Facing the student housing crisis at home and abroad

Erasmus returnees share their experiences accessing affordable housing in Dublin and at their host universities

When she went on Erasmus in Paris, Ella spent €860 per month on accommodation. When Lisa went to Vienna, she paid €520. In Seville, Hannah spent €280. And housing in Moscow cost Irene only €260 a month. Yet, many students returning from Erasmus will face far higher prices in Trinity’s own student accommodations, including prices starting at €250 per week at Kavanaugh Court and Binary Hub. Others will be forced to confront the unpredictability of Dublin’s exorbitantly expensive rental market.  Without other points of reference, the financial barriers to housing that Trinity students face may seem unshakable. But other universities, cities, and governments have approached housing in other ways – sometimes better, sometimes worse, and sometimes simply different.

Like the rest of her European Studies cohorts, Ella has recently returned from a third year spent on Erasmus. Given a choice between continuing her language studies in Spain or in France, she decided to spend the year on the Parisian campus of Sciences Po.

The French government provides subsidized university housing through its regional student services centers, known as centres regionaux des oeuvres universitaires et scolaires or CROUS. Rent in a CROUS dorm is far below market rate, with residents paying anywhere from €200 per month in France’s less expensive regions to €400 per month in Paris. Accordingly, demand for CROUS residences far outstrips the available supply. Those who do not receive a coveted CROUS spot can turn to private student residences and youth hostels. Though not economically competitive with the cheap CROUS rates, these alternative residences compare favorably with private market rentals and allow students to avoid some of the challenges facing the average renter.  

Though some French universities will allow international and Erasmus students access to CROUS housing, Sciences Po requires its students to have a year’s residency in France before they apply. Disqualified from a CROUS application, Ella could have been stuck with a private rental. “Luckily, I found an apartment in the CCI,” she recounted, referring to the Centre Culturel Irlandais. Founded as a collegiate community for Irish priests in 1578, the CCI today provides Latin Quarter accommodation for Irish artists, professionals, and Erasmus-goers.

Ella paid €860 per month for a 17 m2 room with an en-suite – a price that she won’t be getting at Trinity – and use of a kitchen shared with 14 other people, “which I won’t be doing at Trinity, either,” she said, “so that’s a plus.” Compared to the other housing options in Paris – a city that has historically exceeded Dublin in terms of living expenses – the CCI accommodation was reasonably priced. “Studios in Paris in certain areas were cheap enough,” Ella explained. “You could get a fully serviced one for about €500-550 in some areas.” But, the CCI accommodation was close to transit, a reasonable commute from campus, and relatively cheap for the touristy Latin Quarter.

Ella isn’t sure whether her host university could have done anything different. “Given that Sciences Po is located right in the center of Paris,” she explained, “there aren’t many options possible if it were to invest in accommodation for students.” Finding the space to add large student dorms in the middle of the EU’s most popular metro is doubtless difficult.  “But it may have been nice,” she added.

 Lisa chose to study German in Vienna because it was the option that excited her most. “I’d never been to Vienna before, and I thought I’d prefer a big city that was completely new for me,” she explained, “as opposed to smaller places like Tubingen and Hamburg that I’ve already visited before.”

“I got absolutely zero help with finding accommodation from Trinity or anyone there,” she lamented. “To be honest, my experience with how Trinity organized – or more accurately failed to organize – my Erasmus would be a whole other article.”

Though the University of Vienna had student accommodations, Lisa found a private apartment on wg-gesucht.de, a daft.ie-like site recommended to her by a student who had previously studied in Vienna. “The accommodation was brilliant. My room was huge, all utilities were included, and the landlady was lovely,” Lisa described. She paid €520 a month for the room – “Which is expensive for Vienna. If you are willing to share a room with someone, you can get it for €200-300 a month.”

Vienna’s relative affordability isn’t an accident. Though a national and regional capital with a historic reputation for imperial splendor, its government has taken steps to keep the market habitable in a time where similarly popular cities are suffering price-outs. Almost four-fifths of Vienna’s housing stock is rental, with few Viennese feeling a need for home ownership. With one-fourth of units government-owned, another quarter government-subsidized, and most of the remaining stock being for-profit housing under strict rent controls, Vienna has designed a policy to keep housing affordable to all – low-income, medium-income, and student populations included.

Not everyone is fully content in what is seemingly a renter’s paradise. “One day,” Lisa recalled, “there was a protest down the road from my apartment. I think they were complaining because they were being kicked out of the accommodation because it was being turned into a hotel. It was quite a big deal; loads of police and a camera crew were there. They were also protesting high rent,” she added, a fact that was almost funny to her as a Trinity student. Dublin, after all, has seen its fair share of gentrification and eviction. Her Viennese neighbors at least had a city full of rent-capped and subsidized housing to turn to. 

 Hannah had always expected to go to France on Erasmus. She had studied French throughout school, adding Spanish as her second language when she got to college solely due to utility. “But then I surprised myself by falling in love with Spanish,” she recalled – enough to spend her third year studying in Spain. She decided to go to the Andalusian city of Seville due to its beauty, history, and utility as a base for travel.

Though some Spanish universities offer student dorms, the University of Seville did not. “The closest thing to it was buildings which were specifically targeted at Erasmus students,” Hannah explained. Though these drew students in with the promise of a vibrant social environment, she opted to find private accommodation. By researching Seville’s neighborhoods online and pouring through rental websites like Idealista and Spotahome, Hannah found a flat for €280 per month.

