The USI represents 374,000 students across Ireland. We wish to clearly indicate our support for the Bill and thank its proposers, Deputies Ó Broin and Funchion. We support the imperative of giving students living in student-specific accommodation under licence the full protections of the Residential Tenancies Acts, including access to the TB and inclusion in RPZs.
On the night of the census in 2016, there were 429 homeless students in Ireland, comprising more than 8% of the total homeless number that night. When the Government’s student accommodation strategy was launched in July 2017, the excess demand for purpose-built student accommodation was more than 23,000 beds. That is expected to increase to almost 26,000 by 2019, which means that even if all projected purpose-built student accommodation is successfully completed, we will still be short 16,000 beds.
Casting an eye over Dublin inner city, one would be forgiven for thinking that student accommodation sufficient to meet the need is being built. However, there has been a 2% increase in student numbers each year for the past decade and that growth is expected to continue for the next decade. The Government has not built enough student accommodation to cover the increase, let alone addressing the existing shortage. The housing system is buckling under the pressure and becoming a significant barrier to accessing education. According to a DIT student life survey, the estimated cost of living per annum while studying at third level is €12,495, including fees of €3,000, which are the second highest in Europe. Grant rates were massively cut in budget 2012 and have not been adequately restored, in particular for postgraduate students.
Three key issues in regard to purpose-built student accommodation are cost and lack of affordability, the lack of RPZs governing increases and the lack of tenant rights. Much new student accommodation is built as purpose-built student accommodation by Irish and global property investors, but the rents being charged are often unaffordable for the average student. In our experience, such accommodation is predominantly targeted at international students, who usually pay higher fees and are thus attractive for underfunded colleges. This new supply will not relieve the student accommodation crisis. This form of accommodation and the large profits being made from it by real estate investors are being subsidised and encouraged by Government policy that allows investors to pay little tax. Furthermore, they do not have a Part V social housing obligation and the units are far smaller than normal apartment regulation size. Importantly, the new units are exempt from the rent cap and allow a higher market rent which embeds permanent unaffordability into Irish student accommodation. This shows that current Government policy has a strong influence in supporting speculative and unaffordable housing provision. The purpose-built student accommodation currently under construction may include cinemas, bowling alleys and games rooms that are unnecessary for students who face high education costs.
Students in purpose-built student accommodation are treated as licensees rather than tenants and do not have the same rights. Purpose-built student accommodation in RPZs does not fall under the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. This summer, there were rent increases of up to 18% in Galway, affecting NUIG students among others, and 27% in Dublin, affecting DCU students among others. The inclusion of student accommodation in RPZs is the least that should be considered. Students are sleeping in cars, staying late in the library and couch surfing with a friend or commuting for hours to get to lectures, all of which affect their ability to get a decent education. The system is perpetuating and worsening educational inequality because many students who are considering going to college will not pursue their first-choice courses in places such Dublin, Cork or Galway because of the cost of accommodation in urban areas.
In effect, this is reducing the social capital of upcoming generations.
It is important to note that the Bill at hand applies to some "student specific accommodation" but may not apply to all of it. The Residential Tenancies Act, at section 3(1)(c), states that the Act does not apply to accommodation let "by or to" a public authority. At section 4(1), a public authority is defined as, among other things, "a recognised educational institution, namely, any university, technical college, regional technical college, secondary or technical college or other institution or body of persons approved of, for the purpose of providing an approved course of study, by the Minister for Education." In short, places such as Trinity Hall, owned and operated by a university, are already excluded from the Act. It is not clear how this would square with the provisions of the Bill, which state that a tenancy will include a licence in student-specific accommodation. Residents of Trinity Hall are under a licence and it is clearly student-specific accommodation but it is excluded by another section of the Act.
It would be important to clear up this aspect before the Bill proceeds further. USI would support bringing halls under the remit of the act, as it would be unfair that students in these residences should be treated differently by virtue of renting from a university rather than a private landlord. There has been an 11.3% increase on the average asking rent in 2018 up to September and it is already clear that the rent pressure zone concept is failing new entrants to the market. Rent pressure zones do not fully function as intended but the increases therein are still substantially less than the 27% increases we saw in student accommodation near DCU.
Purpose-built student accommodation is the most preferred option for students according to the USI housing survey. However, the opportunity to build is hindered due to institutes of technology being unable to borrow to build student accommodation. USI has called on the Government to provide capital grants for higher education institutes to specifically build accommodation and lobbied for this to happen in budget 2019.
Over one in five of respondents to our 2017 survey experienced unexpected increases in rent before or shortly after moving in or outside of the allowed or agreed period. A quarter of all respondents had a dispute with their accommodation provider, out of which the majority were in purpose-built student accommodation and privately rented accommodation. Of those who experienced conflict, 17% sought professional help. Most frequently, students looking for assistance turned to their local student union or Threshold. Of the students in purpose-built student accommodation, 70% have a signed lease agreement.
Unless there is a radical change in the direction of housing policy, this crisis is going to continue to deepen and worsen but many solutions exist. They are outlined by the new broad civil society alliance, the Raise the Roof campaign and the national housing and homeless coalition. They were detailed in the Opposition motion passed by a majority of Deputies in the Dáil. The housing crisis has reached the point where the Union of Students in Ireland is leading with housing charities, trades unions and other civil society groups in calling for change. Students are frustrated but it is more than that. This is affecting their access to education and their success even within that system. Next September and August will be even worse for accommodation and we all know it. Students will then have to go into the private rental sector when we qualify; we are the generation rent who will suffer significantly later in this crisis. However, we do not intend to accept the current situation, one without adequate rights, rent caps and rent pressure zones. We will continue to campaign for the right to affordable and adequate housing for students and for a housing system that will ensure we can have affordable secure housing for our lives.