Tuesday, 29 May 2018
Residential Tenancies (Student Rents, Rights and Protection) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time.
Students should not be hit with rent increases of 20% to 30%. No student should be paying €1,000 per month for student-specific accommodation. No student should have to pay three times his or her Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, maintenance grant in rent. Allowing these rents is not just unfair, it is also a barrier to accessing third level education. From conversations I have had today not just with students but also with senior figures in university management, if it is allowed to continue, it will act as a barrier, forcing young people either out of third level education or into four-hour daily commutes which will impact on their education and student life. The Bill before us is very simple. It is about bringing this to an end. When the Shanowen shakedown protest started in Dublin City University in March, the Government should have acted immediately. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who I note is not present, should have requested the Attorney General to clarify whether student licences were covered under the Residential Tenancies Acts and the rent pressure zone legislation. Interdepartmental meetings between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Education and Skills were not necessary. What was required was action. Instead, as in so many areas, the Government did nothing. What happened? The student rent shakedown spread to Galway. If the Government continues to refuse to act, it will spread to Cork, Limerick, Sligo, Waterford and elsewhere.
The solution is very simple. The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 and the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 should be amended to ensure student licences are included in the definition of a tenancy; students should be given access to the measures in the rent pressure zone legislation and both landlords and tenants should be given access to the Residential Tenancies Board for dispute resolution.
I acknowledge the important work of Deputy Darragh O’Brien and his party colleagues on this issue. From the outset, he has supported the students in DCU and elsewhere and has very similar legislation on the Order Paper which he introduced only recently. Following conversations today, I welcome his support for this legislation. I also welcome the public support of other Opposition Deputies and Government backbenchers for the student protests. We have a great opportunity to speak with one voice and say we stand for fair play for students, that we are going to put an end to the student rent shakedown and that we are going to provide students and their parents with the protection they need.
I understand the Government will not oppose the Bill, but that it has some concerns about the proposed wording. That is okay. The eminently more qualified officials in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government would do a much better job of writing this legislation than my support staff and I would. If the Minister and his departmental staff do not believe they can support this wording, we have a very simple solution. All they need do is take the sentiments which I hope will be approved by the Dáil and work them in their own words into the residential tenancies (amendment) Bill which they are finalising and which all of us in the House will then enthusiastically support. If the Minister does that, we could have the matter resolved by the end of July; students would have the protections they need and this Private Members’ Bill would no longer be necessary.
We all know that lack of supply is a key part of the student accommodation crisis. I welcome increased investment in student-specific accommodation, particularly by the European Investment Bank and the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Education and Skills need to work together to lift the borrowing caps on universities to allow them to provide better quality affordable student-specific accommodation. While private investment is not to be opposed, accommodation must be delivered at a genuinely affordable rate. Let us not forget that many of the investment funds in the student market are benefiting from very generous tax breaks. They are global funds that have developed a reputation for aggressively driving down their tax liabilities, while driving student rents ever higher. That is not the way to resolve the student housing crisis.
I thank the students involved in the Shanowen and Cúirt shakedown protests for forcing this important issue onto the political agenda. I urge those students to continue with the protests. I acknowledge the important work being done by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and the students' unions in DCU, UCD, Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway, the IADT and other colleges. I urge all Deputies in the House to stand by these students and support the Bill. I desperately urge the Minister to insert amendments into his own legislation to tackle this issue and end the student rents shakedown.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, for all of his work in this area. Everybody knows that there is a housing crisis. We speak about it regularly here. Sometimes the fact that students also require accommodation is forgotten about. A lot of the time students are in very substandard accommodation, as are many renters. In many cases people are afraid to bring any issue to their landlord because they are always afraid of the dreaded notice to quit. That is particularly the case for students because there is a theory or idea that students are not the best tenants. That is an unfair assessment, but it has to be acknowledged that many landlords would say it. That leads to some of the figures we hear such as that 60% of students have, at some point, had difficulty in trying to get their deposits back.
