Student Accommodation Crisis continues ahead of new term : “I was convinced that I would miss the first week of classes as I had nowhere to live”

Image Credit: Tessa Ndjonkou

While UCD prides itself on being a ‘Global University’, it does not offer a large amount of fundamental support to its students facing accommodation issues.

According to the 2023 TU Dublin Cost of Living Guide, students living away from home will need approximately €14,000 to support themselves during the upcoming academic year. With the ever-increasing costs for utilities, rent, social events and food feeding into year-on-year price hikes, which in 2023 has risen to over €800, a growing number of CAO applicants have begun to consider study options outside of Dublin. 

Not only is the accommodation crisis affecting prospective students, but it also dramatically impacts returning students, especially international students. Many returning international students recount the same tale of stress and anxiety over having nowhere to live for the upcoming academic year. Sage*, a third year Politics and Economics student from the United States spoke to The University Observer. She revealed that she obtained accommodation for the upcoming academic year two days ago and had previously been convinced that she would be unable to attend the first week of classes. Having previously been able to secure on-campus residences for the first two years of her degree, her luck ran out this year as her situation was considered less urgent as a returning student. With over a thousand accommodation places set aside for first-years, that leaves 9,500 international students, like her, fighting for under 4,000 on-campus placements. 

While UCD prides itself on being a ‘Global University’, it does not offer a large amount of fundamental support to its international students facing accommodation issues. Currently the accommodation service brings little to no assistance to students in urgent need for housing. Several students cite repeated instances of being told ‘We are sorry we cannot do anything for you, please refer to the UCD Accommodation Pad’ when they try to reach UCD Residences. 

“As international students, our lives rotate around the university. We wouldn’t be in Ireland if it weren’t for the university, so being essentially turned away and only being offered a ‘sorry’ as condolences and not being offered any practical help, it’s really disheartening, and unwelcoming. UCD’s huge advertising point is that they’re a global university -- yet they offer no support for international students.” 

Sage only received help in the form of a student advisor, who offered psychological support and tried to alleviate her anxiety as the start of the academic year grew closer and she still hadn’t managed to secure accommodation. 

Sharron*, a third-year Classics student from the United States, having not received a placement offer from UCD Residences, pursued various alternative channels for accommodation: Collegecribs, DAFT, and UCD Accommodation Pad, to name a few. At first glance, there were over 50 rooms available, but when she put the 7-day filter, the number dwindled to just 11. “I felt as though those renting rooms are setting their room availability to 5-days a week to ensure that they have Irish students occupying the room, especially since international students would have nowhere to live for the weekend and would need the room for the full week,” she said while explaining how disheartening the experience had been.  

“Up until two days ago, I was convinced that I would miss the first week of classes as I had nowhere to live. They [UCD] have to assume that  I, as an international student, have no connections in Ireland.”

With high rents and a lack of quality properties to rent, many international students are facing overcrowded accommodation -- with more than half of international students sharing a room with three or more people. Within this context, the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) called for urgent action to be taken on the student accommodation crisis. The Accommodation Survey of International students led by ICOS in 2022 revealed that 11% of these students were sharing a room with six or more people, compared to the 10% who had their own room. 

The current legislation on overcrowding was put into place through  Section 4 of the Housing Act in 1966, but has since failed to be updated to meet current needs. Indeed, section 63 states that “A house shall be deemed to be overcrowded [...] if two of the persons ordinarily sleeping in the house and the number of rooms are persons of ten years of age or more of opposite sexes and not living together as husband and wife must sleep in the same room." While an Overcrowded Housing Bill was put forward in 2018, it is still stuck at the Committee Stage. The consensus for students and union representatives is that something needs to change sooner than later. To sum up, UCDSU have made it clear that they expect the government to take action to ensure students are not exposed to further exploitation. 

Two UCD students who have chosen to remain anonymous have shared their experiences with The University Observer and revealed they received “absolutely no guidance from UCD services to find accommodation in due time”. One source decried the standard of accommodation on offer if any: “When I moved into my accommodation last year in UCD Village, there was dirty cutlery and half eaten food behind my bed." He continued: “Even if you have the financial means to secure housing near UCD, which you rarely do, expect your accommodation to be at a subpar standard. For €2000 euro, you’d be getting bedspace." He shared that he nearly fell victim to a scam: “I was asked to make a deposit up front on a house and it turned out there was no house” and warned returning  students to “not to expect to live in UCD past first year and to figure out contingency plans as soon as possible." The second source admits that although they have “considerable parental assistance of up to 1500+/month to cover rent, [they] still will not be able to secure a place ahead of the academic year.” “Dealing with unresponsive, sometimes incompetent and rude letting agents and landlords for months on end just to be rushed into a place while on the verge of homelessness is beyond stressful."

