Standing up for student renters

A look inside the newly established TCD Renters’ Union

Launched in the opening days of the new year, the newly formed TCD Renter’s Union (TCDRU) has attracted hundreds of followers across their three social media platforms in the first few weeks of its existence. On these platforms, the TCDRU states its mission “to give a voice to all student renters”, and lists among its aims a 25% reduction in rent for this academic year as well as a permanent 10% reduction, as well as a commitment that students who terminate their accommodation during the pandemic will not incur financial penalty. The union also seeks a guarantee from the college that no student faces repercussions, either financial or academic, for involvement in rent strikes or protests.

Speaking to Trinity News, Liam Kiernan, chair of TCDRU, said that the formation of the group was a collective response to the unfair treatment of students during the Covid-19 pandemic, which emphasised the need for student renters to “collectively stand up to the college”. 

The group has pulled its inspiration from a wave of student rent strikes and tenant protests in the UK late last year, many of which saw significant success. Described by the Guardian as the “biggest wave of university rent strikes in four decades”, students in over 20 UK universities withheld their rent in a strike before Christmas. After students in Manchester University won a 30% reduction in fees in their first term, their example was followed in both Cambridge and Bristol, with students making similar demands, as well as calls for immunity from financial penalty for students terminating their accommodation. In January, TCDRU followed suit, alongside seven London universities, including Goldsmiths, King’s, and UCL, all fed up with unfair accommodation practices.

“Long term, we want to build an organisation that can effectively represent and stand up for students to achieve lower rent and better living conditions.”

Though the students of Manchester have no intention of backing down until winning cuts for the rest of the academic year, their incremental victory in securing 30% rent reduction for their first term illustrated the effectiveness of organised action, a principle which is at the core of TCDRU’s ambitions: “Long term, we want to build an organisation that can effectively represent and stand up for students to achieve lower rent and better living conditions.”

However, TCDRU has announced that it has no intentions of a rent strike this semester, citing the obstacles of Trinity’s financial calendar. Like any union, TCDRU’s power and effectiveness relies on strength in numbers, and as such their primary goal this semester is to build membership and establish a body coordinated enough to make change.

“At the moment, our priority is getting TCDRU fully up and running, namely by getting our branches in Trinity Hall, on-campus, Kavanagh Court, and Binary Hub and our four sub-committees functioning,” he said. “We will look to run online events on the basics of tenant unionisation and the importance of collective action, as well as host tenant’s rights workshops in the upcoming future.”

The focus of the Renters’ Union, however, is broader than merely the financial side of accommodation. Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird, who is the TCDRU’s Disability Officer, told Trinity News she was glad that the Renters’ Union have also made the welfare of students with disabilities a central part of their mission from the beginning.

“Accessible accommodation for students with disabilities is an important issue that I’m really interested in. I’m really thankful to the other Officers in TCDRU who reached out to me and wanted to include accessible accommodation for students with disabilities in their aims,” she said.

For students with disabilities, accommodation options are severely limited by issues such as accessibility and proximity to campus, especially those for whom commuting is not a viable option. Access to appropriate, disability-accessible, on-campus accommodation, such as Botany Bay, the GMB, and the Business School, is itself restricted by exorbitant fees, costing around €9,100 per year for a room, following last year’s 4% rent increase.

“The price of accommodation is a huge issue for me and has been for the past few years in which I’ve lived on campus”, Ní Hoireabhaird said. While the price of accommodation is a major concern for all students in need of it, “living with a disability incurs extra costs so I think it’s vital that students with disabilities are supported in applying for expensive, accessible on-campus accommodation”.

“I am really hopeful that TCDRU will raise awareness of this issue and achieve some sort of rent reduction or cut for students with disabilities.”

“I am really hopeful that TCDRU will raise awareness of this issue and achieve some sort of rent reduction or cut for students with disabilities”, Ní Hoireabhaird said.

Many of the members which the union has registered in its first month have been first-time student renters. Fionnuala Maher, a first-year Halls resident, spoke about the uncertainty of entering the world of student accommodation, and why she has joined the new Renters’ Union.

“As a student renter, I can see how awful an issue rent currently is in Ireland, especially in Dublin. I strongly agree with [the Renters’ Union’s] aims to try combat exploitation of renters and to campaign for lower rents”, she said.

Though only a “lay” member as of yet, Maher embodies a passionate support for renter solidarity which, if shared by all members, promises to make the new initiative a force to be reckoned with. “I hope to be as active a member as possible as it’s something I feel very strongly about. I hope we as a union achieve better renting conditions, if not for ourselves, then for students to come.”

Maher felt that a separate renters’ union was a more effective approach to the issue of accommodation than striving for the same goals through the college-affiliated Students’ Union, arguing that it allows the organisation to be more focused and independent. However, rent is as vital an issue as any the SU campaign on behalf of, and like many students, Maher believes that as a representative of the whole student body, the SU has an obligation to speak up. “They’ve sent out a petition calling for Provost candidates to be committed to the environment. They should share information about the Renters’ Union too, and aid in all campaigns. Issues of rent are obviously affecting students, and thus they should be involved”, she said.

“As a student renter, I can see how awful an issue rent currently is in Ireland, especially in Dublin.”

In September of 2019, a similar student-renter-oriented group by the name Cut the Rent TCD was formed, with similar aims and strategies to those of the TCDRU. Cut the Rent organised a series of protests on campus, as well as holding a number of public meetings, and canvassing students to take part in a rent strike. Relations between Cut the Rent and the Students’ Union were varied, with the SU initially voting down a motion of support for the group before eventually approving a revised motion in support of the aims and strategies of Cut the Rent TCD. Previous statements by TCDRU indicate that while seeking endorsement from TCDSU is not something the organisation has explored, “we’d be happy to take [it]” were it offered.

Eoin Hand, President of TCDSU, confirmed that TCDSU welcomes the establishment of the new organisation and expressed optimism for future cooperation between the two bodies: “we at TCDSU would be delighted to endorse and facilitate the aims and ambitions of TCDRU as far as the health and safety of our students will allow it”, he said. Hand acknowledged that popular organisation is often a vital spark in making tangible progress, noting, “grassroots movements are often where important change happens in our society, realising live emotions and feelings in our society and acting on them in real and radical ways to secure a better tomorrow”. Though the Renters’ Union have made clear that they wish to remain entirely independent from the college, such open support from the college Student Union can only serve to benefit the aims and enhance the bargaining power of the organisation. 

The formation of the Renters’ Union, and its rapid growth in membership, illustrates more than anything a solidarity among student renters and a desire to combat unfair accommodation practices in unity. Student renters are acutely aware of the exploitative reality of renting, be it from private landlords or from college itself, and are beginning to recognise their capacity to fight back. The organised collective approach of the newly founded TCDRU presents greater prospects of success for fighting this battle than any individual could. The existence of an independent, dedicated group on the issue of renter offers more effective protest to win real change in the area of college accommodation, and its leadership is optimistic that their goals can be achieved to the benefit of all student renters, present and future.