In the short time I have available I want to focus on people who are coming from rural areas such my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny and many other counties which do not necessarily have a university campus. Every year many students travel to Dublin, Galway, Cork and other areas. Moving away from home is a big stage in a person’s life. Seeing one’s children fly the nest, for want of better words, is also a big step for many parents. To think one’s kids are going to have to live in substandard accommodation in which they are afraid to raise any issue and for which they will pay extortionate rents is really unacceptable and puts added pressure on students from rural areas.
The SUSI grant has not been increased in the ten years since 2008. Students who receive the grant really struggle as it is to live on it and meet the cost of living while staying in education. Unfortunately, we see a huge number of students dropping out after their first year because they just cannot keep up with the cost of living. Students from rural backgrounds and areas are doubly disadvantaged because, in addition to trying to pay their fees and meet the cost of living, they also have to pay for rent and are moving into areas they do not necessarily know. There is a whole bunch of issues in that regard. Focusing on that aspect, the Bill will help those students. If they were able to access the services of the Residential Tenancies Board, they would be able to bring difficulties or issues to it. It would also be a great source of reassurance for parents in sending their children away to know that they had access to the same rights as other renters. It would also help them to be covered by the rent pressure zone legislation. The reality is that if something is not done about the level of rent students are paying and the difficulties they have in getting deposits back, many students will end up dropping out. We have already seen a huge drop-out rate. Most people will not say it has anything to do with their course but that it has to do with not being able to afford to meet the cost of living and being forced into employment. We all know that one’s chances are increased with a better education; therefore, we should be trying to keep students in education.
The quality of the place in which one lives and having access to an affordable rented property are big issues, particularly for students from rural areas.
The CAO points will not come out until August, but students are already having to try to find accommodation, even though they do not know what courses they will be offered. That is an indication of the level of pressure they are under. I urge Deputies to support the legislation in order that students can be covered by the Residential Tenancies Board and the rent pressure zones and given the same opportunities as other renters.
As we know, Ireland has an accommodation crisis which is particularly prevalent for students. It is estimated that we need at least 25,000 additional units of student accommodation. Each year we witness thousands of students scrambling for accommodation. The lucky ones might be able to find something close to the university or college they are attending, but it is more likely that they will take whatever is available. If they want to attend university and study for their degrees, they cannot be fussy in a restricted rental market. Many students face the real prospect of missing out on their courses because they cannot find accommodation. The demand for student accommodation is far out-stripping supply. Each new academic year highlights the chronic shortage of rental accommodation for students. Rental costs have sky-rocketed, particularly in cities such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. The shortage of student rentals is adding extra pressure to the existing problems across the entire housing market.
Many students have a real and legitimate fear that they will not be able to find somewhere to live during the academic year. Students whose families live near universities and college are considered to be lucky because they can live at home when they are going to college. Last year, at the beginning of the new college year, it was noted that the level of available rental properties was one of the lowest ever to be recorded. In the past two years there has been a marked decline in the number of available properties during the months of July and August, which are normally two of the busiest months for the rental market. This chronic shortage of accommodation has led to escalating rents. Students also have to struggle with increasing living expenses and third level costs. The difficulty in finding accommodation, exacerbated by arbitrary and excessive rent increases caused by unregulated student tenancies, is deterring foreign students from coming to study in Ireland. Students have enough with which to cope. I have outlined some of the pressures they face.
Last April students from Dublin City University staged sleep-outs to highlight the lack of stability and security in student rentals. They also highlighted a clear injustice in the rental sector. The Bill hopes to cover the anomaly in question. There was significant controversy at Shanowen Square and Shanowen Hall near Dublin City University, in my constituency, when it emerged that rents were set to increase by between 20% and 27% from the last academic year to the coming academic year. This would have seen monthly rents of between €925 and €966 being charged. Since 2014 rents in Shanowen Hall have increased by over 100%, which is absolutely crazy. The Bill has been designed to give protection and rights to students by limiting rent hikes through the use of rent pressure zones. It is very important for students that Deputies support our Private Members' Bill because it is a signal that we support a rights-based approach to education. Rents are already far too high. It is time we stopped this escalation. We need to protect the rights of students.
