Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2024: Second Stage

 

5:45 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill. It is appropriate to see these changes made to the Residential Tenancies Act in order to align student-specific accommodation leases to the academic year. I commend the Union of Students in Ireland and student unions generally across the country. They have been campaigning and looking for this change for some time.

I think we all agree it is nothing more than gouging for student accommodation providers to insist on offering 51-week leases, thus increasing cost barriers to participation in higher education. The change proposed in the Bill gives welcome flexibility, so that student accommodation will now follow the traditional academic year of September to May unless a student requests a tenancy in excess of that. The Minister acknowledged that there will be students - postgraduate students on 12-month timeframes, for example - who will look for that but for most students this will be a welcome move.

It is also welcome that landlords will be prevented from operating booking portals seeking payments exceeding those that can be legally sought under section 19B of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to secure a tenancy or licence agreement as an alternative to, but not exclusive to, the option of paying a deposit of one month’s rent plus one month’s rent in advance. The existing state of affairs has a negative impact on many students, not only in terms of income and class background but also in terms of geography. Patently, those living outside of university and college towns and cities are most severely impacted.

We in the Labour Party will not oppose the Bill; indeed, we support and welcome its necessary and timely provisions. That welcome has been expressed by Deputy Farrell and I am sure will be shared across the Opposition. However, I will raise some creeping issues which intersect and serve to heighten the barriers to participation for those looking to go to third level.

Appropriate accommodation for students is very difficult to access. All of us hear in our constituencies how difficult it is for those without an easy college commute to access accommodation. We have all heard horror stories of students sleeping in their cars or commuting long distances to access third level education. This is at a time when the cost of living continues to rise, with high rents and a lack of availability in the private rental sector meaning many students cannot predict if they will be able to attend college each year.

The lack of protections for renters can disrupt exams and study timetables. Difficulties with public transport can mean that commuting is not an option even where students live within what might be considered an easier commute. The SUSI grant does not fully cover the cost of accessing education and limits students' ability to work for a living.

Education is a right but many students find themselves unable to vindicate this right because of the cocktail of failures across the free market which have left students and their parents struggling to cope.

Colleges and universities are experiencing difficulties in getting funding to expand their accommodation offerings. I welcome the Minister's commitment to funding more on-campus accommodation across different colleges and universities.

This Bill is welcome but deep-pocketed private operators, many of them backed by international capital, continue to dominate the student-specific accommodation sector. We routinely see these private operators building so-called "luxury" student accommodation facilities, often fitted with all sorts of extras like cinemas and so on but they are always unaffordable. The reality is that most students need the basics. They need affordable accommodation, somewhere they can meet with friends and the facility to have some disposable income left over at the end of the month. Often these luxury sites are under-occupied which is a waste of land that was purchased solely to enrich the owners and not to deliver the basics for students and young people.

While there has been a relative decline in private investment in this sector in recent years, international property groups are expected to remain significant players, as outlined by recent reports by Mr. Ian Curran for The Irish Times. NAMA properties were snapped up as lucrative investments during the recession and, struggling with funding cuts, third-level institutions could not keep up with making such investments. Now it is important to see more investment made in public, university- and college-owned accommodation to stop the further marketisation of that sector of our education system. Again, I welcome developments in that regard. However, I have been surprised to see other Departments and State bodies attempting to dispose of State assets at a time when there is more public wealth and public funding available. I am thinking of the proposed sale of the post office in Rathmines, for example, which is in my own constituency. It is an iconic building which should be retained in public ownership, ideally to continue to provide postal services but it could be also repurposed for citizen's information services, for example. Just today the public accounts committee visited Baggot Street Hospital. My colleague, Deputy Kelly, has shared publicly some photographs of the interior of that building and the deterioration that has been allowed to occur in what is a State-owned building is shameful. I am conscious that it is outside the Minister's brief as it is owned by the HSE but it could and should be repurposed to provide public and community facilities and amenities. Myself and the Labour Party local councillor, Mr. Dermot Lacey, have long called for it to be repurposed to provide accommodation, community facilities, or as a primary care. We want to see that iconic building put to use in this way.

The trend of selling off State assets to the private market and of facilitating private interests in taking over and dominating the student accommodation market, for example, is not what want to see. We need to reverse that trend and this legislation is important in addressing what is clearly a gap currently but it will not end the pernicious behaviour of private operators who are extorting and overcharging students. We need to call out that and recognise that steps must be taken to weaken their hand in the market. It is not tenable for the Government to just continue chasing them. We know that for young adults coping with an unsupportive learning environment is a huge difficulty and it creates a real obstacle to accessing education. Those students who enter education in their late teens and early twenties are doing so at a pivotal time in their lives. It should be the best of times and we should be ensuring that there is support for them to have the best time while they are at college. This is often a time when interpersonal challenges are experienced by students but it should not be an inevitability that financial worries and David versus Goliath battles with pension fund-backed landlords will form part of that learning curve but for far too many students and for too long, that has been the case.

The Labour Party welcomes this legislation but I want to make an appeal on a related matter. If the Government is serious about abating and addressing the accommodation crisis in the private rental sector then it should pass the Residential Tenancies (Tenant's Rights) Bill which I brought forward on my election to this House in 2021 and which the Minister did not oppose at the time. It is a Bill that seeks to address issues around insecurity of tenure for renters and would bring Ireland in line with other countries where we see stronger protections for renters. Improving renters' rights across the board would also improve conditions for students and would provide greater supports for them, given that so many are in the private rental sector because there is still relatively little accommodation being provided on campuses across the country. Our Bill seeks to link rent increases with inflation, to improve transparency on previous rents paid and to end no-fault evictions. As I said, the Minister did not oppose that Bill progressing at Second Stage but in every subsequent engagement on the issue since then, I get the same stock response from the Department which speaks about the temporary evictions moratorium which was lifted last year. The response has not even been updated in the past year. I would appreciate it if the Minister would address that issue in his response. Does he intend to make any progress with our Bill or with the provisions within it? Does he believe that protections for those in the private rented sector can be improved further? Given the testimony we continually hear from constituents, including students and others who are renting in the private sector, it is clear that we need to see more protections built in for renters generally.

As I said earlier, we support this Bill but we believe the Government has failed to ensure that students have a safe and affordable place to live during the college term. While the provisions of this Bill will undoubtedly improve things for students, and we welcome that, not enough has been done to ensure an adequate supply of accommodation for students. That is the crux of this, as it is the crux of the housing crisis more generally. There has been a failure to ensure adequate supply. Research and advocacy by the USI and the Irish Second Level Students Union has shown us, if we needed to be shown, that students need a greater supply of accommodation, as do all communities. We need to see more affordable and purpose-built housing. We need to see greater availability and greater delivery. In his speech, the Minister alluded to that broader issue of supply. He spoke about the number of homes that have been built since the publication of Housing for All in September 2021 but the homelessness figures speak for themselves. There are now more than 4,000 children in emergency homeless accommodation. We all hear, every day, from our own constituents about how the current level of delivery is simply not enough. The Government's own experts in the Housing Commission have all spoken of the need for increased housing targets and delivery. The Housing for All targets fall well short of the level of need that exists. We have been promised increased housing targets for some time now. The latest indication from the Minister was that the increased target would be published this Autumn. We need to see a ramping up of ambition and urgency in the delivery of accommodation because that is the only way to address the real shortage of accommodation for students and for all in our communities right across the country.

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