Digs, Hotels and Automobiles: The Student Accommodation Crisis

Image Credit: Unsplash Licence rnaol

In the midst of a national student housing crisis, Riley Glaister-Ryder talks to students who have been forced to live in hotels, digs and cars due to a lack of affordable accommodation.

For accommodation to be removed from student use at a time when there are significant student accommodation shortages runs contrary to the aims of the National Student Accommodation Strategy and is deeply disappointing,” declared Higher Education Minister Simon Harris on September 22nd, in response to the ongoing student housing crisis across Ireland.

€75m in funding was secured by the government in June via the Council of the Eurpean Bank (COEB) and allocated toward purpose-built student accommodation. This announcement was preceded by news that UCD had finished the installation of brand-new on-campus Village apartments, as part of the university’s pledge to provide additional student bed spaces. The luxury studio apartments offer a nine-month stay for the extortionate price tag of €14,000.

UCD remains the most expensive university in Ireland for on-campus accommodation, with the most affordable (Belgrove) starting at roughly €8,000 for nine months. Many students in the University have been outpriced of student accommodation, and left unable to find suitable alternatives due to a lack of off campus accommodation.

Law student Louise Mahon is one such student left without housing. Speaking to the University Observer she outlines, “I struggle to concentrate in lectures because it’s always playing on my mind that I haven’t found somewhere to live yet.” Since June, Mahon has attempted to locate affordable housing to no avail. Instead of focusing on her final year responsibilities, she has had to bunk with her sister due to unaffordable rent and non-accommodating landlords. After a year off-campus due to the pandemic, Mahon shares, “I now feel overwhelmed by life on campus, yet I have no space of my own in which to recharge and take time out...I worry for people of a less fortunate upbringing or background, that they may lose out on the opportunity of going to UCD or other colleges just because the rents are sky high.”

"I now feel overwhelmed by life on campus yet I have no space of my own in which to recharge and take time out."

Mahon speaks for many in saying that “Very few students care about their accommodation being ‘luxury’, because realistically the college experience is built outside of your accommodation. As long as your space is clean, safe and warm with the necessary features and facilities, that’s sufficient.” As to whether UCD’s newest Village residences are much help to students in her situation, Mahon responded, “There is demand for cheaper, more basic, but clean and safe accommodation, not what’s being offered as it stands.” Mahon further outlined, “Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith in government housing officials at all,” relays Mahon. “It’s [even more] sickening to see multi-story hotels being built around the city where there is not sufficient demand for them.”

After months of ongoing protest, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris and others’ promises have only seemed to fall short or verge off in a different direction. Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien admitted on September 16th, “In certain parts of the country we’ve seen a big increase in purpose built student accommodation, but not necessarily all students can actually get into it.” 

Despite this, UCDSU and students’ unions across the country are continuously pushing for a solution and demanding answers from their respective universities. Last week, the USI (Union of Students Ireland) organized a “No Keys, No Degrees'' rally to protest unaffordable student housing and demanded answers from ultimately unresponsive politicians. UCDSU called Minister O’Brien out directly during a September 16th Housing Crisis rally, asking for “No more luxury builds,” “More investment in public housing” and “Full tenancy rights for students in digs,” among other rightful demands. 

Even some hotels offer more affordable housing options than on-campus residences. UCD Radiography student Robin Toner is spending her final on-campus semester in a hotel and driving or bussing to school each day, despite initial hopes of remaining near university facilities. 

Toner said of her €280 weekly accommodation, “It’s very strange to live in a hotel. There’s something about it that’s very not like living in a home. It’s not like being on holidays all the time, it’s this weird in-between of, like, ‘This isn’t my house but I’m living here for a long time.’”

"It’s very strange to live in a hotel. There’s something about it that’s very not like living in a home. It’s not like being on holidays all the time, it’s this weird in-between of, like, ‘This isn’t my house but I’m living here for a long time."

During her first year, Toner resided in UCD residence Ashfield. “My friend is living in the same place that she lived in the first year with me [Ashfield], and it’s more expensive...it’s gone up, I think, one or two grand since we lived there and it looks the exact same,” she reported. Toner thought back to initial construction of the new Village residences; “They’ve been building them since I was in first-year, and it’s kind of a bit annoying to see them here now when they’re all unaffordable,” she shared. “That’s not the direction they should be going in to provide student beds because it’s alienating a massive proportion of the students and it’s not actually tackling the problem at all.”

Dublin city “Student Residences” are becoming increasingly present throughout the city centre, but these luxury accommodations are of no help to many students. Toner explained, “I have my car and I work kind of odd times so I need my car to get to work, and you can’t park a car there. You pay 6,000+ grand a semester, but you can’t park your car. These places are situated in precarious places in town, and I’m not going to park my car in a place if I’m not sure it’s going to be there in the morning.”

Other students have even had to resort to more affordable means than €300-€500 weekly hotel bills. Finishing his Masters, UCD student Ahmad Alkhan was asked to vacate his on-campus residence during final exams and three weeks before the end of his programme and had to resort to living out of a rental car. Upon asking for an extension, “I was told that I had to move out immediately. I had to rent a van to pack my stuff and live in Kerry where accommodation is manageable and available,” Alkhan said; he shared he felt “disadvantaged by UCD and was put in a lot of stress without any kind of help.

Toner also related to Alkhan’s academic stress, sharing, “I was doing exams and things like that and it was so chaotic and hectic, I need to study for my exam this week but I can’t because I need to know where I’m going to live. I’m not going to be homeless.” 

If he could speak directly to university housing officials, Alkhan said he would tell them that “having cheap affordable accommodation [often] yields better performing students and better ranking for the school. Higher education institutions should not prioritize profit over their students.”

When asked about common reactions to her living situation, Toner laughed and said, “It is strange when people ask, ‘Where are you living this year?’ And I’m like, ‘A hotel’. And their first judgement is, ‘Oh my she’s got so much money!’ Then I have to explain to them, ‘No, it’s actually cheaper than living in UCD.

“You should see the look on their faces when they hear that,” she paused, “they nearly don’t believe it.”

Indeed, such high prices for student residences are deemed “necessary” rather than conscious decisions made by higher, seemingly unreachable powers. From UCD’s €12.4m University Club (a space designed to invite private investors and grants) to exorbitant student residences across Dublin, the financial realities of the majority of students are thoughtlessly tossed aside. Take away every building, every club, every grassy field -- students remain the sole function, heart and spirit of any university.