We are discussing what happens when children who are seeking to go to college, particularly in Dublin, encounter accommodation problems and their families at home try to pay for that accommodation. We often talk about the presence of free education in our society, but even those who are fortunate enough to receive the maximum SUSI grant cannot afford to send their children to college, especially in Dublin. Many people in my community in County Leitrim have told me about the cases of students who had their hearts set on a place in a particular college but could not go to it because accommodation was going to be too expensive. Instead, they accepted courses in other places that were further down their lists because accommodation was somewhat cheaper. That is a poor reflection on the society in which we live and on where we are as a country.
We pride ourselves on having a highly intelligent and well educated workforce. The future lies in having a good and intelligent workforce and an excellent education system. I think everyone in this House and those who are looking in from the outside acknowledge that our efforts to achieve these goals are clearly hampered by the lack of availability of good accommodation for students, particularly in Dublin but also in other parts of the country. The case of Shanowen Hall near Dublin City University shone a light on this problem earlier this year. It is a disgrace that students are having to protest to try to find adequate accommodation in which to live. If that is what we have come to as a society, we need to wake up and realise something serious is wrong. The commodification of student accommodation, as something that can be bought and sold, is at the heart of what is wrong. Large companies that have built huge blocks of apartments to use as student accommodation are using it as an opportunity to fleece families that are trying to put their children through college.
I know that the Government will probably acknowledge that there is a problem, but acknowledging it does not go far enough. It is clear that we need to come to a solution that will ensure tenants in student accommodation are treated with respect, just like any other tenant in any other accommodation across the country. If we want this to happen, one of the first steps we need to take is to ensure the Bill will receive the full support of the House. The Government should accept it and put it into law, thereby ensuring students will have the same rights as other tenants. Although that would not go far enough, it would go part of the ways towards resolving, or certainly highlighting, this issue.
I commend an Teachta Eoin Ó Broin for introducing this comprehensive legislation which will give students in student accommodation the protection of the Residential Tenancies Acts. It will allow students to access the Residential Tenancies Board and ensure they are included in rent pressure zones. If the Dáil really believes in access to education at all levels, all obstacles must be removed in order that young people, in particular, can reach their full potential. As part of this, we need to provide decent accommodation with decent rents and conditions.
I have been informed by representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland at Dundalk Institute of Technology in my constituency that the lack of affordable accommodation is affecting the number of young people who are able to take up courses. The availability and cost of accommodation can have a bad impact on educational attainment and course completion rates. Cushman and Wakefield reported in their 2017 student accommodation report that there were 60,000 students chasing 35,000 spaces. It is estimated that this number will increase, with almost 70,000 students looking for accommodation in the next five years. The reality is that the provision of student accommodation, especially in Border constituencies such as Louth, is inadequate.
A year ago there were 11 student accommodation projects under construction, ten of which were being built by private developers. As an Teachta Martin Kenny said, this shows that student accommodation has become a means of profit - an opportunity for the private sector to increase profit. It is a nightmare for students to try to find somewhere to stay and a means of paying exorbitant rents. Most students at Dundalk Institute of Technology can expect student accommodation to cost almost €500 a month, with many of them paying significantly more. This is generally for a single room and does not include additional costs such utility bills and heating. We know that costs are even greater in Dublin, with some students being expected to pay over €900 a month in rent.
The Residential Tenancies (Student Rents, Rights and Protections) Bill 2018 is one way of tackling these problems. It will do what it says on the tin. It is about including student licences in the provisions contained in the Residential Tenancies Acts.
This will ensure properties in the affected areas are covered by rent pressure zones and provide access for those living in student properties to the Residential Tenancies Board. This is a commonsense proposal that has been welcomed by student groups. It can assist students to stay in full-time education by ensuring they will not be charged exorbitant rents. I commend the Bill to the House and ask all Deputies and the Government to give it their full support.
