Accommodation crisis can have detrimental effect on studies

Students can find themselves with no choice but to accept substandard housing

While thousands of Leaving Cert students will be celebrating their results this week, many of those who wish to go on to third-level education face an overcrowded housing market, reports Dylan O’Connell

With the Leaving Certificate results out tomorrow and the CAO offers out on August 22, up to 40,000 first-time students are set to accept offers for third-level courses around the country.

In total, a record 80,887 people have applied for CAO courses this year. Meanwhile, more than 300,000 third-level students will also be returning to their studies. And despite the excitement this time of year can bring, an autumn of uncertainty awaits many students in the face of an ever-tightening student housing market.

Numbers in third-level education are set to increase massively over the next 10 years. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has predicted that there will be an increase from 167,991 students in full-time education (FTEs) in 2014 to 192,886 FTEs in 2024, which will add to the demand for rental property enormously. The demand for property and private rental accommodation already outstrips demand, and rising rents and rising student numbers threaten to exacerbate matters further.

In addition, there has been a huge increase in the cost of third-level education with many students buckling under the expense. A recent Union of Students in Ireland (USI) survey found 87% said they fear having to drop out of college because of the costs and 38% say they miss meals to try to fund college.

While the cost of a degree has skyrocketed, the property market has only added to the burden. Dublin house prices are up 10% since 2015, and the average student room costs €460 a month, while city centre prices are up at €1,000. In Cork City, there are just 87 units available for rent, while average rent surpassed €1,000 a month in early 2016.

There are currently around 30,000 beds available to rent for students. However, supply is not spread across the country to cater to the areas of highest demand. This lack of bed space creates a number of problems, including overcrowding, questionable living conditions, and poverty.

Overcrowding is a massive factor in private rentals at third level. Due to the lack of availability of housing, it is a common occurrence for a number of students to take up one house.

Chris McCahill, a 22-year-old studying for his Masters in Geography at UCC, said: “A 3/4-bedroom house having five- or six-plus people in it can easily become very cramped and, thinking of kitchens, bathrooms, etc, doesn’t really afford the tenants much personal space.”

Second-year UCC Social Science student Emma Breen, 19, has first-hand experience of the kind of overcrowding the the rental market squeeze can cause.

“This year, myself and nine other girls are living in a house on College Road, which we started looking for around February because it seemed houses were filling up fast,” she said.

Overcrowded living spaces give rise to questionable living conditions, and high demand puts little onus on landlords to make repairs. UCC student Mary Collins, 24, said: “I’ve lived in damp-riddled houses, but I’ve been lucky. I know people who have not had hot water for months on end, who live in houses with doors or windows jammed or nailed shut — a huge fire hazard — houses with no insulation, houses with mice and rats, and more.”

The pressure to secure housing also leaves students vulnerable to scams, as UCD student Rebecca Hart found out to her cost when she and her friends were conned out of €4,400 by scammers using a fake accommodation website.

Meanwhile, the consequences of not securing accommodation can be homelessness. While readily acknowledged as a major factor in the wider housing crisis, with 5,000 people homeless or in emergency accommodation, student homelessness has received less attention.

Nonetheless, students have been hit hard by the crisis. Dorothea Mages made headlines last year when it emerged that the 41-year-old mature student would study in UCC’s Boole Library until 2am before sleeping under a bridge each night.

Student homelessness is not always as dramatic, but can be insidious. To address the student housing crisis, Housing Minister Simon Coveney has allocated €49,000 for the appointment of a new student housing officer to the USI — a role that has yet to be filled.

USI deputy president Jack Leahy welcomed the announcement, but stressed the need for a tailor-made infrastructural solution.

“The place for students right now is definitely not the private rental market, with purpose-built student accommodation much easier to manage. They are built with the students’ needs in mind.”

Mr Leahy added that the student housing officer role is only a stop-gap measure.

“One of their roles will be to run and manage homes for a students’ webpage, such as reaching out to homeowners and getting them to take students in, with the €12,000 tax relief,” he said.

“This is something the Department of Education have reached out and supported before, but now we’re pushing for the Department of Housing to promote that as a short-term measure. It’s not the perfect solution, but it is better than €700 or €800 a month for a Dublin room. They’ll be involved in that and there will be a huge amount of promotion.”

Meanwhile, in Dublin, a €40m student facility with 471 bed spaces has been completed on Thomas St, near the National College of Art and Design, and will be available for use in September, while almost 1,900 further spaces are on schedule to be completed in the capital by the 2017 academic year.

British student accommodation giant Ziggurat plans to build 4,000 student units in Cork, Dublin, and Galway in a €400m development.

Student union leaders have said prospective renters should not panic.

“I would urge students not to get too worried and worked up about it,” said UCC student welfare officer Rory O’Donnell. “Keep actively looking through the UCC Studentpad site and our UCC Accommodation Search Facebook Page, and something will come up.”

