Waste Watergate

Michael Bergin examines the saga of students’ living conditions in UCD Village Studios, after a rather gruesome surprise greeted residents in November.

If you or yours are unfortunately in a position where you have nowhere to stay for the academic year, and happen to find yourself booked in to UCD’s new Village Studio apartments, you may be reassured by UCD Residence’s website, which flashily states:

“Our Village Studio bedrooms are a perfect choice for residents who want a bit more privacy.”

Satire, admittedly, is dead, but there was no need for UCD to defecate on its grave. For most people, falling asleep at night under the watchful gaze of a total stranger, whose bed is no more than arms’ length away from yours, does not constitute privacy. However, the wincing irony does not stop there.

Another pull-quote from the website details the “easy access” residents will have to the “dynamic communal areas and retail spaces below”. To begin with, when the elevator does work in the Village Studios building, it does not lead to any sort of dynamic communal and retail spaces, as they are currently still under construction. Secondly, the elevator does not work very often.

Unfortunately, the most grievous bit of sick irony on the website is that of the bathroom’s description. Described as “private”, these tiny windowless cubby holes are clearly shared by two people. Perhaps by “private”, UCD meant to say that by locking yourself in there, you will create your only moment of privacy in the day.

And even this assertion was comically undone two months ago. Noting discoloured water in the toilet bowl, residents in the building were horrified by a pungent, smothering odour, emanating from their bathrooms, and becoming stronger over time. Residents were eventually forced to use friend’s bathrooms, embarrassingly, or public toilets, as the smell became too strong for people to enter their own bathrooms.

However, after a week, the smell began to gradually fade away. The water in the toilet bowl returned to its normal colour, and residents regained access to their bathrooms.

The issue was all but over. And then residents were informed, a month later, as to why their toilet water had been discoloured.

Apparently, a builder on site had connected a raw wastewater pipe to the rainwater harvesting tank on the roof of the UCD Village Studios apartments, accidentally channelling raw wastewater into residents’ toilets. This was then diluted by the water already in the tank. As such, residents had to find out that unfortunately, the discoloured water in their toilet bowls contained trace amounts of human faeces and urine. And that accounted for the smell too. Obviously.

Residents were then informed that their bathrooms would be deep cleaned, and that the toilet lines would also be flushed with chlorine. Toothbrushes were advised to be destroyed. And all in a place which had been advertised as “luxury”. The Hamptons this is not.

In yet another act of excruciating irony, residents were offered €30 One4All gift cards as compensation. Add the stench of condescension to the stench of excrement, then.

It's clear from the experience of so many students in Village Studios that these apartments were not ready, are not fit for purpose, and were hastily opened at the beginning of the year in order to maximise somebody’s bottom line. Most students appreciate that campus accommodation is not supposed to be luxury, merely functional. Village Studios were advertised as the former, despite not even being the latter.

However, aside from the toilet water, the plot is also thickening. Having had the issue reported to them by numerous residents, UCDSU are entering the fray, and demanding a rent reduction for residents. A meeting has been called for Tuesday the 18th, in order to discuss proposals they aim to bring to management, seeking a fair solution to the issue.

This is more than welcome, and given what students have had to put up with in the Village Studios this year, I wish them well. However, the root cause of this issue is greed usurping the University’s concerns for the welfare of their students.

As already discussed, these apartments were not ready when students were moved into them (initially, they didn’t even contain bins). And yet, UCD Residences persisted in putting students who were desperate to find campus accommodation into the Village Studios. These students were then charged the same price as students living in comparatively idyllic accommodation such as Belgrove and Merville.

Belgrove and Merville have private bedrooms, large kitchens and living areas, and crucially, their toilets have never been filled with sludge. Why then, are new students being sold cramped, uncomfortable, accommodation with no privacy, and which is clearly not ready, for the exact same price?

It represents a gross admission by UCD of the detachment senior management experiences when trying to relate to undergraduate students. I do wonder if Andrew Deeks’ presidential toilet bowl ever faced similar issues. I don’t think 30 quid would have covered it.

In the end, it is a matter of transparency. Had the Village Studios been accurately portrayed on the UCD Residences website, and not so hideously misrepresented, then students might have had a better idea as to what they were getting into. Of course, this transparency would not excuse the fact that the toilet water wasn’t transparent, but it would make it look like an isolated, outlying incident, rather than the culmination of a whole process of disregard and ambivalence when it comes to students’ best interests.

The greatest condemnation of the wastewater incident is that for some students, it was abhorrent, but not entirely unexpected. Most didn’t report the incident to the SU, as they simply felt it was an issue that they would have to put up with. Students’ expectations about their living conditions shouldn’t be so low.

When the stuff hit the fan, nobody was surprised.

Perhaps this, more than anything, should alarm us.