The main objective of the Bill is to allow students the full protection of the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2016 in terms of rent predictability measures and other protections specific to tenancy agreements. The Bill has been introduced in response to the recent price increases in certain privately run purpose-built student accommodation complexes. One in Dublin 9 has seen an increase of an exorbitant 24% and, more recently, a complex in Galway increased prices by 18%. The Government understands the Bill is a genuine attempt to improve the position for students at a time of under-supply in the residential rental sector. Recent excessive rent increases in student accommodation in Dublin and Galway are a cause of significant concern and I have met the DCU and NUIG students' unions to discuss the issue.
The Government will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage on the basis that providing rent predictability within student specific accommodation is aligned with the Government’s policy of actively addressing barriers to education. The Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will consider the Bill’s approach further as part of a comprehensive review of the student accommodation sector generally.
As acknowledged by the expert group's report on the future funding of higher education, central to our economic well-being is the contribution human capital makes to national competitiveness. The recognition of the contribution graduates make to the economic growth of Ireland sits alongside the recognition that accommodation costs are a key factor in enabling access to third level education. The Government is determined to address any barrier to higher education and any limitation on the choice of location or course followed.
Research undertaken by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, indicates that approximately one third of students live in purpose-built student accommodation, with almost the same number living in the private rented sector. In the current rental market significant competition for accommodation in the private rented sector is increasing the reliance of students on purpose-built student accommodation. In light of this, I support the spirit of the Bill and that of Deputy Darragh O’Brien of Fianna Fáil, Residential Tenancies (Rent Pressure Zones and Student Accommodation) (Amendment) Bill 2018, as genuine attempts to improve the position for students. Ultimately, however, price is a function of supply and demand and the Government is working to increase the supply of student accommodation. One of my first acts as Minister of State last July was to publish the national student accommodation strategy to increase the supply of student accommodation and increase the take up of digs. It was delivered as part of the Government’s housing strategy, Rebuilding Ireland, and is an important element of the housing strategy in ensuring increased levels of student accommodation are available to meet the needs of the growing student cohort. This, in turn, will help to alleviate the overall shortage of supply in the private rental sector.
Our strategy has set a target of an extra 7,000 bed spaces to be built by the end of 2019 and a total of 21,000 additional beds by 2024. We are well on target to meet and exceed these numbers. At the end of April this year 2,990 bed spaces were finished. An additional 2,354 student beds will be available for the coming academic year, with over 2,800 the following year. Some 8,445 have planning permission, while 917 are at planning application stage. We should, therefore, meet, if not exceed, the Rebuilding Ireland targets of 7,000 purpose-built bed spaces by the end of 2019 and 21,000 bed spaces by 2024.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Education and Skills also jointly fund a student accommodation officer within the Union of Students in Ireland. The USI and the Departments are working, through the interdepartmental working group on student accommodation, to promote and facilitate the provision of digs accommodation as an alternative to both purpose-built student accommodation and the general rental market for students. I met the Residential Tenancies Board, with the DCU students' union, when the issue of a rent increase arose there. The Residential Tenancies Board offered to examine any student licence contract submitted to it to ascertain its validity. I have also asked the Attorney General for advice. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy; the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, and I are working on putting this advice in place. We need a robust and legislatively sound solution.
The proposal in front of us seeks to apply the protections afforded to tenancies under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to students living in student specific accommodation under licence. In addition, the Bill aims to grant access to the Residential Tenancies Board's dispute mechanisms to students living in student accommodation under a licence agreement. It does so by proposing to amend the definition of “tenancy” to include the phrase “and a licence for student specific accommodation”. The Bill also seeks to introduce a definition of “licence for student specific accommodation”. The Bill does not define “student specific accommodation”. Rent predictability is important. However, we must ensure we deliver the most appropriate solution to provide predictability for students and their parents, while ensuring the supply of new accommodation is not adversely impacted on. Rent predictability measures were first introduced by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government under Part 3 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. Rent pressure zones regulate rental increases for tenancies within a rent pressure zone to a maximum of 4% per annum and hold their legal basis under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, as amended.
