Students facing huge problems trying for accommodation in most urban centres

 

If you're flying the coop to go to college this autumn, the thing that's going to cost you the most heartache over the coming weeks and the most money over the year is accommodation. Rent is the single biggest cost students face. This year students can expect to pay an average of £65 a week to share a room in Dublin, and only slight less in the Cork and Galway.

"It's pretty bad and there's nothing to indicate that it's going to get any better. We're facing into a similar crisis situation as last year," USI welfare officer John Paul Swaine says. "If you look at student spending surveys the money spent on accommodation is growing. It's a huge outlay. If you're on a fixed budget, as most students are, there's only so much less you can spend on other things like food, there has to be a limit."

The current situation comes as no surprise to Swaine. Each year the year the USI warns that students cannot afford to spend any more money on rent yet each year the rents climb. "Our calls have been consistent over the last number of years. We need more on-campus and purpose housing.

If we persist in allowing the student population to compete in the private rented sector, we allow them to be priced out. Students are not players in the free market, we need to take as many students as possible out of the private rented sector."

It's easy to see why on-campus housing is the best solution for all concerned. Students can't afford free-market rents, so the logical step is to remove them from the private sector and by doing this you free up rented accommodation for everyone else. There are moves in this direction. In July 2000, the report of the Commission on the Private Rented Residential Sector allowed for the tax breaks under Section 50 of the 1999 Act to be extended to encourage developers to build more purpose accommodation for students.

However, Swaine says that on it's own the Section 50 relief will not solve the crises, but he fears the Government may be using it as an excuse to wash it's hands of the problem.

"There are far more attractive opportunities for investors than getting involved in student accommodation. Some have been built but we're off such a low base that it's having very little impact."

Last year, the USI ran a campaign highlighting the lack of on-campus and student purpose accommodation in the State. Then the European average was 17 per cent, in Britain it was 28 per cent, while only 6 per cent of Irish students were housed in student purpose-built accommodation. This year that figure has risen to 7 per cent.

"There have been minor increases but these not going to address a crisis. Compared with Britain our figures are incredibly low. The real solution is for the Government to invest directly in student accommodation, but they have failed to do so."

There are also concerns, Swaine says, about the way tenancy in the new student-purpose housing is being regulated. "There is a serious worry that students are being denied tenants' rights. The student purpose developments are all in their infancy but it seems that most places are offering a licence to reside which affords people less right than a proper lease. Essentially these places are private developments, so it's odd that students are not extended full tenants' rights. Obviously it suits landlords for tenants to have the least rights possible but a code of practice needs to be developed."

If you're not one of the lucky 7 per cent who manage to secure on-campus housing you'll be left at the mercy of the private rented sector and may end up in overcrowded accommodation you can't really afford.

"The minimum you'll get away with paying in most places is £45-£55 to share an often small room," he says. "Occupancy levels have risen and often there will be more students in a house than the terms of the lease allow, forcing tenants into an unregulated situation." Swaine thinks landlords are aware of this situation and turn a blind eye if the rent is there on time. "Local authorities have been very poor at registering landlords and were still waiting on a housing bill, which makes it very easy for a landlord to abuse a tenant if they chose to do so."

The director of student affairs at DCU, Barry Kehoe, says overcrowding is particularly acute in Dublin. This year's cost of college survey from DCU puts rent at £280 a month - an increase of £40 on last year. With the maximum maintenance grant now standing at £1,882, the average rent is beyond the reach of many students

"Students who can't afford this will cram into flats and houses to lower the rent," says Kehoe. "You'll find seven students sharing a house that should really only accommodate a maximum of five."

On-campus accommodation used to be the more expensive option for DCU students, says Kehoe, but at £52 a week it now represents much better value than the private sector, in which affordable housing is becoming increasingly rare.

The housing scarcity is not solely a Dublin phenomenon but is affecting students in many regional urban centres, Margaret O'Neill of Threshold in Cork, says.

"There's a serious lack of affordable space and such a huge demand this year. At the moment accommodation is very difficult to find. There used to be a little let up in availability at this time of year. Generally, in the summer months it's easier, but this is not the case this year."

Cork students can expect to pay up to £60 to share this year and in terms of availability a lot of places have already been snapped up by professionals before the students come along. "There is so little available that landlords are keeping rents as high as professionals are prepared to pay. The paper that has the accommodation listings is the Echo and a lot of advertisements are for professional people only. Landlords are really aware of how valuable their investment is because of the shortage."

Although finding a place in Cork is more difficult than previously, students shouldn't despair. They will find accommodation, but it will just take longer than before, O'Neill says. Students should start looking as soon as they know they have a college place in Cork.

"Planning is the key. I would advise any student to have a serious think about what they need before they start looking. Is the flat near college? Is there public transport nearby and how frequent is it? Is the area safe. Careful consideration will save a lot of time."

Your first port of call should be your college accommodation office, where you know you won't be competing with the professionals for housing. "Talk to your accommodation officer and use their knowledge. Study the college's listings to give yourself an opportunity to digest the level of rents. Don't become disheartened if the first few places are gone because it's important that you don't panic and rush into something you might regret. Bear in mind you have to live in the place for a whole year."

The cost of housing and the pressure of finding a place has become too much for many students, says Swaine, and they will go to extreme lengths to avoid it. "People are doing things they would never have done in the past. Students are commuting from as far away as Portlaoise to Dublin, leaving home at 6 a.m. and not returning until 8 p.m. Others are forced to lead double lives as students and workers. Some 53 per cent of students have part-time jobs and 11 per cent of those work between 25 and 36 hours a week. They're not getting involved in clubs and societies; they're working just to get through. It's quite unfortunate and quite wrong."

Swaine feels the problem student housing is being swept under the carpet.

"It's an uncomfortable situation to be right and to be ignored, but the will just doesn't seem to be there.

"If students don't find accommodation, they don't complete their college course. The investment would not break the bank. The solution lies in on-campus accommodation but we've yet to see the Government's commitment to act on it."