well as the abolition of the controversial Student Contribution Charge. Picture: Larry Cummins

The Taoiseach recognised Ireland’s culture of nimbyism in 2021 and its ability to stymie efforts to solve the housing crisis when he said: "All political parties need to pull back from this and say we can’t object to everything that turns up. Young people in this country do need a chance to live in affordable houses.

"I just think there are too many objections — left, right and centre."

Rory Hearne in his new book ‘Gaffs’ agrees the younger generation is being alienated from their own country, resulting in inequality, isolation, and endemic loneliness. The crisis is also impacting the economy. 

Hearne states businesses will not locate and grow in Ireland if their workers have nowhere to live and settle. You cannot have a functioning economy without a stable and sufficient supply of affordable homes and the private market on its own will never provide that. There is no country in the world where it does. Global investor funds do not want to provide affordable homes that would lead to lower rents because their profits are based on skyrocketing rents.

Hearne suggests the only way to ensure a sufficient supply of affordable homes is for the State and not-for-profit housing providers to provide them. He says we have forgotten the lessons of the past. 

It was not private investors or developers that built our stock of affordable homes from the 1920s to the 1990s, it was Irish governments, the State — through our local authorities. 

In 1975, when a third of the population was below the poverty line, local authorities built almost 9,000 homes, with a population of just over 3m. In 2019, local authorities build less than a quarter of that, at just 2,000 homes.

Global investor funds

This crisis has happened because housing has been looked upon as an investment commodity — the need to get on the property ladder. But the ladder has no rungs for the current generation. Picture: Larry Cummins
This crisis has happened because housing has been looked upon as an investment commodity — the need to get on the property ladder. But the ladder has no rungs for the current generation. Picture: Larry Cummins

The housing market has been taken over by global investor funds that have transformed the housing system from providing homes to making vast profits through exorbitant rents that maximise the returns to shareholders and global wealth investors — at the expense of young adults who are paying those rents. Homes have been turned into assets.

But Hearne is optimistic  there is a solution. Using a social policy, health, and psychological lens to view housing puts a greater focus on the human impact of the crisis.

This crisis has happened because housing has been looked upon as an investment commodity — the need to get on the property ladder. But the ladder has no rungs for the current generation.

The solution, Hearne suggests, is for the Irish State to build homes for people and actively subsidise them to buy affordable homes. The Irish State has a huge amount of land on which it can build affordable housing. 

He suggests this could be achieved by the setting up of a semi-state building and retrofit company that could start building up the capacity of skilled workers to engage at pace with building affordable homes.

We need to develop an active and inclusive role for the State at the centre of home building — with the priority to build affordable, sustainable, secure homes — not assets. 

Ultimately, this can be achieved by all of us raising our voice and demanding solutions be found. Using our voices — particularly young people’s voices — has achieved huge social change in the last two decades. It can have the same effect on housing policy.

The housing crisis can be resolved by placing the right to housing in the Constitution, by placing the State at the centre of home-building as it was in previous decades, and by a collective attitudinal shift in the way in which we all respond to innovative, creative, and sustainable solutions to the provision of homes?

So best of luck to all the students in their protest on Thursday — using their voice to demand change, the right to affordable student accommodation and the future right to secure, affordable and sustainable homes.

  • Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of human health and nutrition at Safefood

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