‘We’re hearing of students deferring because they can’t find accommodation’

Covid-related shortage of housing and delayed college offers creates perfect storm

The scramble for accommodation is an annual rite of passage for students, involving long waiting lists for rooms on campus, days spent scouring online ads, and tales of landlord sharp practice.

This year a pandemic-related shortage of housing and delayed allocation of college places have created a perfect storm. Many first years will have less than two weeks between getting their offer and starting college to find somewhere to live.

“Students are now looking for accommodation that just isn’t there,” says USI president Claire Austick. If they are lucky enough to find somewhere, the cost is too often “just extortionate.”

The student housing crisis has spread to every part of the country, beyond the traditional pinch points of Dublin, Cork and Galway. “We’ve found this year that the campuses or locations where accommodation was not a huge issue has now become one of the pressing issues,” Austick says.


‘Galway is getting to be where Dublin is’

It's Tuesday afternoon and the CAO offers have just come out. At home in Sligo, student Oda Carty is "happy out". She got her first choice place to study science at NUI Galway.

The only issue – and it’s not a minor one – is where she will live. Carty doesn’t drive and the campus is some 2.5 hours away by public transport, so commuting is not an option.

In Galway, however, accommodation is scarce, demand is high and time is not on her side. Orientation for new students starts in less than two weeks, on September 21st.

Her name is down for three different places: a single bedroom with a shared bathroom in campus student accommodation, private student accommodation close to campus, and another accommodation centre around 3km away.

“First-round offers came out for accommodation maybe two months ago. I didn’t get it, so I’m on a waiting list. I’m like 614th on the waiting list, and I don’t even know what that means,” she says.

I literally won't know until the week I start where I'm going to live.

Now Carty has to wait until September 20th, which is “when the second round offers come out and you find out if you get a place that somebody else turned down. So I literally won’t know until the week I start where I’m going to live. I do have friends in third year who said I can crash on their couch no problem. So I have that as a safety boat, but I’d rather be more independent.”

Carty’s position is not unique, says Róisín Nic Lochlainn, the president of NUIG students union. The campus is “absolutely buzzing” as students arrive back. She’s been walking around with a smile on her face. But the accommodation situation is a “really dark cloud”.

“The trajectory of the housing crisis is just getting worse and worse every year. This year it’s the worst it’s ever been. People just can’t find accommodation. Last week, there were 20 ads on Daft in Galway and the prices…”

She sighs. “It’s honestly awful. It’s gotten to the stage where we have to plead with people if they have a spare room to consider renting it to students. Even just to give them somewhere to go for the first semester.”

On Nuigstudentpad.ie, an online accommodation finder, there were 40 properties available last week, 23 of them rooms and 17 houses. Rooms in traditional digs started at €200 a month, going up to €1,150 per month for a double room in a shared house with meals included. "Galway is getting to be where Dublin is, where ordinary students are priced out of college," says Nic Lochlainn.

‘Cork has a lot of empty rooms, but people just can’t afford them’

It’s 10.30am on Wednesday and the UCC welfare officer’s phone has rung three times already this morning with calls from concerned parents of first years. “We know it’s going to be like that for the next few weeks,” says student union president Asha Woodhouse.

It’s not that there is no accommodation available, it’s that too little of it is good quality and affordable for students.

UCC has five campus accommodation complexes, and 45 per cent of the beds there are reserved for first years. That accommodation ranges between €600 to €700 per month. There are two privately run student accommodation facilities near the college, where rooms cost up to €1,000 per month. These still have availability, “but people just can’t afford them”.

I've heard of people who the landlord asked for two or three months' rent up front. We're trying to get the message out to students that this is against the law

Most students end up renting from the private sector, where rooms in shared houses cost between €500 and €700 per month. “People paid €400 or €450 for those rooms pre-Covid.”

Woodhouse is concerned about reports from students of “landlords taking advantage of students, refusing to let them view the property before they make an agreement. Or refusing to give them a contract. I’ve heard of people who the landlord asked for two or three months’ rent up front. We’re trying to get the message out to students that this is against the law. But people are in such precarious and desperate circumstances that a lot of students are doing it anyway,” she says.

Inevitably, some students will end up sleeping on a couch for a while, which is not ideal when some teaching is happening remotely.

Woodhouse has been a student in Cork for five years and “it does seem that it’s a lot worse this year. We’re hearing of students deferring their year because they can’t find somewhere.” Some are even deferring their final year.

“That’s something we’ve never heard of in previous years. I really feel sorry for students who spent their half of their first year and second year at home doing college online, and now we’re opening the campus back up, they’ve nowhere to live. Or if they do find somewhere, it’ll be quite stressful for them with the kind of financial pressure it’s putting on them.”

'Dublin students are stuck between a rock and a hard place'

Digs and rooms in the private sector are more scarce in Dublin this year than ever, something Ruairi Power, president of the UCD students union, attributes to Covid-related health concerns.

The result is that many students now face an unpalatable choice between a long commute, having to take on more part-time hours to subsidise the cost of renting, “or spending a disproportionate amount of their savings on accommodation that they didn’t budget for initially. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Additional campus accommodation is being built at UCD and more will come on stream over the next few years, but much of it is luxury in nature. The new UCD Village offers “gold” and “platinum bedooms” in “ultra-modern apartments”. The platinum rooms costs €1,207 a month, not including utilities. Power is unimpressed.

Universities, because of their reliance on international student income in terms of fees, are essentially only providing a luxury-style accommodation

“We’re of the opinion that the type of accommodation being built in UCD and in college campuses around the country is of a very discriminatory nature. Universities, because of their reliance on international student income in terms of fees, are essentially only providing a luxury-style accommodation” geared towards those international students.

Students need accommodation that is “safe, affordable, sustainable. They don’t need double bed en suites. They don’t need studio apartments for themselves,” he says.

The effect of luxury student accommodation means “students from middle income and working class backgrounds are being completely and deliberately priced out of studying at UCD. The idea that they’ll just find accommodation elsewhere doesn’t stack up.”

He would like to see the €75 million earmarked in loans for universities to build student accommodation ringfenced for affordable accommodation “or even provided on a cost rental basis”.

Staying in the Travelodge best option for some Waterford students

The student union at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) took the initiative a few years ago to strike a deal with anearby Travelodge to offer a student rate of up to €49 per night.

The arrangement came about as a response to students coming to the union saying “I’ve been sleeping on my friends couch; I’ve been sleeping in my car; I can’t go home because there’s no bus that will get me to my classes by 9 o’clock,” says students union president Rachel McCartney.

She expects many students will have to avail of it this year. “It’s a safe place for students to stay, to have their own room for the night on a low cost basis, until they can get themselves sorted,” in a city where public transport options are limited, she says.

On-campus accommodation costs from €2,500 to €3,500 per semester, but there is little availability left. Meanwhile, some of the private housing “that would have been rented to students” was rented to families during Covid, and is no longer available to students. Students in shared housing can expect to pay between €400 and €700 per month this year, she says.

When she started at college in Waterford in 2017, McCartney says her rent was €200 a month. “It’s crazy.”

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times