‘We don’t need bowling alleys or cinemas, we need affordable places to live’

Finding a place to live can be a deeply traumatic experience in the current rental market

House or apartment shares are an option but, for first-year college students, these can be hard to find. Photograph: iStock

House or apartment shares are an option but, for first-year college students, these can be hard to find. Photograph: iStock

 

For many students, finding a place to live is their first real test of being an independent adult. In the current rental market, however, it’s an unfair and often deeply traumatic test.

Although new student accommodation units are coming on stream, they’re not likely to end the annual student accommodation crisis. Over the next few weeks, significant airtime and column inches will be devoted to desperate stories about students commuting long distances to college or, if they’re very lucky, sleeping on a relative’s dusty old floor.

Why, with hundreds of new beds coming on stream this year, are students still struggling?

Lorna Fitzpatrick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)
Lorna Fitzpatrick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI)

Lorna Fitzpatrick, president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), says students could be forgiven for thinking the accommodation crisis is easing. “A lot of the units, however, are luxury units and not what students want or can afford. We don’t need bowling alleys or cinemas: we need affordable places to live. Yes, there is a 4 per cent rent cap per annum, but that means that the cost of accommodation continues to rise and, for the majority of students, it’s not what they want. Added to our relatively high ‘registration fees’, these costs are a massive financial strain for students and their families.”

There’s no sugar-coating it: finding a place to live isn’t easy. On-campus accommodation is, by this stage, all sewn up. House or apartment shares are an option but, for first-year college students, these can be hard to find. Unless students have a ready-made group ready to take over a lease, they won’t be able to take on a full apartment and, even then, they’re competing against families and professionals. The other possibility – taking a vacant room in an existing shared house – is equally difficult: ads for rooms, especially in the major cities, can get 50 or more responses.

However, the situation isn’t hopeless. “If you have not found a place, start looking immediately and keep checking online sites such as daft.ie,” Fitzpatrick advises. “Check in with the students’ union accommodation office, and our site, homes.usi.ie, is a hub for anyone thinking of digs.”

Digs are probably the most affordable option for students but Fitzpatrick admits they’re not always the most popular one. This involves a student living with a homeowner, usually in the family home or with an older or retired person. The student has their own bedroom, sometimes en-suite, with breakfast and an evening meal sometimes included in the rent. Homeowners who rent to students can earn up to €14,000 a year, tax-free, under the rent-a-room scheme.

“Renting digs does mean you have less rights as a tenant, and it isn’t for everybody, but if you sit down with the homeowner at the start of the year and talk about expectations on both sides, it can work out really well,” says Fitzpatrick.

And what if you still can’t find somewhere suitable? “We do have some students who are commuting for four hours every day to get to college,” says Fitzpatrick. “Commuting for this long every day can impact on studying and the holistic college experience. On the plus side, we are finding that places can become available towards the end of October, but there are no guarantees.”

Know your rights and obligations

Students are an easy mark for exploitative landlords (although, in fairness, landlords might say the same about some students who have thrashed their property).

“If you have found your accommodation, take pictures of the property, with a time and date stamp, before you move in,” USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick advises. “Whether it’s purpose-built student accommodation or a private rental, every tenancy has to be registered with the Residential Tenancies Board [RTB]. Make sure you have an inventory of what is in the house, and signed by the landlord and tenant. The USI website has lots more hints and tips.”

A Google search for “citizen’s information Ireland rental rents” will bring you to a very useful resource, while OneStopShop.rtb.ie is the RTB’s very user-friendly website. Landlords have to pay the RTB registration fee, local property taxes and property insurance (which doesn’t include contents insurance). Tenants are entitled to a rent book, natural and artificial lighting, a house in good repair, heaters or radiators, cooking and kitchen facilities including a fridge, freezer, oven with grill and four hobs, smoke alarm, sinks, mains water, hot water supply, a toilet and a shower or bath. Landlords need to carry out repairs but can not show up and demand to inspect the property without giving reasonable notice. And the property should not be damp.

In practice, however, some tenants live in fear of calling the landlord, afraid that if they complain or ask for repairs, they might be thrown out. This isn’t an issue in purpose-built or on-campus student accommodation, where the landlord is the college or a big institution that expects to maintain and repair the property. And, because students in private rented accommodation often only stay for a year anyway, that’s another good reason to make the landlord step up.

Tenants, for their part, are obliged to pay the rent on time, keep the property in good condition, let the landlord know if repairs are needed and oblige with other conditions in the lease. Tenants are on shaky ground if they demand their rights but have not paid the rent or otherwise broken their lease.

Living at home

Last year, a survey from the Irish League of Credit Unions found the number of students living at home had risen from 63 per cent in 2017 to 69 per cent in 2018, with the accommodation crisis and rising living costs to blame.

For those who stay at home, it can feel like independence is being delayed. Parents will invariably shout about what should happen “as long as you’re living under this roof”. Students will invariably ask where their dinner is and let a parent – usually their mother – do their washing, while at the same time raging: “I’m an adult and I won’t be told what to do.”

For this reason, it makes sense for students to sit down with parents at the start of the year and agree on expectations. If parents or guardians are supporting you through college, it’s fair enough that they expect you to respect the house and pull your weight – and this includes housework. Parents will worry if their adult child hasn’t come home all night, so send them a text if you’ll be late or if you’re staying over with a friend/ girlfriend/ boyfriend.

But parents do need to give you more freedom: in your late teens and early 20s, you should be gaining independence and not tied to curfews or study regimes. That also means they need to give you the freedom to make mistakes that you can learn from.

House-sharing

And then there’s the house share. “I am currently living with four other people,” says Janet, who is in her 30s and lives in Dublin city. “We have our own bedrooms and there are four bathrooms, three en-suite. The kitchen isn’t massive but often has three of us trying to cook dinner at the same time, so we really have to be considerate of each other. We each have our own shelf in the fridge, and our own cupboard space. We are free to have friends over but it’s expected that we won’t have noisy parties during the week because the rest of us have work or college the next day.”

Tensions have recently risen in the house due to a feeling that not everybody was doing their fair share of the housework, while one tenant was taking up a lot of space with his possessions while simultaneously criticising anyone else who put almost any items outside their bedroom.

“Living together can be tricky,” says Janet. “I did it as a student but didn’t expect I’d still be here in my 30s. I was sick of cleaning up after other people’s messes – and the males in the house were much worse than the other female housemate. So we had a house meeting and did up a rota. But that didn’t take care of the day-to-day: wiping counters, doing the dishwasher, sweeping the floor and cleaning out the sink. So we had to have another talk about this. It was awkward but things have improved. We all have things that annoy us: for me, it’s dirty sinks; for another, it’s when the floors are dirty; and one of my housemates get really annoyed when his things are moved or tidied away without being consulted. We have had to learn to respect each other.”

The cleanest male in the house has the messiest bedroom, and Janet wonders how this affects his sex life. “Not my concern though,” she says. “What he does in his own room is his business – just as long as he keeps the communal spaces clean, it doesn’t affect me.”