Student accommodation: Without decent housing it’s hard to get a decent education

Posted on: 15 August 2023

The issues students face in securing accommodation are closely linked to the broader housing crisis, writes Dr Sarah Hamill

This opinion article by Dr Sarah Hamill of the School of Law was published in The Irish Times

Last summer I bumped into an old schoolfriend who had gone to university in Dublin and then stayed there after graduating. She mentioned that students from Dublin studying in Dublin had a sweet deal with their ability to save on accommodation costs while studying. Doubtless there are many current and future university students in Ireland who also envy those students who can live at home, whether in Dublin, Cork, or other Irish university cities, while studying. 

The crisis in student accommodation attracted media attention around this time last year, and a year has seemingly done little to ease the crisis. The issues third-level students are facing in securing accommodation are, of course, closely linked with the broader housing crisis in Ireland. 

Granted, Ireland is not unique in either our current housing crisis or the specific challenges it is posing for students. In September 2022, the University of Glasgow reportedly advised students without accommodation to withdraw from or defer their studies as the city struggled with a shortage of private rented accommodation. Meanwhile, the Netherlands is considering limiting the numbers of international students given the housing crisis and shortage of student accommodation. 

That other countries also have shortages of student accommodation is cold comfort to students at Irish universities as they weigh up their accommodation options for the upcoming academic year. Some will feel compelled to undertake lengthy commutes to their campus, leaving early, returning late, and spending time in between classes in the library or any available space on campus.

Others will band together with friends and attempt to rent an apartment or house. But with a severe shortage of supply and high rents, many students will struggle to find something affordable. 

There is also increasingly the option of privately-run, purpose-built student accommodation which the 2017 National Student Accommodation Strategy saw as the main solution to the student housing crisis. Such private student accommodation has had to grant its occupants legal protections under residential tenancies legislation since 2019. 

This protection followed the Shanowen Shakedown campaign, which was prompted by significant rent increases in purpose-built student accommodation. Nonetheless, the cost of such accommodation remains too high for many. 

A lucky few will have university-provided halls of residence, but these can be almost as expensive as their private counterparts and, moreover, tend to be allocated to specific groups of students first. While many Irish universities hope to build more of such accommodation, the fact is that, at present, there is not enough available. 

The Irish Government’s response to the crisis in student accommodation has recently focused on the rent-a-room scheme. Under this scheme, a person can rent out a room or rooms in their house, or rent out an attached but self-contained unit, and earn up to €14,000 tax free. The scheme was recently extended to allow social welfare recipients to rent out spare rooms in their homes without affecting their benefits. 

The rent-a-room scheme might seem like a win-win for students and those with spare rooms. However, there are significant drawbacks from the perspective of students. First, this is not a scheme specific to students. The guidelines advise that it will not apply to the homeowner’s children, spouse or civil partner but it will apply to anyone else so long as the homeowner rents to that person for more than 28 days at a time. 

Second, the €14,000 limit benefits homeowners more than those seeking accommodation. The implication of the scheme is that it is perfectly acceptable to rent out a room for more than €1,000 per month. The scheme might be aimed at addressing the housing crisis, but it unwittingly offers an excellent illustration of it. 

The cost of a single room might be justifiable if the room was adequate housing, but this brings me to the third problem: the rent-a-room scheme is often not covered by residential tenancies legislation. Any self-contained unit, such as a basement unit, rented under this scheme will be governed by residential tenancies legislation unless the landlord opts out. 

But for those simply renting a room, they are a licensee rather than a tenant. These licensees get no security of tenure, no protection against rent increases, and, with the exception of those paying their rent with the Housing Assistance Payment, no guarantee that their room is habitable. 

To be clear, it would be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to grant additional protections to licensees under the rent-a-room scheme. The constitutional protections for property rights would make it difficult to guarantee any security of tenure for mere licensees as the balance there is completely different from where the landlord lives elsewhere. 

Nonetheless, there are steps the Government could take to improve the scheme. In the short term, some oversight of the rent-a-room scheme seems sensible given the generous tax incentives. Many students’ unions, for example, help landlords advertise rooms to their students, and these platforms offer some small protections to both parties. These initiatives offer a model to follow more broadly. 

The Government could also tweak the scheme to make it more beneficial to rent to students rather than others. In the longer term, the building of more student accommodation, and other accommodation in general, will be essential if the housing crisis is to end. Thus, the recent announcement of State funding for university-provided and affordable student accommodation is very welcome. 

However, until such affordable student accommodation becomes available, what we will see is an entrenchment of the inequality a lack of housing causes. Those students who can live at home while studying arguably have significant advantages over their peers who cannot. These days it would seem that good housing rather than a good education is a ticket to a better life. 

Dr Sarah Hamill is an assistant professor at the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin.

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