“Student mobilisation on this issue works” - Eoin Ó Broin on UCD’s rent hikes.

Image Credit: Sinn Féin

“I’ll be meeting the Provost of Trinity. Cork, Galway and Limerick have all come back suggesting dates. The only two I’m waiting to hear back from are Maynooth and UCD”. The University Observer spoke with Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman on the rent hike controversies in Irish Universities.

Eoin Ó Broin, one of the most prominent critics of the former government's record on housing, spoke to The University Observer about the recent rent hikes in Irish universities. UCD, DCU, UCC and Maynooth are among the universities that have announced they will be increasing rents for on campus accommodation in recent weeks, sparking a flurry of protests and widespread anger. 

Many of these universities, UCD included, have announced they will raise the rents by the maximum 4% allowed under the law. The 4% cap was brought in to, in theory, to prevent people from being priced out of the rental market in Rent Pressure Zones (RPZ). Ó Broin spoke of his concerns surrounding the legislation, saying that “when the rent pressure zone (RPZ) legislation was first introduced in December 2016, we argued very strongly against it. Our concern with the RPZ is that it still allows a 12.5% increase over three years, and while at that stage the likes of Dublin and Galway and Cork etc, mostly the private rental sector and the student sector received double digit inflations. 

“The idea that 12% is acceptable was unacceptable to us. So we were critical of it and we argued very strongly that at that stage rent reviews should be linked to inflation, so that rents could only go up in line with wages and the overall economy, and then they would fall in line with wage and the economy if there’s a recession.”

He added that “the spirit of the legislation was to protect students from double digit rent increases, and a double digit rent increase is a double digit rent increase whether it’s stretched over a year or over three years.”

Speaking about the specific issues faced when dealing with on-campus university accommodation, Ó Broin said that last year when he met with some senior officials in universities who were responsible for overseeing their investments in student specific accommodation, they would say two things. “The first is that they have a pastoral duty of care to their students, which is correct and that’s something I would support. What they also say is that they also have to borrow money and pay back the loans on that money when they’re providing accomodation. Therefore the rents they set have to cover the cost of the financing, building and managing the maintenance of the stock.”

Last week Ó Broin announced that he was seeking meetings with the heads of major Irish universities to discuss the ongoing problems, including those who have not announced that they would be raising rents, but may consider doing so. The response has so far been quite good, with five out of the seven universities getting back to arrange meetings. UCD have yet to respond to Ó Broin. 

The purposes of the meetings is to explore whether or not there is a better way for them to meet their financing requirements without heaping a 12.5% increase on student rents; “because if on the one hand they’re saying they have a pastoral duty of care and that particularly applies to students from modest income households who don’t live in proximity to the university, then pushing those students further away from education because of the cost of accommodation clearly doesn’t meet their pastoral responsibilities.”

The proposed rent increases have resulted in protests in UCD, led by the UCDSU and the campaign group Fix Our Education. A meeting of the University Management Team was disrupted by the protest, with a petition with some 2000 signatures being handed directly to the board. UCD have responded to the demands by refusing to back down on the proposed hikes, although more direct action and protest are planned. Ó Broin, commenting on the protests said that he wants “to commend the students who organised the protests earlier this week. Student mobilisation on this issue works. The reason why we got the law clarified in terms of the rent pressure zones was because of the really excellent action of students in Galway and Dublin city, supported by the Students’ Unions and USI. My message to students is be as loud and as noisey and as active as you can on this issue, because that puts huge pressure on the political system to act and that is what’s required at this stage.”