A predictable student accommodation crisis is coming. There is no plan

This autumn will be an autumn of discontent for the Government. There will be mass protests over housing

What is the Government doing about what will be another acute student housing crisis in September? This autumn will, hopefully, be the first one since 2019 where a new college year will be, in many ways, “normal”. That means more people will be on campus than have been in almost three years. It will be the first time since 2019 where first-year students won’t be beginning their college life in front of a laptop at home.

There has been a huge demand for new college places, with 4,600 addition places created in 2021, and a rise in CAO applications year-on-year from 78,000 to 85,000. In fact, Simon Harris wants more routes outside of the CAO system into third level so more students can access further education. Great idea, but where are they going to live?

People will point to purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) as a “solution”, but instead of pursuing an affordable and flexible model of student accommodation that works for our context, all PBSA has done is created a ridiculously high floor when it comes to what’s acceptable to charge a student for a room. If only public and affordable housing that could have met a diverse number of needs for different people was built where these ridiculous developments now blot the urban landscape.

In this form PBSA is a marketing ploy concocted by corporate developers to squeeze more profit out of every square metre. Very unfortunately instead of focusing on affordability and looking at the cultural context in Ireland where students prefer to share in cheaper accommodation than live in pokey Insta-tenements with tacky add-on “luxuries” like games rooms and micro-cinemas, the Fine Gael crew in Government fell hook, line and sinker for this nonsense, and we’re stuck with it.

The vast majority of people who occupy this accommodation are wealthy international students, and everyone else has to slum it, commute cross-country, sleep on couches, or reconsider whether they can leave home at all.

I asked Simon Harris’ Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science what its strategy was for this looming autumn crisis. It said that the Minister is asking universities to “identify unused buildings that could be converted or modified to be college-owned student accommodation for September”. That’s a tight deadline. This week a meeting with all college presidents and chairs will be held to discuss those “options”, and Harris will bring new policy proposals to the next Cabinet committee on housing. But universities are also charging through the nose for student accommodation. We need affordable solutions, not ones that simply serve to make money for universities and corporate landlords.

In the meantime when students wrap up their degrees the obvious next step for many young people is simply leaving the country and going somewhere with affordable rent. What a failure that at a time of employment opportunities in this country, the rental crisis is bulldozing young people’s futures here. The young people now leaving Ireland in their droves aren’t emigrating. They are being exiled by the housing crisis. There is a difference.

Affordable housing developments and rent control would ease a huge amount of financial and mental stress in people’s lives, and be an excellent tool in dampening inflation. But we all know the Fine Gael arm of this Government will not focus on that because the crisis we are struggling through was a consequence of its policies.

This autumn will be an autumn of discontent for the Government. The Coalition will limp through the summer and then be met with mass protests on housing in the autumn months, all of which will be amplified by the cost-of-living crisis. Ireland was already a completely overpriced country, and while certain aspects of inflation are out of our control the Government has done nothing to address a key driver of inflation: the cost of rent. There is no political will to address the insane rents people are being charged. If there was we wouldn’t be in this situation.

Your average student from your average family moving up to Dublin to go to college doesn’t have a hope in hell of finding an affordable room to rent this autumn. They barely have any chance at finding an unaffordable one. How could they when people in well-paid, full-time jobs are barely hanging on in our broken rental market?

This is going to become a serious issue yet nobody seems to be talking about it. We will hear more and more stories of student homelessness, students sleeping in vans and cars, students sleeping in university buildings, students opting to alter the course of their future by not taking up college places in different counties because of the rental crisis, students undertaking incredibly long and tiring commutes, students sleeping in hostels, pooling their funds to share hotel rooms, or piling into AirBnBs.

But one things students also do is protest. They protested throughout the recession on fees, they were a key organising force throughout the marriage equality and abortion rights movements, and, of course, they are driving the climate crisis protest movement.

They are also the harbingers of political change when it comes to party support, rightly abandoning Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and looking for alternatives that promise a sense of normality in the chaos. So don’t be surprised if the student movement once again springs to life this autumn.