When asked about what they hoped the Government could do to alleviate the situation even in the short-term they admitted they hoped to see the government “ease up on planning approvals and allow for denser and taller construction. I hope UCDSU keeps putting pressure on UCD to get rid of their 4% yearly rent increases and puts more pressure on the government to implement rent controls and promote the construction of more affordable housing. They just need to build more housing, even if it isn’t luxurious."

The UCDSU Accomodation Report launched in May 2023 confirmed what many students across UCD and Ireland already know to be true: two-thirds of students no longer residing at home are paying well above the national average for student accommodation. The current figures revealed by the report are €750 euros per month which is about €300 above the national average of €469 according to the data accounted in the Higher Education Authority report. One of the primary take-aways from the report is the realisation that structural improvements to the housing crisis as a whole are unlikely. As such, student-led movements like UCDSU and TCDSU are honing on the urgency of the situation and calling for immediate government action to reverse the effects of the ongoing crisis. The recurring solutions proposed are the following: the abolishing of tuition fees, expansion of SUSI grants, provision of genuinely affordable student beds by colleges and a significant improvement of the legislation surrounding landlord-occupied homes or “Digs”. 

During their meeting with Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Daragh O’Brien, UCDSU asked for better regulations and improved communication on the Rent-A-Room Relief scheme, which allows homeowners to earn up to €14,000 per year tax-free if they rent out a room to private tenants. In doing so, UCDSU hopes to promote the introduction of Digs legislation, and the introduction of new guidelines in the Residential Tenancies Act. As an increasing number of scams, abuses of power are being reported by students, the need for binding legislation is made clearer each day. 

UCDSU President Martha Ní Riada and Welfare Officer Jill Nelis revealed to The Observer that “small, incremental changes are being made to help along long-term efforts” and that increasingly the upper echelons of UCD administration are lending their support to these initiatives. Ní Riada went on to mention that “there is a new Cost of Living and Student Support working group with a lot of buy-in from senior levels of management which leaves us the space to talk about these issues." Nelis contended: “We want to bring a stronger focus on student welfare and student wellbeing to accommodation and how the university is run as a whole."

The 2023 Edition of the Digs Drive, held in Dublin city centre from 29th to the 31st of August marked the first intervarsity collaboration between UCDSU and TCDSU in matters of housing. The initiative had Sabbatical Officers from UCD and Trinity College flyering outside of the Stephen’s Green Luas Stop and on Dame Street during high traffic hours in hopes of securing vacant rooms for students who are still left wanting as the beginning of term approaches. 

Speaking to The University Observer, TCDSU President László Molnárfi voiced his displeasure at the redundancy of the struggles students face in matters of housing: “The fact that we even have to do this [...] To go to these lengths is shocking. The housing situation has become so normalised simply because the government doesn’t have any solutions." He goes on to say: “Year on year like clockwork, students are couchsurfing, sleeping at friends' houses or dropping out of their courses because they simply cannot find a place to live." 

UCDSU Education Officer, Sarah McGrath reflects on the impact last years Digs Drive had and how it influenced their current approach to landlord-occupied housing: “Last year we were able to help students secure up to four-hundred rooms which tells us that the Digs Drive works well and that people are still very unfamiliar with the legislation around housing including initiatives like the Rent A Room Relief. We hope that our flyering will bring more clarity to the situation overall."

The predominant messaging both student unions seem to be following is the memo of visibility. This very visibility will then be leveraged to exert pressure on their respective college administrations and government to generate funding to build accessible and affordable housing for more students. Indeed, Aoife Bennet, TCDSU Welfare and Equality Officer says she measures the success of an event of this magnitude by the amount of awareness it generates on the overall issue of housing. UCDSU President Martha Nì Riada maintains: “We are hoping that the government funds the next round of residencies in UCD and we want our college administration to follow through and Minister Harris and his department to remain faithful to their engagement that they will fund or a at least partially fund these next phases."

Although Digs are widely understood to not be the most sustainable form of housing, UCDSU and TCDSU maintain their stance to push for last-minute accommodation solutions. Despite the fact that 18% of respondents for the UCDSU Accomodation Report reveal that they do not have some form of written agreement detailing the terms and conditions of their tenancy, Welfare Offcier Jill Nelis asserts that “we are consistent in our approach to this crisis because we understand the necessity of something, the reality of the market and, the urgency of the situation.” President Martha Ní Riada concurs: “Digs aren’t the optimal solution but we’d rather someone in a bed than not in college at all."

While the situation remains dire and will likely be until the foreseeable future, pressure will continue to be applied to both the government and UCD through campaigns and protests such as the Cost of Living Coalition protest on the 7th of October at 1pm in Parnell Square West. 

*Names have been changed for anonymity