It is important to note that the annual rent increase limit of 4% does not apply to the following dwellings under tenancies in rent pressure zones: new rental properties, that is, properties that have not been subject to tenancy in the two years prior to an area being designated as a rent pressure zone; and rental properties that, during the period since the last rent was set, have been substantially refurbished or changed in nature. In the main, it is understood seeking to bring student accommodation under the Residential Tenancies Act has the potential to impact on the wider rental market; thus it is imperative that in seeking to find a solution to this complex issue, we exercise extreme caution in order that we may ensure the longevity of the solution.
This is a difficult balancing act of ensuring the vital protection of our students and increasing the availability of affordable student accommodation, while ensuring the constitutionally protected rights of property owners. Earlier this month, I met my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy English, to progress the issue of rent certainty in purpose-built student accommodation. The interdepartmental working group on student accommodation is urgently examining all the issues around student accommodation types and pricing. It will consider the Sinn Féin Bill as part of this work. It will also consider whether bespoke legislation or amending existing legislation is the best way forward.
The Government strongly supports and has taken important actions to seek to ensure sufficient supply of affordable student specific accommodation provided under licence. It is important that legislation in this area is legally robust and does not give rise to unintended consequences with, for example, planned future provision of affordable student specific accommodation. If this work finds that there is a policy-based case for legislation in this area, proposals will be brought forward either in a standalone Bill or in the context of two Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bills envisaged this year. The first of these is expected in mid-June.
For the reasons I have set out, the approach proposed in this Private Members' Bill will not be successful in achieving its objectives.
I welcome the Bill published by Deputies Ó Broin and Funchion on behalf of Sinn Féin. I have discussed it in the context of Fianna Fáil’s Residential Tenancies (Rent Pressure Zones and Student Accommodation) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. Somewhere between those two Bills, there is certainly a way forward. We all agree there is a major issue with student rents. I commend the USI and the student unions from DCU, NUIG and other universities which brought this to the fore. It was initially brought to the fore in DCU and followed on in Cúirt na Coiribe in NUIG. It is incumbent on us to act. That is why this Bill, if married with others, is useful. Much of what the Minister of State stated is broadly positive. However, her speech was missing specifics on delivery dates. On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I fully agree with Deputy Ó Broin’s suggestion that the Government’s Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill, which will be brought forward over the coming weeks, should contain a section to deal with student accommodation. Not to speak on behalf of all Opposition parties, but if that is not forthcoming from the Government, the Opposition parties can bring forward and pass an amendment to that Bill. The Minister of State criticised one aspect of the Sinn Féin Bill, namely, the absence of a definition of "student accommodation" because the Bill refers only to "a license for student specific accommodation". To be helpful to all sides, the Fianna Fáil Bill defines student accommodation. I am not sure why we are waiting for the Attorney General's advice on student accommodation. Our Bill stated "tenancy under subsection (4) also applies to the use of student accommodation as defined in section 13(d) Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 during academic term times." The Government and the law defines what purpose-built student accommodation is. We can start with that. That would be an eminently sensible suggestion. I discussed with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, some time ago what advice in particular we are looking for from the Attorney General. Is it the treatment of a licence arrangement vis-à-vis a tenancy? What we and Sinn Féin have proposed is to actually treat the licence as a tenancy agreement. I am not sure what we are looking for from the Attorney General. We have given a definition for student accommodation under the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016. Time is of the essence. There has been progress made in the provision of purpose-built units. Deputy Adams rightly referred to 32,000 purpose-built units. The Minister of State stated that, by way of the national accommodation policy document, there will be a further 21,000 units. While this is all good, how do we regulate the price people will pay? I disagree with the Minister of State that price is solely a function of supply and demand. That basically is a Fine Gael mantra of leaving it to the market. I accept supply does affect price. However, it does not mean the Government cannot intervene. In fact, the Government has intervened with rent pressure zones, an intervention which has worked to some degree. We can try it with student rents. I do not see why we need to wait. I agree with the spirit of the Sinn Féin Bill which we will support. The Minister of State alluded to the fact that the Government will not oppose it on Second Stage. That in itself is welcome. The question is what we do next. In June, when the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill comes forward, the Government should bring forward an amendment to it. I do not believe that would be bad law. We have definitions and there is an opportunity for everyone across the House to work on it. It would show the student body that the Oireachtas is serious about dealing with students' problems. I have met students who have had to leave or could not go to college because they could not afford rents. No Member or the Minister of State responsible wants to see that. I respectfully suggest the Minister of State talks with the Department and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to bring an amendment forward. If the Government does not do so, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and other parties will work together to ensure the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill is amended to include student accommodation.
