Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

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

 

6:25 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)

The Bill is welcome in that it addresses the scandalous problem of student accommodation providers charging for 51 weeks when the students' term is only 41 weeks. It is positive that will be prevented and that students cannot be required to pay more than a month's rent and deposit in advance, other than their fees, if they happen to be paying their fees, to the provider. Those are welcome measures, as is the ability to take to the RTB a landlord who is behaving improperly. Those are positive developments for which the student unions have been campaigning. Well done to the students for getting the Government to take these steps.

However, there is a hell of a lot more to be done and that is what I want to focus on in the time available to me. I was talking to the new Union of Students Ireland, USI, vice president for campaigns before I came in here. I asked what the situation is going to be like for students in September or October. He said it is going to be an absolute shambles, a disaster, for thousands of students. He informed me that last year there was a shortfall of 30,000 student accommodation units. The consequence of that is that students sleep in their cars, sofa surf or commute for several hours in order to get to college. UCD, among others, has produced reports about the mental stress that imposes on students. A serious crisis still persists in regard to the availability of student accommodation. For those who can find accommodation, the rents are exorbitant in many cases.

I phoned the former campaigns officer for UCD before I came into the Chamber. I asked how much the rent is for the newly-built student accommodation in UCD. He reckoned, off the top of his head, that for 41 weeks, which is the actual term, it will cost between €11,000 and €15,000. That is extraordinary. This is for accommodation provided by UCD. For a national university to charge those sort of rents is outrageous. UCD has done surveys showing the mental health impact on students struggling to pay those rents, the pressure it puts on them and the impact it has on the quality of their student experience. Many private providers building student accommodation charge similarly extortionate levels of rent.

The measures in the Bill are welcome and we are happy to support them but a hell of a lot more needs to be done. It is absolutely crazy that we are making it difficult for people to get through college. Many students drop out because of the lack of student accommodation or the mental health pressures that are put on them through trying and failing to get accommodation, or struggling to pay extortionate rents, along with all the other financial burdens that students have. Students have repeatedly called for the complete abolition of registration fees in order to remove that financial burden which, along with rents and the cost of accommodation, puts such pressure on students. We should be doing everything we can to remove financial or any other obstacles to people accessing and completing higher and third level education, particularly at a time when there are chronic skills shortages in multiple sectors of our society, such as health, construction and education. The idea that we continue to allow financial and other barriers that make it difficult for people to access or complete higher and third level education is irrational. We need to take far more bold measures to remove those financial and other obstacles, among which the question of student accommodation is key.

One of the other consequences of the lack of sufficient supply of affordable student accommodation is that people are being pushed into digs accommodation. The USI asked me to ask the Minister to move forward the digs legislation that was discussed here last week. This concerns the situation for people who have to go into digs but often have great insecurity in terms of their accommodation and often face lack of access to facilities in the accommodation because of the whims of the landlord who is providing that accommodation. This includes such issues as the right to lock one's own door in the accommodation. Another ask from the student union movement is for that legislation to be done as quickly as possible.

USI also asked when the student accommodation strategy plan will be published. According to USI, it was promised last July but it still has not been published. That is another request. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister of State as to when that will actually happen. Given the scale of the student accommodation crisis and the fact that we will soon be entering into that crisis again, there should be a far greater level of urgency from the Government in producing that student accommodation plan and addressing the lack of supply of affordable on-campus student accommodation directly provided by the colleges and the Government. At the very least, it should show the urgency to actually deliver that promised plan.

Connected with the issue of student accommodation, there is one issue that sums up the problem we have in terms of the over-reliance on private for-profit providers of student accommodation and how that is not the way forward for delivering the affordable student accommodation we need. In my constituency there is an iconic site called Baker's Corner, in Deansgrange. There was a pub on the site, which the Minister of State probably knows. A developer got that site and obtained planning permission for a strategic housing development, SHD, on it to build student accommodation. The student union at the time opposed that SHD. It lodged objections to it, as I did. It is often thrown against me, in the soundbite politics here, that Richard Boyd Barrett objected to this, that and the other. I objected, along with the student union at the time, because we believed the developer was only putting in the planning application to maximise profit out of the site. He got SHD permission for 276 apartments.

They finally got through after objections. There was a judicial review and so on and so forth. As soon as they got the permission, guess what they did. They put the site up for sale for €7 million. This is private property speculators getting strategic housing permission for student accommodation right beside IADT, which is an ideal site. I want to make it absolutely clear that the students, myself and People Before Profit support the provision of student accommodation on that site. We want to see student accommodation but what we actually got was property speculation by a private property speculator. Of course, even if they or some other private operator moves in on that site, if they have had to pay €7 million, what sort of rents are they going to be charging on that site? We will be talking about similarly unaffordable rents at the level I have described. That is, about €1,000 or 1,500 a month, maybe €2,000 a month, on a site that is right beside the college.

What should happen there? It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what should happen. That site should be taken over by the college - that is, by the Government - to build the student accommodation. Another reason they objected to the developer's proposal was that Bakers Corner was one of the very few social spaces for the students. They would like to see it developed with some social amenities for the students and affordable student accommodation. That is what should happen to that site. Frankly, if it were a socialist government, we would just flipping seize the site off that property developer. However, even now, at this late stage, there should be some sort of compulsory purchase, and the developer should not even benefit from the speculation on the site. This is absolutely outrageous when they got a strategic housing development permission for that site. There should be some way of clawing back the profiteering that, clearly, that developer was engaged in on this strategically important site for the provision of student accommodation.

That sums it up because, as we know, a lot of these developers are speculating with permissions, and if they do build, they are charging extortionate rents. That is not the way to solve the student accommodation crisis. What is actually necessary is for the Government to provide, on State-owned sites on the college campuses, affordable student accommodation. If we are talking about an announcement in the summer economic statement of budget surpluses of €8 billion and so on, the Government certainly cannot plead that it does not have the money to put in the capital investment to build the affordable student accommodation required.

I have one other thing to mention from the USI. According to USI, DCU has announced on - I think it said - three occasions, plans to build new on-campus student accommodation in DCU. Not one sod has been turned. They keep making the announcement but they do not build it. I suggest that this issue should be addressed.

Finally, I would say that even with all these measures being taken, and if the Government did ramp up to the level necessary to provide for that shortfall of 30,000 affordable student accommodations that are lacking, it will not happen by this October. We are going to face into the crisis, one way or another, this September or October. In my view, the Government should be looking at emergency measures to deal with that, providing emergency funding for emergency accommodation for students, and looking at repurposing empty buildings near college or university campuses. If the Minister of State takes UCD, I can think of multiple empty office blocks in the vicinity of UCD. If what we are facing is a situation of students being homeless, couch surfing, travelling for hours and so on, some of those empty buildings should be purchased or taken over in some shape or form and repurposed to provide the emergency accommodation that may be necessary for many students who cannot find the student accommodation they need. I will leave it at that. We are happy to support the Bill but there is a hell of a lot more to be done.

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