The policy positions of TCDSU Lobby Group have been revealed, two months after the group was formed. Although the declared strategies of most of the departments represent clear attempts to improve students’ lives, the position adopted by the Accommodation section will work against the interests of students struggling to find housing amidst Dublin’s accommodation crisis.
The accommodation lobby group, lead by Alec Bickerstaff, has endorsed Simon Coveney’s Rebuilding Ireland plan is working with Dublin City Council to “spur private sector growth through strategic re-zoning and updating Dublin’s urban development plan.”
Firstly, students should be immediately sceptical of a process whereby the Students’ Union’s political arm reveals its positions on critical issues for students, with little explanation of how those positions were reached. Candidates in the 2016 SU election did not expend much time delineating their positions on issues such as the housing crisis. It would seem obvious that the SU cannot legitimately lobby the government using College funds, when it has not consulted students as to how they believe the government should deal with these issues.
Referenda need to be held to establish the positions advocated for by the SU. Without these, the policies advocated for simply reflect the opinions of a small sect of College: SU sabbatical officers, part-time officers, and those free to attend SU meetings.
The danger of such an approach to the SU Lobby Group is exemplified by the position adopted by the group in relation to housing, which could not be more detached from the everyday reality of students. Alec Bickerstaff, the Accomodation Chair for the lobby group, has hailed private sector growth as the solution to the accommodation crisis and endorsed Simon Coveney’s market oriented ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ housing plan.
This position completely ignores that for-profit developers have no interest in building student housing. The sites on which they might build student housing are infinitely more profitable as office space or luxury apartment complexes. The current crisis is a result of the functioning, as opposed to the failure of the market. Building student housing is not a profit maximising venture. This reality is the cause of the current accommodation crisis. As such, a policy which relies on private businesses to provide student housing is indistinct from a policy advocating we do nothing at all.
Assuming some mythic incentive for developers to build student housing, privately owned accommodation will be inaccessible for economically disadvantaged students, because the interests of business owners is profit maximisation, not ensuring that education is affordable for all students in the country.
Even if, by some miracle, rents in these hypothetical privately provided student housing solutions are affordable at the beginning, they will continue to rise.
The market will have few suppliers and barriers to entry, allowing developers relative freedom to set prices, instead of accepting market rates. Moreover, because the only alternative for students will be the private rental sector, where rents rise rapidly due to a paucity of rent controls, owners of private student housing will be able to increase the rates they charge as the private rental market rates continue to balloon.
For most students, this will mean increasing amounts of family income are spent on accommodation, or that students themselves will be burdened with debt from student loan schemes. For many, it will mean that attending university will remain an impossibility. Ireland’s recent economic history reads like a perfectly crafted fable, in which the lesson learned is that markets cannot be trusted with control over the invaluable human right to housing. In ignoring that history, the SU only reinforces the exclusivity of education at Trinity.
The SU Lobby Group’s position has ramifications which extend beyond College walls, however. In endorsing the ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ plan, the SU adds legitimacy to a strategy intent on strengthening the neoliberal political project of Fine Gael. The Rebuilding Ireland plan, like the SU’s approach, favours private developers. A sizeable portion of the government’s proposed social housing will be provided by private developers, subjecting people in need of social housing to exorbitant rents, or in the worst cases, homelessness.
Furthermore, the plan hopes to increase housing supply in general, and rental supply in particular through increased reliance on the private sector. The hope of adding 25, 000 new homes every year will be insufficient to keep up with Ireland’s rapid population growth of 6.4%. It also relies on deregulation of planning regulations, which will inevitably lead to lower quality housing, while removing the already limited power of local councils to place developments under democratic oversight. It is a plan doomed for failure, as pointed out on innumerable occasions by figures on the Irish Left.
The solutions to the national housing crisis and the student accommodation crisis are the same: massive investment in social housing for students and low-income families, and the implementation of stringent rent controls in the private market. Housing policy which revolves around publicly owned housing is the sole practical way of ensuring affordable housing for all, regardless of class or wealth. That such a policy should be advocated by the Students’ Union seems obvious, and yet the opposite will be lobbied for by the Students’ Union.
SU President Kieran McNulty pledged to work towards alleviating the accommodation crisis and to ‘Unlock the SU’ in his manifesto. In establishing the unaccountable, opaque body that is the SU Lobby Group, he has undermined both of these goals. Recognising that the SU should engage in increased political activism was a step forward. It would be a shame to see the SU dragged backwards by a regressive approach to the current crisis.