Circular on student housing being used for tourists will be sent to councils - Minister

Angry exchanges over causes of crisis as students protest outside Dáil

Students protest outside the Dáil  urging the government to take action on the student housing crisis. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Students protest outside the Dáil urging the government to take action on the student housing crisis. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

A circular on purpose-built student accommodation being changed through planning application for tourist use is to be sent to local authorities in the coming days, a Minister of State has said.

Niall Collins, Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, said that recently highlighted examples of this change of use should not have happened and could not be justified.

“We’ll also instruct each local authority to carry out a needs assessment in each of their functional areas in relation to student accommodation,” he told RTE’s Primetime.

Mr Collins did not elaborate on what the circular would say but he did explain that those student accommodations that had already been granted permission for change of use could not now be reversed.

“But suffice to say this: as far as we are concerned the message is going clear to our local authorities that purpose built student accommodation is for just that…the idea or the notion of entertaining any more change of use applications just simply isn’t on

Earlier Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil the Government is “exploring all options” to ensure purpose-built student accommodation remains in use for students, as protesters gathered outside Leinster House.

Officials from the Departments of Enterprise and Housing met on Wednesday night to discuss the issue and there will be “further announcements in the coming weeks”, Mr Varadkar said.

Mr Varadkar was responding to Labour leader Alan Kelly, who said his party introduced a Bill early this year to deal with developers of student accommodation who are “trying to change their planning so they can be used as hotels for tourism”.

Mr Kelly appealed to the Government to act on his party’s legislation to prevent speculators using the planning system to change purpose-built student accommodation into tourist apartments.

The Tánaiste said a number of developments in Dublin received planning permission - which does not lapse until May 2022 - to change student units to tourist accommodation, but “this runs contrary to the national student accommodation strategy and contrary to Government policy”.

Heated exchanges

Earlier Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty called on the Government to immediately introduce legislation to stop over one third of all private purpose-built student units being turned into tourist accommodation.

During heated exchanges, Mr Doherty said developers received tax breaks and the crisis in housing happened because Mr Varadkar looked at homes as investments. “You’ve looked at homes as a potential profit margin for investors or for individuals, as opposed to looking through the prism of securing a roof over somebody’s head.”

He highlighted comments by the president of DCU that part of the Government’s Housing for All strategy dealing with student accommodation was “uneconomic, made false assumptions and would only result in rents that are beyond the ability to pay for most students and families”.

Ashamed

Mr Varadkar in turn rounded on Mr Doherty and claimed his party had agreed to rent increases in the North “in a pandemic”. In rancourous exchanges, each said the other should be ashamed for their approach.

The Tánaiste said the Government had increased the student assistance fund but the pandemic had had an impact on the availability of student accommodation.

With the exception of NUI Galway, shared rooms are not being offered this year over concerns about Covid-19, which had significantly reduced on-campus accommodation, the most affordable option, he said.

He added that fewer people were offering digs this year compared to previous years. The Government had stopped the requirement for full up-front payments and students could now pay monthly.

But Mr Doherty called for “a bit of humility and maybe look at it through the prism of the individuals as opposed to the landlord.”

He said many students “are staying in hotels and B&Bs for crazy prices.

“Others are commuting the long distance from home to college, every single day, with many, many more of them going from home to college, house to house, coach to coach, with a rucksack on their back and a sleeping bag.”

He highlighted other cases of the housing crisis including one on RTÉ’s Liveline where a woman in her 50s said she was living in a shed without running water.

Mr Doherty said the situation “has been well flagged” for year but it was made worse because of tax breaks “to those who are supposed to provide student accommodation, only for many of those units to be transferred into tourist accommodation”.