I welcome this debate tonight on the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents, Rights and Protections) Bill 2018 which reflects Fianna Fáil’s policy on this often overlooked part of our widespread housing crisis involving student accommodation. I am conscious there are students tonight in Wicklow and elsewhere busy finalising their preparations for the leaving certificate examinations. The leaving certificate is the completion of many years of hard work for many to ensure the prospect of third level college will be the next phase of their lives. I wish all the students and their parents the best of luck in the coming weeks. I urge them to take time to enjoy the fine weather and to relax whenever it is possible during this period.
The joy that many students and parents will experience when the results come out in August will, unfortunately, be quickly replaced by the reappearance of stress when the race to find student accommodation begins. Every year in Wicklow this frantic and unfair race takes place at a time which should be filled with happiness and satisfaction as parents and students take the pleasure in the transition from second to third level education. Instead, it is a frantic and sometimes fruitless search for safe, affordable and available accommodation. Many students in Wicklow have been forced to become commuters before they even start a career as the lack of student accommodation in Dublin, Carlow, Waterford and elsewhere forces them to stay at home. There must be a better way to address this. Apart from increasing supply, which is an ongoing process, there must be measures to curb the unjustified rent increases which are currently up to 27% in some Dublin third level colleges.
It is astonishing for high-minded liberal centres of high learning to be so ruthless in taking advantage of students. I have seen excellent expertise-based evidence generated for policy proposals from many academics at the housing committee and at Fianna Fáil policy meetings. They are ashamed at the management practices within some third level institutions. They believe the accommodation crisis is being cynically exploited to extract more cash from students and their families. In St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, student accommodation was raised by 43% from €3,200 to €4,572 in 2016. The State and the Government funds third level colleges through fees and the Higher Education Authority and is, therefore, a passive partner in what is a totally unjust regime. It is sometimes difficult to listen to Ministers speak of how they are solving the student accommodation crisis when in fact they are allowing third level colleges to exploit students and their families.
The Fianna Fáil Bill mirrors this Bill. It would expand rent pressures zones to student accommodation units. This would prevent and slow down the rack-renting that is occurring with the connivance of third level management. Students and their families have enough pressures to cope with. The financial strain caused by the vast increase in student accommodation rents is contributing further to the difficulties in access for families with lower incomes.
Access to third level education for all in Ireland rather than only the select few is a core principle of Fianna Fáil republican thinking. I hope the Government wakes up to the needs of students. After all, I know of too many Wicklow students who have to get up early in the morning to travel a long distance to college.
We must ensure that the quality of student accommodation is maintained at a high level and that the outside of college term the controls are removed to allow other legitimate activities.
I wish to make another remark in a personal capacity. I am aware of many Bills that are similar, including, in some instances, Bills with Government support. Given the spirit of new politics and a fragmented Dáil with a minority Government, I hope that it will be possible to see if parties could agree on delivering those Bills with broad approval. I welcome tonight's consensus among Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Minister of State. After all, legislation should not be about claiming credit, but rather serving the citizens of Ireland.
I wish to lend my support to the Bill. I thank Deputy Ó Broin and Deputy Funchion for bringing the Bill to the House tonight.
I fully support the Bill to expand the provision of rent pressure zones to cover purpose-built student accommodation. The Bill basically reflects an identical Fianna Fáil measure brought in by Deputy Darragh O'Brien. The measure would apply the provisions of rent pressure zones that limit rent increases to 4% per annum to student accommodation.
As of today, almost 19,000 have signed an online petition calling on the Government to work with universities to create more affordable accommodation and to prevent private companies and landlords from exploiting legal loopholes that allow them to charge whatever they wish to students.
