Analysis: Accommodation remains unaffordable despite legislative protections

Trinity is increasing rents by over 2%, despite the cap in the 2021 Residential Tenancies Act

On July 16, the Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Act 2021 was signed into law by the President. Amending previous Residential Tenancies Acts, the legislation limits rent increases for all tenancies and extends temporary emergency protections for tenants impacted by Covid-19.

Announced by Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris in June and passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Act introduces a range of measures, some which specifically target student renters.

While these new protections are welcome, much more is needed to tackle the housing crisis and ease the financial burden on all renters, including students.

College costs are expected to rise to €14,000 this year for students living away from home. Technological University (TU) Dublin estimates that students living in Dublin will need €585 a month to rent a private tenancy. For students living in purpose-built student accommodation however, monthly rent can be as high as €940.

This coming year, rent at Trinity-owned accommodation ranges from €6,135 to €8,438 for the academic year, working out at €177 to €243 weekly. Rooms in Uninest Student Residences are currently between €249 and €395 per week, amounting to between €9462 and €15,010 for the 38-week contract.

Despite Government efforts to curb rent increases, rent has doubled in Ireland in the last decade and is set to continue rising, as significant numbers of landlords sell properties and the number of rental homes available reaches an all-time low. According to the RTB Rent Index for the first quarter of 2021, national rents grew by 4.5% since last year.

Though the new legislation caps rent increases, in an attempt to regulate the market, it fails to address Ireland’s housing shortage and high rental costs.

Previously, rent increases of tenancies within Rent Pressure Zones (RPZs), which include all of Dublin, were restricted to 4% per year and 8% every 2 years.

Under the new Residential Tenancies Act, rent increases in RPZs cannot be raised more than general inflation, as per the Harmonised Index of the Consumer Price (HICP). Ireland’s average harmonised inflation in 2021 is currently around 0.9%.

The Act also restricts upfront payments required at a tenancy’s beginning, to a total not exceeding two months’ rent – a deposit and one month’s rent.

These rules apply to all privately rented tenancies, including Student Specific Accommodation (SSA). As with previous legislation, the limit to rent increases pertains to continuing and new tenancies.

A student can choose to make a larger upfront payment via an opt-out option, but cannot be forced to do so.

Previously, Trinity accommodation required payments of rent instalments per term. By prohibiting obligatory lump-sum payments, the legislation eases a financial burden, lowers the barrier of access to housing and education, and begins to target discrimination against lower-income groups.

The previous Union for Students in Ireland (USI) president Lorna Fitzpatrick welcomed the Act, while raising concerns that the option to pay more up-front could lead to preferential treatment in an already highly-competitive student accommodation market.

Fitzpatrick said that the legislation “will help level the playing field a bit, but there is a lot more to do. Student accommodation is still much too expensive and is a huge burden on many students.”

Government and Higher Education Institutions have a responsibility to promote access to education, which includes making student accommodation more accessible and affordable. According to the Department of Further and Higher Education “Equity of access to higher education is a fundamental principle of Irish education policy.” Yet the cost of student accommodation continues to increase, whilst failing to meet demand.

Increasing rental costs year-on-year has become standard practise for SSA providers, with the 4% rent cap not only being used as a target, but exceeded.

It was only in May 2019 that legislation was passed that extended the 4% cap on rent increases within RPZs to SSA, which was previously exempt. Claiming that this legislation was not yet applicable, since Trinity published its rental rates before it was enacted, College accommodation increased by up to 6% for the 2019/20 academic year.

Moreover, the Irish Times reported that the seven universities making up the Irish Universities Association (IUA) had lobbied Government for college-owned student accommodation to be exempt from the 4% rent cap.

While many colleges lowered the cost of accommodation last year for the first time in decades, Trinity was the only university in Ireland to increase rent costs, due to the increase in the academic term by four days.