In Dublin, some students pay €280 each week for accommodation. But in Spain, a country with a housing market still suffering from the double hit of mid-2000s over-construction and devastating economic Recession, Hannah’s rent was far from unusual. “I’d say it was on the average, leaning towards the cheaper side,” she said. “I know some people who paid €300-400 a month. I’d definitely heard of rent prices being as low as €150 in other places in the city. I paid a little extra to be closer to the city center and to the university.”

Though far from perfect, her flat proved pleasant for the price. “My flat was quite small, but colourful, and had access to a shared private garden,” Hannah described. Though “the shower was a bit dodgy for a while,” and the flat had something of a cockroach problem, the former issue was resolved eventually, and the latter was typical of the area. “They disappeared over the winter,” she added. 

Hannah finished her Erasmus year satisfied with her flat. But in retrospect, she wishes that she hadn’t needed to find it alone. “I got absolutely zero help with finding accommodation from Trinity or anyone there,” she lamented. “To be honest, my experience with how Trinity organized – or more accurately failed to organize – my Erasmus would be a whole other article.” 

When Irene started her year in Russia, she felt prepared for the unexpected. “I had spent a summer working in a summer camp in Siberia,” she explained. “I knew that it’s an easy country to make new friends and have amazingly bizarre experiences.” She was ready to do exactly that during her year at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute – the only study abroad choice in Russia for European Studies Students. Unlike many others in her course, those studying in Moscow easily accessed accommodation in the form of Institute dorms.

As a foreigner, she paid quite a bit more – 18,400 rubles, or €260 per month. It was still almost a fourth of the price a Trinity student would have to pay to stay at Binary Hub or Kavanagh Court.”

According to Irene, “it was all arranged for us when we arrived,” and proved amazingly cheap – “Russian students lived there for only 100 rubles – €1.42 – per month!” As a foreigner, she paid quite a bit more – 18,400 rubles, or €260 per month. It was still almost a fourth of the price a Trinity student would have to pay to stay at Binary Hub or Kavanagh Court. However, Irene knew that, compared to what everyone else was paying, the dorms were hardly a steal. “As foreign students, we knew we were getting ripped off and subsidizing the Russian students,” she related.

The inflated international student prices soon proved far too high for the actual quality of the dorms. “The living conditions were quite poor,” Irene recalled. “Cockroaches everywhere, minimal cooking facilities, and no shared eating spaces… For 100 rubles a month anyone could put up with that,” she added. But if Irene was going to be paying 184 times that subsidized price, she wanted to be somewhere that was at least livable. “When we realized that we could rent a proper apartment between the four of us Trinity students, we moved.”

Come January, the four set off apartment-hunting in Moscow. They moved to a four-bedroom apartment about a 40-minute commute from campus – the same commute as they’d had in the dorms – for roughly the same price they had been paying. Though more confident at that point in their Russian language ability, the four weren’t afraid to call in reinforcements. “A Russian friend accompanied us to the viewings and read the contracts to make sure we weren’t getting ripped off for being foreign,” Irene remembered.  After what had happened with the dorms, this seemed like a more-than-reasonable safeguard.

Just as with Irene in Moscow and Lisa in Germany, students searching for housing in Dublin may often find friends and classmates more helpful than anything offered by College. 

Ella lived at home during her first year, necessitating a two- or three-hour round-trip commute to College every day. During her second year, however, an opportunity opened. “I rented half a house with three other students from my course;  €500 a month about 15 minutes by bus out from Trinity,” she recalled. “The house wasn’t in fantastic condition – we had mold and damp and heating problems – but from my experience we were very lucky with the price. We got it almost handed down from us by four students the year ahead of us who were going on Erasmus.”

Hannah also spent her first year living at home, an hour by bus away. However, without the ability to take advantage of the hand-me-down cheap accommodation given to Ella, she had to continue commuting her second year. “With rents so high I couldn’t justify the cost of moving out, even though I felt it did affect my experience as a student,” she regretfully explained.

The Student Union’s Accommodation Advisory Service attempts to provide a solution to the housing dilemma, linking Trinity students to attainable private rentals. But Colm, a representative from the Accommodation Advisory Service, was less than optimistic about the ability of students to be as lucky as Ella. “Students look through Daft.ie, and other websites, and struggle to find private accommodation that is within their budget,” Colm said. “The private rental market is shared with families and young professionals, and students are often squeezed out.”

“Though finding housing at Trinity may not come with all the difficulties the Erasmus returnees faced abroad, all spent significantly less on rent at their host universities than the majority of students in Dublin.”

College could theoretically provide a solution, making purpose-built accommodation in high enough numbers to give students viable housing alternatives. But Colm wasn’t optimistic that College’s recent attempts have been on the right track. “The recent announcement of the expansion of Trinity Hall is welcome… But I’m concerned that Trinity College is making things difficult for students,” he cautioned. “They have recently increased prices for on-campus accommodation, and the agreements with Binary Hub and Kavanagh Court pressure students into paying €1,000 per month.” According to Colm, the Irish government should be approaching the student housing crisis with a mind towards providing universities with the resources to build affordable Purpose-Built Student Accommodation, rather than effectively outsourcing the issue to for-profit companies like Uninest, Aparto, and Fresh Student Living.

The Erasmus returnees seemed to concur. “On campus accommodation in Trinity has surpassed private rent levels,” Hannah opined. “Seeing the luxurious accommodation in places like Kavanagh Court seems so exploitative.” Lisa agreed: “Places like Binary Hub are so expensive and not what students are looking for. They don’t really seem to have the students’ best interest in mind, it’s just about the profit.”

Though finding housing at Trinity may not come with all the difficulties the Erasmus returnees faced abroad, all spent significantly less on rent at their host universities than the majority of students in Dublin. Regardless of how comfortable dorms are or how many housing resources College provides, without efforts to address affordability, student housing will remain out of reach.