Other, longer-term measures, such as changing the profile of student renters, would help ease the student crisis, said Mr O’Donnell.

“We’d love to see more students who are living close to Cork City commute to college instead of getting a house near the college. This would massively help in freeing up spaces for students who aren’t in a position to commute.”

‘My mental health collapsed sleeping on a couch for year’

Alexander Cosgrave says his is not an uncommon story.
Alexander Cosgrave says his is not an uncommon story.

Alexander Cosgrave, a 22-year-old Politics and Philosophy student at UCC, spent his final year sleeping on a friend’s couch in Ballincollig, some 8km from campus, after his initial accommodation plans fell through. He tells the Irish Examiner his is not an uncommon story.

“I know people who have had to live on friends’ sofas, I know people who have had to commute for hours and hours a day,” says Alexander.

“You see, a lot of the issue with student homelessness is that is not a visible homelessness. Most of the time it is a subtle, insidious homelessness. You don’t have people living rough on the street, but you have people who couch-surf every night, bum favours off families and friends, to be able to get through college, to get to college every day and get their education.”

These less-than-ideal arrangements are detrimental to both a student’s wellbeing and their academic career, says Alexander.

“Time-travelling was a useful skill I learned,” he laughs. “No, mostly I didn’t sleep that much, my health went out the window, my mental health collapsed. I did a lot involving personal relationships and friendships I am not proud of.

“I had a lot of fights I shouldn’t have had. By the end of September, I was pretty strung out. By the end of the year, I was a husk of a human. Getting my degree was something I had to do, but I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do it [that way].

“Where I was staying was far out from college, it wasn’t a good walking distance. I could walk it but it was an hour walk.

“If I wanted to stay in the library late to 2am, I would have to walk an hour home at two in the morning, which is not healthy and safe. I know people who have it worse.”

On top of everything else, Alexander ran in February’s general election for the Green Party in Limerick County, highlighting sustainable planning and education reform.

“I believe [the Government] has a housing policy, but I don’t know how much a focus there is on student housing,” he says.

“But I believe, as a student activist, there should be a huge focus on housing for the higher education. Like, there is a broader problem with housing here in Ireland, there are all these ghost estates, which are out in the middle of nowhere, and if you’re going to college in Dublin you have to learn to drive, have to commute long hours each day.

“It is my opinion that the State is trying to price students out of the market. In education over the last number of years, there has been a gradual increase in fees, there is talking about bringing in full fees, while there is talking about increasing student numbers — and it’s definitely going to get worse, because there are just not a lot of houses out there.”

Students are tricked out of €4,400 by fake website

Rebecca Hart: Students are desperate to find housing.
Rebecca Hart: Students are desperate to find housing.

The increased pressure on students to secure a room to live in during the year has made students more vulnerable to scams.

While looking for a house for herself and friends for the upcoming academic year, UCD nursing student Rebecca Hart came across the seemingly ideal spot on Lepordstown Avenue, Stillorgan, on daft.ie. She learned from the advertisers they were an elderly couple who lived in the UK and who wanted someone to mind their house back in Ireland.

The couple, Lloyd and Martha, explained that they organised their affairs through British travel website TripAdvisor. They sent pictures of themselves, and told Rebecca about TripAdvisor’s payment protection scheme, which meant that if customers are not happy with their booking they will be offered a full refund.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s Liveline, Rebecca, 22, from Wexford, said: “We had looked into it ourselves and it was legit, so we followed through the links and were happy enough.

“It was almost too good to be true really, but between the four of us we managed to beg, borrow, and steal to get the €4,400 deposit for the house.”

Rebecca and her friends transferred their money to one account and then to Llyod and Martha via TripAdvisor.

However, after the couple suggested viewing dates which where unsuitable, the contact went quiet.

After contacting TripAdvisor with their booking reference and screenshots, the students learned that the booking did not exist, and that they had been duped by a fake version of the website.

Daft.ie has confirmed the listing was fraudulent and offered to work with a Garda investigation, but has told the students that there is nothing more it can do.

“We’re waiting for the guards,” said Rebecca. “Unfortunately, that seems to be a lot slower than we would like. The bank has been very helpful but there’s only so much they can do.”

Meanwhile, reports surfaced last week of overseas students falling victim to similar rental scams in Cork City. Online scammers using accommodation websites and online forums are said to have contacted at least 30 students claiming that they have rooms to rent to them.

UCCSU welfare officer Rory O’Donnell said: “It’s been highlighted to me in the last three weeks, and there are definitely two cases where a deposit was paid, and possibly one other, all of them international students.”

Rebecca has recently secured alternative accommodation for the upcoming academic year. However, the scammers remain at large.

“We’re vulnerable targets really, and students would go through desperate measures to get some place to live,” she said. “So I wouldn’t say it is a common thing, but there is a bit of it going on because some students are so desperate to find some place to live.”


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