In the 2019-20 academic year, a single bedroom en-suite at Trinity Hall cost €7248 (€206/week) for a 35 week lease. In 2020-21, the total decreased to €7188 for a shorter lease, while the daily rate was unchanged. This year the single en-suite will cost €7013 (€211/week).

Ensuite singles at Pearse Street cost €5982 (€174/week) in 2019-20, €6056 (€174/week) in 2020-21, and €6135 (€177/week) this year.

GMB, Front Square and other rooms were €8226 (€239/week) in 2019-20, €8388 (€240/week) in 2020-21, and will be €8438 (€244/week) this year.

In this way, all Trinity-owned accommodation rents have been increased by between 1.44% and 2.17% since last year, an increase seemingly at odds with the new HICP-determined legislation.

Speaking to Trinity News, a spokesperson for College explained that the 2.16% increase for Trinity Hall included a “2.33% licence fee [i.e. rent] and a flat utility rate”.

“This 2.33% increase was approved at the Finance Committee meeting of 1 June 2021. Given the caps that have since been introduced, any future increases must be linked to HICP.”

Gavin Elliot, Legal Officer with the housing charity Threshold told Trinity News that “the changes to rent calculation came into force on 16th July, so from that date, where a new tenancy commences in a RPZ, a landlord is required to set the rent in accordance with HICP by reference to the previous rent”.

Claiming that new legislation capping rent increases has not yet come into effect for the second time, Trinity’s decision to increase rents above general inflation not only represents loophole manoeuvring, but a disregard for students.

It remains to be seen whether the 2021 Residential Tenancies Act will achieve much in terms of limiting rent increases, when colleges find ways to avoid the cap. The legislation is certainly a start, but falls short of meeting students’ ever-increasing financial needs.

Ireland lacks sufficient financial supports and loans for students. It does not have a student loans service supported by Government, like Student Finance in the UK and Northern Ireland. This means students can be forced to take out bank loans that, unlike Student Finance, require repayments immediately after graduation.

While Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) certainly helps many students with college costs, its strict eligibility criteria excludes many others, and the support it does provide is not enough.

Of the over 100,000 grant applications SUSI received in the 2020-21 academic year, 76,000 were awarded funding while around 24,000 were refused or cancelled their application.

Financial support given to students through SUSI was cut in 2011 and has not been raised since, despite growing living and accomodation costs. Ranging from €305 to €5915, even students in receipt of the maximum maintenance grant do not receive enough to cover the cost of College’s cheapest accommodation, never mind other basic living expenses.

While part-time employment is common for students, many must work more than is conducive to their studies or mental health to make end’s meet. Many students lost jobs in the pandemic, while others were unable to find holiday work. To make matters more strenuous, the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) will be cut for students in September.

The 2021 Residential Tenancies Act, by nature of its generality, is limited in the protections afforded to student renters. Specific legislation could be introduced to outline student renters’ rights and target issues related to student accommodation, such as the temporary leasing of student accommodation to tourists by Uninest and the treatment of student renters by College at the beginning of lockdown and during the pandemic.

The Act’s protections should also be extended to students renting in private tenancies. The new legislation provides that the maximum notice period in SSA is limited to 28 days. While this is an important safety-net amidst uncertainty over in-person learning, students staying in private accommodation are not included in the provision. In the event of another lockdown, students with longer notice periods will likely be required to continue paying rent for properties that they have since vacated.

In order to provide accessible education, it will be vital for Government and Higher Education Institutions to ensure the provision of affordable student housing. Government could provide funding to subsidise student housing, colleges could view accommodation as a student service rather than for-profit, and both could work to increase supply.

While the new Residential Tenancies Act introduces important measures benefiting students, namely the cap on rent increases and the limit to upfront payments required by providers, for many the protections are too little, too late. Accommodation for students, whether private tenancies or SSA, remains vastly unaffordable, meaning that education continues to be inaccessible for a significant portion of society.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson is currently a Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Jewish and Islamic Civilizations Student.