“Students are at the bottom of the heap”

Students in Dublin are facing a housing-crisis

Many students decide to study away from home and have their first real experience of independence. Good living conditions such as quality and affordable accommodation that is convenient to the University play an important role in ensuring the students’ quality of life and their likelihood of completing their studies. With Dublin facing an on-going housing crisis and more and more students moving to the capital, these standards are becoming harder and harder for them to obtain.

Anita had high hopes when she left her home country Nigeria two years ago to study in the upcoming and growing capital of Ireland: Dublin. She wanted to start a new life, get to know a new culture, make new friends, learn, and simply make herself at home in an unknown and exciting environment. The cheerful 22-year-old was confident and ambitious when she enrolled in the Journalism and Visual Media course in Dublin’s Griffith College. Never would she have thought how hard it would be for her to settle down in the Irish capital, simply because she couldn’t find any affordable, good quality accommodation.

When she first came to Dublin she lived in the college’s accommodation, paying €600/month for a shared room in a small four-bedroom flat. The high rent and the many strict rules the college enforced on the students, for example regarding visitors, however made her feel restricted. After the first semester she set out to look for a different place to stay. “I simply didn’t have any peace of mind there and didn’t feel free,” she explains.

Spending her summer at home, she spent over three months looking for a new place to live in. Uncertain where she would end up and scared she returned back to Dublin, because she simply couldn’t find anywhere to stay. At first she slept in her aunts’ living room a far distance away from her college. But that wasn’t a long-term solution for her. “I didn’t want to bother her anymore and I just wanted to be independent.”

Anita had a hard time when she first moved to Dublin two years ago

”So, I sent about ten emails a day and in the end even went to the houses directly – I became a stalker basically, because I was going crazy. But it’s actually madness finding a house here; the landlords kept turning me down, because so often when they saw me they said ‘Oh sorry, I don’t want a black person in my house’. I was so frustrated. I cried every single day and couldn’t concentrate on my schoolwork at all. It was hard.”

Unfortunately, in Ireland’s major industrial centre, Dublin, Anita isn’t the only student facing problems finding and maintaining appropriate accommodation. The problem doesn’t just affect international students: Irish students, and the population in general, are struggling with increasing rents in the private sector and the shortage of housing in the city.

Whilst Dublin isn’t the only European city dealing with problems regarding housing, it differs in the way that this strained situation only started emerging in 2011. Fuelled by a strong population movement to the city, the housing market has since become increasingly competitive, resulting in a major housing crisis.

“There currently is a house price inflation – from 2012 the rents in Dublin have gone up by 41.4%. In the year ending March 2016 alone, rent-a-room costs per month rose by an average of 9%,” economist and Assistant Professor of Economics at Trinity College Dublin Ronan Lyons states. He focuses mainly on academic research on housing markets, whilst also working with Ireland’s largest housing website Daft.ie over the last twelve years.

“So the average rent in the city for a three-bed-house in Dublin is now around €1,600,” he adds. Assuming students want to have their own room, the average rent per month therefore lies by around €500, not including bills.

Another factor dramatizing the situation is the extreme shortage of houses, the economist states: “Typically you would expect to see up to 5,000 places to live in Dublin on the market, which we would need to cover the demand, but currently there are only around 1,000. So the shortage is there and it’s getting worse in the capital.”

In his eyes the reasons leading to this crisis in housing are diverse: “Dublin is an attractive place for many, because a lot of jobs are being created, but it’s also a growing population, a significant surplus of births over deaths, people starting families, increasing immigration after a number of years of emigration, as well as people living longer on average, and a declining household size,” Ronan Lyons sums up.

The lack of availability of housing also stems from a lack of construction activity in recent years. According to the Economics Professor, one of the main problems Dublin and the rest of Ireland has is that construction costs are higher than in other EU-countries and that Irish developers don’t have the right qualifications to build apartments, which are needed to meet the high demand. Therefore the construction industry doesn’t have the supplies to create enough new homes. “As a consequence costs of homes rise and those on lower incomes, including students, are slowly being squeezed out.”

Dublin’s houses are typically small and level

Students like Anita are one of the most affected groups of the Irish population in the continually growing housing crisis. As there is a strong lack of campus accommodation and students don’t have the time or the capacity to work full-time jobs, they can’t compete with young professionals or families in the private sector. “Students are literally at the bottom of the heap,” Domhnaill Harkin, Welfare Officer at Dublin City University (DCU) states.

“The situation for students is very difficult at the moment. The campus accommodation is always full, because there simply isn’t enough,” he explains. Most Universities in Ireland are either state owned or state funded, so they generally don’t have the capacity to build enough new homes required for the amount of registered students.

Additionally, the University’s primary goal is not focused on accommodation, but in attracting more students. According to Higher Education Authority (HEA) predictions, the number of full-time students will rise from 167,991 in 2014 to 192,886 in 2024. Growing student mobility and an active rise in higher education in Ireland and abroad are propelling this development.

“There is just a lack of houses in general. And because of the strong competition students need to pay very expensive rents or lower their standards. So, it’s very tough for students to find accommodation; more and more students now live in shared accommodations or so called ‘digs’,” the DCU Welfare Officer points out.

‘Digs’ are the type of accommodation where students stay in a family home or other private person’s home and pay for lodging as well as food. “It’s not ideal for students, but it’s something that has to be done,” the Students Union’ representative illustrates further.

Domhnaill, who is in charge of DCU’s housing website and advises students who are searching for accommodation, believes the situation in Dublin won’t become better if the government doesn’t start investing into more student homes. “Because Dublin is increasingly becoming more popular, in the future students might have to start dropping out of college or go on to other cities,” he says.

