Dublin students forced to dig it as rents rise

Property shortage has made accommodation unaffordable for many

September 11, 2014

Dublin’s housing crisis is threatening to blindside incoming university students, leaving many scrambling to find affordable accommodation just as term begins.

The shortage of rental properties is so severe that it is prompting a comeback of the “digs” lifestyle, where students occupy a spare room in a family home. Indeed, students’ unions and universities in the capital are already appealing to homeowners to rent out any extra rooms in order to fill the gap in the market.

“For students looking for accommodation, the 2014-15 academic year is likely to prove one of the toughest for over a decade,” said Ronan Lyons, assistant professor of economics at Trinity College Dublin. “The imbalance between supply and demand is particularly acute in Dublin.”

Rents in the capital have soared by 26 per cent since 2011, rising more than 15 per cent in the past year alone, according to research published by Dr Lyons for the property website Daft.ie. At the same time, the same research shows that available rentals in the city have fallen by 40 per cent to 2,000 properties. The cost of campus accommodation has risen as well, by an average of 11 per cent, even as student grants have flatlined or fallen, according to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

“We would see this as an access to education issue,” said USI president Laura Harmon. “If the situation continues to get worse, I think Dublin as a place to study will be closed off to a lot of students.”

Construction in the capital has been all but frozen since the Irish real estate crash hit the building industry in 2008. Although the economy has stabilised since then, new building projects have been slow to take shape. Meanwhile, the rental market has drawn new interest from young professionals working with multinational companies and from families, whose attitudes to home ownership have in many cases been soured by the crash.

“Students definitely occupy the lowest rung on the ladder for landlords,” said Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, students’ union president at Trinity College Dublin. “A lot of professionals are looking for flats that might have been allocated to students but given that the supply is down, students are being pushed off the edge.”

For the past few years, rising rents have pushed more students into accommodation in Dublin’s suburbs. But even there, prices have increased by an average of 10 per cent.

“We know from last year that there were students staying in hostels a few nights a week [or] staying on friends’ couches,” said Ms Harmon. “Obviously if you don’t have a stable place to live, it’s going to impact retention rates.”

Universities do have some places in halls of residence, but numbers are limited: Trinity College has slightly under 1,700 beds for a student body of 17,000, according to its accommodation office. Overall there are about 80,000 tertiary-level students in Dublin, with 20 per cent from abroad, a study by property firm Knight Frank has found.

University accommodation offices and students’ unions have set up various websites designed to match students with homeowners willing to rent out a room.

But student leaders say that this is a short-term solution to a chronic problem. Ms Harmon is calling on the government to create a dedicated task force on the issue, noting that a recently published government strategy on how to reinvigorate construction mentions students just once.

“I think there needs to be an effort made to determine how much purpose-built accommodation needs to be built, and there needs to be a commitment to build [it],” she said.

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