Shanowen Square is a privately-owned student residence near DCU. In common with all student accommodation it is rather basic. The apartments comprise four single bedrooms and a shared living, kitchen and dining area. I will outline the rise in the cost of this accommodation for the academic year, which is 34 weeks in duration. In the 2016-17 academic year the cost was €6,120 plus a deposit of €350. In the 2017-18 academic year, the cost is €7,000 plus a deposit of €350. In the 2018-19 academic year, the cost will be €8,695 plus a deposit of €400. The Minister of State will understand the widespread outrage of parents and students when she examines these figures. This represents an increase of more than 40% since last yearin Shanowen Square. This cannot be allowed to continue; there is no question about that. Some people have contacted me to say that the accommodation does not even have working Wi-Fi. Although Wi-Fi is very important for students, they do not even have that basic facility. Similar accommodation in a nearby privately-owned student complex, Gateway Student Village on Ballymun Road, has increased to €9,980 for 2018-19. I understand that deposits are being retained as part of the fee and are not being returned. They should be returned if there is to be any law in the country. By comparison, on-campus accommodation is priced between €5,729 and €6,396 for the same academic year. The numbers of students applying for this accommodation far exceeds the numbers of places available. Thus, the accommodation is distributed in a supposedly random lottery system. Students who are not successful in securing a place must resort to the privately owned complex in Shanowen Square. They are forced into this situation.
Cúirt na Coiribe in Galway recently revealed plans to raise rent by 18% for the next academic year. It is most concerning and unfair that these rent increases are being announced around examination time as it gives people no time to gather or get a deposit in. In a statement Cúirt na Coiribe defended its decision on the basis that the rent hike was in line with wider student accommodation markets in Galway.
Student apartments in Cork coming on-stream for next term have prices greater than €900 per month for one-bedroom units. That is more expensive than a mortgage repayment on many family homes.
We have no wish to see students having to fork out outrageous rent costs for accommodation. This is affecting rural families more than most. When children reach third level the costs to families soar. Students have no choice but to live away from home and so incur accommodation and travel costs. All this coincides with the loss of child benefit.
People are infuriated each year to hear various politicians expressing outrage at accommodation costs for students. This usually happens around the month of August but invariably nothing happens. We want to see changes. What we need is cross-party political pressure and action to put an end to the extortionate rip-off policies of these private companies. The escalating cost of student accommodation is simply unacceptable. The 2015 report of the Higher Education Authority shows that the number of students in full-time third level education is set to rise from 168,000 in 2014 to 193,000 by 2024. That is a rise of 25,000 students. Thousands of units of student accommodation are either being built or are in the planning stages in cities throughout the country, with the majority in Dublin where the demand is greatest. The new units being built are generally high-end en suite rooms with shared spaces. Generally they cost between €220 and €270 per week. Purpose-built student accommodation is not covered under the Residential Tenancies Act and is not under the jurisdiction of the Residential Tenancies Board. This means students staying in such accommodation are not classed as tenants and do not have many of the same protections afforded to tenants. Our Bill addresses this anomaly. Dublin city is covered by rent control legislation introduced in late 2016. The legislation prevents landlords from raising the rents by more than 4%. However, this does not apply to licensees. That is what allows Shanowen Square to raise the rent in the buildings by over 25%.
Since it is some days before the examinations start, it is appropriate to wish all students who are sitting examinations in the coming weeks the best of luck. The discussion relates to student accommodation in third level. Many of the students sitting examinations will be entering that phase of their lives.
The pressure on families to support their children in third level education is extraordinary. Middle-income families who do not qualify for Student Universal Support Ireland grants are being bled dry by out-of-control student rents. This must be brought under control. The cost of student accommodation out-of-term is up to 40% cheaper. While demand is obviously greater during term time, such a great difference in rent is unacceptable. I have spoken to many families in my constituency of Tipperary whose children are studying throughout the country. The story is always the same.