A submission by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) states that in addition to these negative consequences more and more students are forced to commute further distances or seek poor quality accommodation, which, as a report by the HEA shows, puts stress and pressure on students and makes it less likely for them to complete their education.

Moreover students are being pushed out of higher-level education and progressively face overcrowding or even homelessness. “The issue of homelessness is also a student issue, and should be acknowledged as such,” the USI states in the document.

21-year old Sarah* came to Dublin two years ago from her small hometown Wexford to find a job. At first she stayed at a friend’s house, until she could find a place to work and a suitable and affordable accommodation for herself. Unable to get either before her friend wanted her out, she started squatting in Grangegoreman, a building complex located in the North of Dublin city centre.

The squat is set up in a vast block of buildings and warehouses. Most of the high walls are covered in Graffiti. The big yard that connects the buildings has a fireplace in the centre. Sofas and chairs are pulled up all around it. “Last night they had a poetry reading,” Sarah explains, “a lot of people from outside the squat came too.” On this sunny day there is a vibrant atmosphere in the air.

My guide through the squat

“Most people here have quite left-wing ideologies and there is a lot of circus and art and that sort of culture here, so there are a lot of projects going on. And everyone is willing to help each other – it’s definitely a community.”

While some people in the squat live there for political reasons, most of them simply can’t afford the rents anymore. “There are so many places in Dublin that are just empty and at the same time so many people that need housing and can’t afford the rents,” Sarah says. The Vacant Homes Paper released in May 2016 by the Housing Agency found 38,000 vacant houses and apartments in Dublin alone. Although the data stems from the 2011 census, there is no strong reason to believe that these figures have changed significantly in recent years.

One of the common rooms in Grangegoreman Squat

Sarah believes squats and squatting are a logical consequence of this vacancy as well as the rising rents. “Places like Grangegoreman, they just have it and they don’t want anyone living there, but they don’t use it,” she says with a bewildered expression. “And squatting isn’t illegal in Ireland,” she explains further, “it is quite a new thing, I think, but there are about seven squats in the city now that I know about. And I know some students live there too – the rent is just such a huge problem here.”

Trinity College’s Welfare and Equality Officer Conor Clancy believes that international companies that are coming into the market might help relieve the supply-demand situation for students in the city. “But they are mainly interested in profit,” he says.

“They don’t see student housing as a social cause, whereas we do. We think if you provide someone with good housing, it means they can come and do a University degree and they will become exponentially more valuable to the social system and to the country.” Education is seen as one of the key factors in social and economic wellbeing in Ireland. In his eyes the current strained situation leads to students functioning at a lower level, because the standards for students are driven down.

The hole in Lisa’s kitchen has been there for over a month

International student Lisa, who came to Dublin in January for an Erasmus exchange, had heard about the tense housing situation beforehand. So she took the first single room that seemed adequate enough to her. She now lives in six square meters in the North of Dublin city centre, paying her landlord €100/week in cash. “Although the location is good and my roommates and I all have our own room, the house is just in a bad condition,” the 25-year old redhead from Germany says.

“There is a hole in our kitchen in the ceiling and the window – it just started dripping down onto the kitchen table. When we tried to fix it, a part of the ceiling just came off. And the worst thing is, our landlord is doing nothing about it. He only came by to fix it temporarily – it has been like that for over a month now – and only after we threatened to call the police, because it just isn’t safe to live here.”

Her room consists of a bed, an old wardrobe, a broken dresser, a small desk and a chair. The air in the house feels damp. Lisa’s windows aren’t sealed off properly, so at night it can get very cold in her room. “I can’t really study here,” she explains, “but that doesn’t bother me so much. What I find worse is how the landlord treats us – he just doesn’t care and tries to make as much money as he can. When I had friends staying over for a few nights he charged me 400 Euros extra. And he didn’t give me a rental contract for over three months, even though I asked him again and again.”

Lisa pays over 400 Euros a month for a six square meter room

Most of the people that are renting out in Dublin are private landlords. And often they are made responsible for setting the prices too high and treating students badly. “The landlords are always blamed, but it’s a government problem,” 52-year old Mary Conway points out. She is a landlord for ten houses herself and exclusively rents her houses to students. “My houses are in student areas and I have a good relationship with my students – up until now that has mostly worked out very well,” she says.

Because of a bad property decision in the economic crisis, she still owes the bank a lot of money. And she thinks most landlords face similar problems: “Most landlords have mortgages and are in trouble. And we don’t try to exploit the students. I try to provide them with good quality accommodation and set my rents according to the Irish Property Owners Association that I am a member of.”

She explains that she doesn’t make a lot of money through renting out, which is currently her full-time job. “We have to pay so many taxes – basically we are taxed three times – in the end there isn’t much left for me to live on.” She believes the government has to make a change or the situation will only become worse for everyone.

The USI’s submission as well as other recent reports on the issues of housing such as the latest Daft.ie Rental Report, the Housing Agency’s National Statement of Housing and Demand 2014 and the HEA’s On Student Accommodation: Demand & Supply stress that housing in general and the student housing situation is becoming an increasingly acute topic and that there is strong demand for a change.

But there might be hope for the students in Dublin: The newly formed Irish government has made a first attempt in addressing the issue of housing and homelessness as a priority in its 150-page draft Programme for Partnership published in May 2016 and through appointing a Cabinet Minster for Housing. The document states “the new Minister for Housing will examine new measures to boost student accommodation supply as part of the Action Plan on Housing.”

Anita finally found a home for herself, near to the college, in which she can live freely and concentrate on her studies again. She has started to support other Nigerians who come to Dublin finding accommodation for them and assisting them when they get there.

“Because it is just unfair, if you come in and have to go through that depressive state – I really want to spare everyone from that. Housing is a right and I think everyone should have access to it.”

*- Sarah’s name has been changed at her request.