Fiachra Johnston speaks to Kevin Donoghue about the widespread housing crisis.
It’s no secret that the problem of accommodation that plagues Dublin is not improving at an acceptable rate, if at all. With the number of students expected to attend a third-level institution estimated to go up a third by 2028, it’s a situation that has to be addressed immediately, and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has warned the government of this.
In July, a report was released stating that there would be a consistent shortage of 25,000 places nationally, this including future accommodation developing over the next ten years. However, this is not the whole story, as available housing in Dublin, and indeed in many cities in Ireland, has become something of a rarity.
Last month, figures released by the Peter McVerry Trust showed that nearly 5,500 adults had been forced into emergency homeless shelters in Dublin alone, and 57 per cent of all adults entering into these shelters were homeless for over six months. It’s an issue that has grown not only to become a serious problem for students within third-level education, but to a massive number of people in Dublin as well.
Kevin Donoghue, the now former President of the Union of Students Ireland (USI) after Anne Hoey was elected for the 2016/17 term, is a strong believer of this. “There’s an accommodation issue for essentially everyone who lives in Dublin, Cork and Galway in particular,” he says.
“So it doesn’t matter if you’re a student or a graduate. If you’re renting or indeed trying to buy your first home there’s an accommodation shortage, so any kind of approach we have in solving the issue will have to factor that into account. It can’t develop into a situation where we’re trying to make one group compete with another.”
With this becoming an increasing problem, surely this means there’s a chance the government may start to take a serious look into the state of accommodation? Donoghue believes otherwise. “The only reason student accommodation is addressed in any political party’s manifesto is because students and the students union pushed to have it,” he says. And he may be right. As the fallout of the General Election starts shaping the next Dáil, and the discussion for now is on the election of a new Taoiseach, housing has fallen by the wayside.
Though there has been a push by the USI to increase funding for programs to create accommodation, it appears that student housing is seen as only one part of a larger problem that needs to be dealt with first before anything can be done.
“There’s been a lack of commitment I think by the government to properly address the issue,” Donoghue says. “Although to be fair it did come up in a couple of party manifestos for the general election. Unless we take proper, measurable steps on a short, medium and long term basis… it’s going to keep getting worse.”
It’s not just the lack of housing for Dublin residents that’s the problem. From 2013 to 2016, Dublin City Council inspected 6,300 apartments in the city and almost 90 per cent of them were found to be in unacceptable conditions. Apartments were found to have live wiring in bathrooms, broken smoke and fire alarms, and various structural defects.
This adds a whole new layer of difficulty to providing accommodation to those in need of it, as they should not be forced to live in apartments of the same standard as those investigated. Students may be used to a budget lifestyle, but being subjugated to dangerous conditions because of financial difficulties is something that cannot become a trend.
In order to avoid this issue for students, Donoghue has some suggestions. “There are a number of different strands that are a part of that solution,” Donoghue says. “One is promoting things like digs. That’s a very immediate thing that you can do to try and alleviate the problem. Looking at repurposing existing buildings or looking at NAMA properties is part of the medium term solution. And then just more purpose built student accommodation is long term the answer to the problem. But I think that even if you were to able to sign off on all of that today the issue is going to get worse before it gets better.”
At the very least work appears to have started in order to try and treat the problem to some degree. The Housing Finance Agency and Department of the Environment announced recently that they were funding Túath to acquire 117 homes for families applying for council housing, and in terms of supporting students, Donoghue believes there is value in looking at how other countries have handled the problem. “If you look at for example, in Amsterdam, about a third or a quarter of all student accommodation is owned by students’ unions. If you look at Aalto University in Finland, the college is about the size of NUIG, and the Student’s Union own about 3,000 beds. I think we’ll start to move towards the work of our European counterparts in terms of actually owning or operating or playing a more significant role in the provision of accommodation for students in the future.”
With the crisis growing by the month, it can only be hoped for that if not the new government, then a third-party such as USI or Túath will be able to find a solution that aids both students and graduates find suitable places of living, and soon.