A terrible state o’ chassis

An investigation into the rise of substandard student accommodation.

With Dublin’s traditional commuter towns of Ashbourne and Greystones recently being declared “pressure zones” due to an increase in rents across the board, student accommodation is increasingly difficult to find for students on a tight budget. The most affected are those who rely on the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant to cover their fees and maintenance, as even the highest amount available to them is no longer enough to cover digs in Dublin. The standard highest rate considered by SUSI as “100% maintenance” comes to €336.11 per month to cover rent, transport, food and other necessary college expenditure such as textbooks and laptop repairs. There is a “special rate of maintenance” grant available to the few students who qualify for it, but at €657.22 a month that still is not enough to survive if you come from outside of the commuter threshold.

Alden Mathieu, a Senior Freshman Mathematics student, recently spoke to Trinity News about his experience looking for student accommodation. After two years of searching online for somewhere near College that would accommodate him, his wife, and their two cats, he is living in the same place as last year with a two hour commute each way, not including the 15 minute journey to and from their nearest bus stop.

Rental websites are the main source of accommodation for students now, with advertisements in papers few and far between. In a way this is an advantage for students as it is harder to hide flaws online when pictures are required for anyone to take a letting seriously, but with the crisis getting worse every day some landlords have become feckless in hiding their poor standards.

At the time of writing, the cheapest student accommodation on daft.ie that wasn’t a temporary or short-term let of less than two months was a mattress (sans bedlinen) in a shared room with two other people in a two-bed apartment in Smithfield. The other bedroom was shared by a couple. The bathroom was not shown and there was no indication that there was more than one between the five occupants. The rest of the apartment was the now staple “kitchen cum dining cum living room”. After all, why have three separate rooms with walking space when you can merge all three and call it “compact living”? This setup can often work in a large apartment, but if watching the microwave while someone empties out the bin isn’t your cup of tea, then you wouldn’t find the “living” part very relaxing.

The cost was €325 a month, utilities included, but in an odd twist they specified that they were looking for male tenants only. This kind of blatant discrimination isn’t uncommon; in the same search on daft.ie there were ads that stipulated “no couples”, “female only”, and “no rent allowance accepted” – which the Department of Justice outlawed with a fine attached in 2015.

Mathieu faced similar problems when looking for a new place to stay, with landlords refusing to entertain his visits: “It’s difficult to get a call back from most landlords when they find out you’re either a student, on social welfare, or not living singly, so we haven’t viewed many places in Dublin. However, daft.ie is a wondrous playground of absolutely shocking rents for places that wouldn’t pass muster on CouchSurfing.com. The worst place I’ve seen on there is a tie between a small studio with a single mattress perched half-off a wardrobe, accessible via a folding stepladder, and a single inflatable mattress on the floor in a small bedroom, shared with a double bed.”

How does Trinity’s dedicated student accommodation compare to these nightmarish properties? Not very well. Trinity’s accommodation is some of the most expensive in Dublin. According to the TCD website, the cost of shared living in Goldsmith Hall for just one term, including utilities, is €722.48 per month. Fitting the same criteria, Pearse Street is €625.18 a month. Accommodation in Front Square is the most expensive at €788.72 a month. There has been no apparent criticism of these prices from the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). While SU President Kevin Keane has spoken about the high cost of renting in Dublin for students in general, he has failed to specifically mention the extortionate rates set by his own university, where he has the most power to effect change. The SU does provide an accommodation advisory service, and have boosted their efforts in convincing people to sublet rooms to students as digs, but that’s of little help to the students who struggle to meet those costs.

The cheapest accommodation provided by College is in Trinity Hall in Dartry. A shared twin bedroom in a multi-tenant apartment, utilities included, is €578.26 a month from September to December, with the cost changing for Hilary Term. Considering the walk to Nassau Street is 50 minutes, the aforementioned mattress in Smithfield for €250 cheaper and 37 minutes nearer starts to look appealing.

Why is rent in Dublin rising so rapidly and by so much? There are now parts of the city centre that are more expensive than central London, a city with more facilities and more justification for a high cost of living. Mathieu argued that it was a blend of different causes that all come down to a serious flaw in the running of Irish society: It’s partly an issue of supply and demand, not just from students but from international workers and the general trend of rural depopulation; other large cities in Ireland have high rents for some of the same reasons. I think also a large problem is the outdated idea of how Irish families/housing works: most of the housing I’m aware of is large single-family houses on a plot of grass, I assume because the expectation or the ideal tenant is a nuclear family with several children. I think there’s an expectation that families don’t want to live in higher-density urban housing like apartment blocks, or those who do/will are unattractively low-income. I think there’s also a historic, Catholic-flavoured, outdated expectation that your average renter is a nuclear family with children, a student looking for cheap academic-year digs so they can go back to Mammy and Daddy down the country every weekend, or a single yuppie professional working at some well-paid multinational – everyone else is highly suspicious and an unattractive tenant.”

The narrative of cowboy builders and absentee developers still lingers in the minds of those who remember how quickly permission was given for “luxury semi-detached houses” to be built outside small villages, and how quickly those exterior walls collapsed in on themselves when the contractors declared bankruptcy.

“Developers are inadequately incentivised to build affordable housing, and face absolutely no consequences from reneging on actually building the proportion of affordable housing they agree to. Landlords are incentivised in a host of ways to avoid renting to lower-income people and students, and are able to screen out ‘undesirable’ tenants without actually violating anti-discrimination legislation by strategic use of coded language, etc. There’s no push back from the government, given that a huge proportion of them are landlords themselves, and they also don’t fear being voted out, so there is no effective leverage or cudgel from the people who urgently need housing and can’t get it.”

Stacy Wrenn

Stacy Wrenn is a staff writer and a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic Civilisations student.