In a Dáil debate this morning, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Research Simon Harris said government will support the Residential Tenancies bill, tabled by Sinn Fein, in its second stage.
If passed, the Residential Tenancies bill would force landlords to return prepaid rents to students who cannot live in the accommodation due to public health restrictions. It would also enable students to terminate contracts on accommodation they no longer need because of Covid-19 and provide students with access to redress for rent they are having trouble getting repaid.
Other notable elements of the bill include banning landlords from withholding deposits and banning students evictions during the pandemic.
“The government is not opposing the private members bill, the government is welcoming the bill” said Harris. He said he believes it is “very important” that the bill “moves forward”.
Harris highlighted the “massive impact” that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on young people, “they have suffered enormously”.
He also said that “perhaps that hasn’t been discussed enough” and “we can never endure another college year like this one”.
Harris said he is “pleased that the government is in a position to allow this bill pass through second stage” and “wants to welcome what this legislation is intending to do”.
In his speech, Harris praised the work of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), saying: “I want to particularly thank USI for the work that they put into it for the detailed consideration they gave to a range of issues around specific protections that are required in legislation for students, I stand with them and by them in relation to that.”
He paid tribute to outgoing USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick for her “tireless work” saying “she has constantly been raising the issues students face” in a “very robust manner” over the last year. He “looks forward” to working with incoming President Claire Austick.
Harris also highlighted the need for more college owned accommodation saying “we can’t be so reliant on private supply when it comes to student accommodation” and “we need to have a broader discussion, urgently about the issue of student accommodation in the context of overall housing supply”.
“We cannot continue to allow a situation where third level students are almost pitted against young workers, young families in trying to secure a limited number of be that houses apartments, flats or whatever else” he continued. “All this does is drive up prices and drive us pressure for everybody.”
The bill was tabled by Sinn Fein’s Spokesperson on Housing Eoin O’Broin along with TD’s Rose Conway-Walsh, Cian O’Callaghan, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Bríd Smith and Joan Collins. A total of 56 opposition TDs had previously signed the bill including all TDs from Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, Solidarity – People Before Profit and the Independent Group.
Yesterday, USI called on all “government and all other TDs in the Dáil to support the Bill, bring it to committee stage and act on it urgently”. They said “USI and other student activists have been contacting local TDs seeking their support”.
They also encouraged “students and the public to get behind the bill” online using the #PassTheUSIBill hashtag.
Speaking on the bill, USI Vice President for Campaigns, Craig McHugh said that it would “begin to even the playing field between student renters and renters who hold a traditional lease”.
“For too long students have had sub-par rental rights and the Covid-19 pandemic really brought this home to many.”
He continued saying government support “would enable us to continue the really important conversation of addressing the dysfunctional student accommodation market, which mostly consists of luxury accommodation that is completely beyond the reach of the majority of students”.
Speaking to Trinity News this afternoon, McHugh said that it was “fantastic to receive unanimous support for the USI Student Accommodation Bill from all TDs who spoke on Wednesday morning, from both Government and opposition”.
“It’s important that we keep the pressure on to ensure that the bill is enacted immediately and that these protections come in to place as quickly as possible to protect student renters.”
Today, Harris also stated his intention to publish a plan in June on “how we get our students safely back to campus at the start of the new academic year”. However, this “doesn’t mean online learning will cease entirely but we need to see a much bigger increase in terms of on campus attendance” .
“College experience is about more than the zoom camera, it’s about more than sitting in the corner of the box room or your mother or fathers kitchen table, it’s about development, it’s about socialising, it’s about meeting people and we need to maximise on sit activity.”
This article was updated at 7pm 28/04/21 to include a statement from McHugh on the Wednesday morning Dáil debate.