The exorbitant price of student accommodation has dominated news headlines every year as students return to university. This summer, both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin proposed legislation to introduce rent caps on accommodation built purposefully for students. Over the past year, prices on student accommodation have seen increases of 15-20%, according to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. This has been allowed to happen as student accommodation does not fall under the legislation for rent-pressure zones, which limit annual rent increases to 4% in specific areas. This is the case for most student digs, as agreements are made using licences and not tenancies. Hence, students are not classed as tenants and do not receive the same protections.
The issue of student accommodation came to national attention after DCU students held several protests against the large rent hikes last May. Students that resided in Shanowen Student Residences were protesting 27% rent increases.
Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin, who introduced The Residential Tenancies (student rents, rights and protections) Bill 2018 in the Dáil, commended DCU students for the protests. The Bill aims to class students residing in purpose-built accommodation as tenants and therefore to afford them the same protections. Ó Broin urged all students availing of student residences to speak to the residential tenancy board, so as to clarify how the law operated in regard to licensing agreements currently in use.
A 2015 Higher Education Authority (HEA) report revealed that there was a serious lack of accommodation for students to live in while attending university. Over the last year, 3,000 new spaces for individual students were built and 7,000 more are currently under construction. Moreover, planning permission was given to another 7,000 other places.
Speaking of residences that are currently available Varadkar said “this student accommodation is great, it is high quality, it is brilliant that we have it.” He also noted the price hikes in his statement, which he said he didn’t think “anyone [could] stand over”.
Varadkar also stated that “what we don’t want to do though is throw the baby out with the bathwater. And the problem sometimes with legislation is that it goes too far… you might actually cause developers to stop building the student accommodation. The risk with the Opposition legislation is that their legislation might go too far”.
The Taoiseach and the parties proposing the legislation agreed to promote digs and the rent a room scheme. They also set out “to work over the summer on legislative proposals to limit the increases in the price of students accommodation.”
The protest gathered the support of the Union of Students Ireland (USI) who said they “welcomed the comments made by the Taoiseach proposing legislation on rent caps for purpose built student accommodation,” in a statement they released on the 17th July of this year. In their statement they explained that “spikes in rental costs are making student accommodation and higher education unaffordable for students, and are pushing them back into the already overcrowded private rental sector, away from third level institutions. Legislation would ensure that student accommodation providers would have to adhere to rent pressure zones. It’s time we stopped treating students like cash cows.”
With the new legislation being formed so at it will stand against the Opposition’s criticism and reach the High Court, many students are criticising the government for focusing on “long-term solutions” and neglecting to offer short term, immediate solutions for students currently facing deferring their course or dropping out completely due to rent prices in Dublin. In a panel discussion with Minister Maria Bailey on housing, UCD Students’ Union President Barry Murphy said “students who have to commute 2 hours to college, are not the getting the college experience they are paying for… there needs to be more short term solutions.” The response from Deputy Bailey in which she recounted that she travelled from “Killiney to Finglas, I just did it, I didn’t think twice”, highlights the disconnect the current government have with third level students and the fees they pay not only for housing but also university.
Rent caps are not only affecting students’ experiences in university. During the presentation of the Budget 2019, Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe acknowledged that more work was needed to provide “permanent solutions for those in temporary and emergency accommodation and to improve affordability for those on low and middle incomes,” as there are currently 10,000 homeless people in Ireland, forced to live in hotels or on the streets. The Budget 2019 saw €2.3 billion allocated to the housing programme in the coming year. €93 million was channeled into funds for local authorities to begin construction of new accommodation.