Member unions of the Union of Students Ireland (USI), along with UCDSU, marched on Leinster House today in protest of the national housing and homelessness crisis. Beginning at the Garden of Remembrance, student unions from all over the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland gathered together to call for radical change in housing legislation and tenant’s rights, before the Dáil vote next week.
Speaking to the University Observer, President of USI, Síona Cahill said that the reason for the march today was because of the “complete lack of planning by government” which has led to the crisis. “For years we’ve been saying that there is a massive issue. We could see that there is a 2% increase in the students attending college coming year on year…and yet the numbers of student houses and beds were not being build to match the need.” UCDSU President, Barry Murphy said that while the government have failed to address the purpose of what student accommodation should be “property developers have swooped in and build far too luxurious accommodation and availing of the tax breaks made available to them by the government. Students are being asked to pay up to €1400 a month for these units, when they basically want a simple room with a desk and a wardrobe.”
In a press release circulated before the march, USI stated that “On the night of the census in 2016, there were 429 students homeless in Ireland – making up 8% of the total homeless numbers. There are students effectively being locked out of college because they cannot find or afford suitable accommodation while they study.”
According the Cahill, there needs to be increase in the number of buildings for housing students. However, that is not the only reason for the protest today. Another outcome which USI and other Student Unions hope to achieve greater rights for students living in digs. “Legislation wise, they need tenants’ rights. the reality is, a student who lives with the homeowner has effectively no right of recourse. It’s not good enough, they need to be treated as tenants.” When asked about what UCDSU hope is done differently to secure housing for students, Murphy proposed that “we need to have a conversation about what student accommodation should actually be. Students should be able to share rooms if they want. They don’t want to be spending crazy amounts of money to achieve something when they just want a basic, standard room.” UCDSU hold the position of pushing the government to “introduce legislation that provides a minimum standard for homeowners who are availing of the tax break of €14,000 to letting out their spare rooms…and to make sure homeowners are not taking advantage of students.”
For students currently in digs, and in general, living away from home, being educated on their rights as tenants is of huge importance for both USI and UCDSU. USI currently are “working with the government and Threshold to provide workshops on campuses to ensure that in as many of college publications that are being made, that there are tenants’ rights.” USI also publish a student accommodation guide which outlines students’ rights when seeking tenancy. “We want make sure that at orientation each year, it’s a key focal point. But the reality is, we need to do a hell of a lot more to make sure students of what their rights and responsibilities are as tenant.” For students in UCD, accommodation officer, Ailbhe O’Halloran is responsible for guiding students and making sure they are aware of their rights.
A key reason behind the timing of the rally is it’s ahead of the Dáil vote on the housing crisis. “We need Fianna Fáil to support this,” as Cahill states, “it’s already a cross-party motion including Green party and Soc Dems [Social Democrats] and the majority of the left. We need Fianna Fáil to come out of the bushes and support housing rights.” UCDSU hopes that the rally will target Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy. “We have [targeted Eoghan Murphy] in the last number of years, pushing him to do these things, like a proper legislation in coming up with a proper solution to the housing crisis, not only for students, but for the homelessness issue across the country.” An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Maria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire TD) and Kay O’Donnell TD are all people who UCDSU are targeting with this rally to solve the homelessness crisis.
Despite the turnout of approximately 6,000 third level students, Cahill believes that some students were unable to attend due to “being locked out of education. There are students who aren’t here today because they couldn’t afford to be and that there are students who are not here to because they couldn’t even afford to go to third level education in the first place, because of the cost of accommodation.” There were approximately 30 students from UCD marching at the rally today. When asked about the low turnout from UCD students, Murphy admits that “it’s always a toss up between mid-week or weekend. To have it at the weekend, when students go home and work part-time jobs and midweek when you have students who are stuck in lectures, possibly has affected the turnout.” Murphy explains that because UCDSU is not a member of USI “we have not been apart of the organisation of it [the rally], but we are happy to attend.”
The rally culminated outside Leinster House, where it was attended by other trade unions, housing and homelessness charities and civil society groups. Among the speakers at the rally were Sheila Nunan, Congress President of ICTU; Orla O’Connor, co-director of Together4Yes; Senator Frances Black; Keith Troy of the Homeless & Housing Coalition, and Peter McVerry, among others.