Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

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

 

6:05 pm

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)

I also welcome the Bill, which the Social Democrats will support. The issue of the Bill is very much tied into what has been happening around students' accommodation needs. This example has been highlighted very well by Deputy Mairéad Farrell but it is one of many examples of exploitation of students when it comes to housing. Perhaps it is not intentional, explicit or anything like that, but if you look at student accommodation across a number of sectors, you will see that it is open season for students to be exploited when it comes to the housing crisis. It was perhaps inadvertent, but last week, when we were discussing the Bill brought forward to regulate student digs, the Government in its response actually reinforced that because it put forward the case that maybe we should not regulate this area because it might affect supply. The Government would not put forward the case not to regulate in areas to protect people if it took the rights of students to protection seriously, like in other sectors. It just would not put forward that argument. Regulation and protection of rights are good enough for others, but somehow the Government and others think, "When it comes to students, maybe not." It has been pushed into introducing this Bill. I welcome that it is being done, but the Government has been pushed into doing it nonetheless.

We have been raising for a considerable amount of time issues that are affecting students in terms of housing and their exploitation. One, for example, is the flouting of RPZ rules by a number of student accommodation providers, which effectively get around the limits on rent increases by bringing forward additional charges - service charges and whatnot - as a way of jacking up rents and flouting the rent pressure zone rules on legal rent increases. I brought that up with the senior Minister but we have not seen proactive action from the Government on this.

In fact, the response from the Government has been to leave it to students who have problems to bring them to the RTB. It really is not good enough to place the burden of dealing with breaches of the law on individual students. Those students may be in first year in college and renting for the first time or in this country for the first time. The idea that they have to be the one to go up against a corporate landlord who is breaking the law and circumventing it by imposing these additional charges and that the Government will not be proactive on the issue again reinforces this attitude that it is open season to exploit students and shows that protecting their rights is not taken as seriously as it should be.

This whole area has been very well documented by Lois Kapila of the Dublin Inquirer. It should not be up to good independent journalism to expose these things. There should be a proactive response from the Government.

We have seen serious exploitation of students by way of rental scams and fraud. The Irish Council for International Students, ICOS, has documented a lot of the exploitation that is going on. We have seen issues around sex for rent exploitation. International students are one of the groups affected by this. A survey by ICOS found that 5% of international students have been offered accommodation in exchange for sex or have seen advertisements for rooms in exchange for sex while 55% of international students have had their mental health impacted by the accommodation crisis.

Those of us on this side of the House have been raising the need for robust legislation in this area for a number of years. The Government has promised to bring forward robust legislation but we are now probably only weeks away from this Government leaving office and there is no sign of that legislation. It simply has not been done. It has not been a high enough priority for this Government despite the promises it has made to act on the issue and the fact that it has seen fit not to allow legislation from our side of the House to progress sufficiently. We have correctly seen talk from people in leadership positions in this country about zero tolerance of sexual attacks, sexual violence and sexual exploitation and I believe it is genuinely meant. However, that must be followed up. For example, talk about zero tolerance of the exploitation of students through sex for rent arrangements has to be followed up with strong and robust legislation. At this rate, by the time this is dealt with legislatively, the students who are being exploited in this way may well have finished their college education. Of course, it also affects people's ability to stay in education. Unfortunately, people do drop out as a result of the different forms of exploitation.

As I have said previously, when it comes to addressing the issue of student accommodation, rather than having all of these private providers that are exploiting students in this way - some colleges have also done this as they see student accommodation as some sort of cash cow in meeting deficits in their funding - it would be much better to have strong provision of affordable student accommodation by the State, the not-for-profit sector or colleges, although on an affordable basis and not on one of charging the maximum rents possible to help with the college's income. That is what needs to be done. While Deputy Harris promised and announced 4,500 beds when he was the Minister responsible for this area, we have seen a real lack of delivery.

I have previously raised the need for the Government to establish a borrowing framework for colleges so that, where there is land, planning permission and a clear need for student accommodation, such accommodation can be put in place. Without such a borrowing framework from Government, we are not getting shovels in the ground. Alongside the measures in this Bill, this would also help to alleviate some of these forms of exploitation. There is no sense of urgency from the Government on this matter. I have previously made reference to the 358 beds Trinity College wants to bring on stream at Dartry. There has been a lack of engagement from the Government on the financing of that proposal. If we had those kinds of actions in tandem with the measures in this Bill and regulations regulating digs - students who pay money to stay in digs deserve some protection under law and the Government's failure to act in this area is not acceptable - the situation would be considerably better. If the Government were to do that, it would also send a message to wider society that it is not open season to exploit students' need for accommodation. This lackadaisical approach from the Government, which has finally been pushed into action in this area, has not helped.

All of this comes at a cost and not just to students who need accommodation. A strong not-for-profit or affordable student housing sector would take pressure of the private rental sector, meaning that people in that sector would be less likely to be evicted into homelessness. We heard the reports over the weekend of the dire situation facing children in particular. A leading paediatrician in Ireland has given a detailed account of what she is now seeing. She is seeing children presenting with rickets, malnutrition, stunted growth, that is, simply not growing at the level they should for their age, and skin diseases including scabies. She particularly noted the effects on children with intellectual disabilities or autism who are in emergency accommodation, where there is a lot of noise and disruption. This has a particular effect on such children and traumatises them. Failing to deal with the student accommodation crisis more comprehensively is not only affecting students, but is also having a wider effect. It is one of the contributory factors to children ending up in those dire situations of homelessness and it needs to be addressed.

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