Fianna Fáil is supporting the Sinn Féin Bill to expand the provisions of rent pressure zones to cover purpose-built student accommodation. The Bill reflects a similar measure brought forward by Deputy Darragh O'Brien recently. Student accommodation is currently not covered by the 2016 Act as it constitutes a licence to reside similar to a hotel rather than a tenancy. This Bill extends the rent pressure zones rent cap of 4% to student accommodation by extending the definition to encompass student accommodation. The Bill comes in light of vast increases of up to 27% per annum in student accommodation. Fianna Fáil has also brought forward legislation to strengthen regulation of rental market by empowering the relevant authority to undertake investigations, expand rent limits and increase supply.
Our Bill applies the rent pressure zone system solely to purpose-built student accommodation during academic term times and will not impact on other rights or schemes, including the rent-a-room scheme. Data from national student accommodation policy documents indicates that this would impact on approximately 33,000 current students in purpose-built student accommodation. It will eventually cover the anticipated 21,000 additional student places due by 2024. Fianna Fáil has also put forward a suite of measures to strengthen protections in the rental sector.
Ireland's student numbers are increasing significantly. The number of students in full-time third-level education is set to increase from 168,000 in 2014 to 193,000 by 2024, or 25,000. Taking this into account, the HEA concluded in 2014 that there was a deficit of approximately 25,000 student beds and that number was set to increase significantly. Following this report, the number of private international companies providing purpose-built student accommodation has jumped significantly. Currently, there are 33,000 student places with further increase of 20,000 additional units due to come on stream by 2024. Thousands of units of student accommodation have been built or are in the planning stages in cities around the country.
We must address the quality of accommodation by overhauling the RTB to provide it with new investigative powers and extra resources, stronger certification and inspection of rental properties and stronger rights to remove rogue tenants. We must increase supply by financing new build-to-rent units, implementing an empty-property refurbishment grant and offering assistance to involuntary landlords in negative equity. The new units which have been built are generally high end with rooms in shared spaces costing between €220 and €270 per week. Purpose-built student accommodation is not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act and is not under the jurisdiction of the RTB. It is covered by license-to-reside agreements similar to those for hotels or the rent-a-room sector. Students staying in this type of accommodation are not classed as tenants and lack the protections afforded to others. Our Bill addresses this anomaly.
The Labour Party will support the Sinn Féin Bill. We support fully what it intends to achieve. While it is good that the Government is not opposing the Bill, I do not fully understand the issues raised by the Minister of State, including the definitions issue which Deputy O'Brien has addressed, but also the issue around constitutional property rights. If we have created rent pressure zones without having a constitutional problem, notwithstanding the fact that they control the level of rent the owners of private property can get, I cannot see why there would be a constitutional problem in relation to student accommodation. I support the suggestion that the Government should incorporate the Bill's proposals in its own Bill which is due to come before the House in mid-June. We all want to make this happen. If they can be included in a Government Bill, they are likely to be introduced sooner than they would by way of an Opposition Bill. That is particularly so now that so many Opposition Bills are stacked up to be dealt with by the housing committee.
One of the most serious issues arising here is the fact that there are many barriers to higher or further education, in particular for people who do not have as much advantage as others or a tradition of proceeding to third level, without adding accommodation being another one. That is probably the most important issue in this case. People who come from relatively well-off backgrounds may not have to skip college or drop out due to accommodation costs, but there are others who will face that scenario, which is the important aspect of this. The problem has been articulated by others. I attended the protest by DCU students outside the Dáil a few weeks ago in relation to what has become known as the "Shanowen shakedown". It has also become an issue at NUIG with Cúirt na Coiribe. The increases students and their parents face are huge. Deputy Scanlon indicated that, for 2018, €8,695 plus a deposit will be required while Deputy Ellis said accommodation would cost between €925 and €966 per week. This is huge money. Deputy Scanlon also referred to on-campus accommodation costing €5,000 to €6,000 per annum, which shows that we need a great deal more publicly-built student accommodation as well as to control the private sector.
I notice that my own city of Limerick was not referred to when Deputy Ó Broin was talking about this in the media earlier. Part of the reason is that Limerick in general and the University of Limerick in particular have a much higher proportion of public student accommodation per head than the other university towns and cities. In effect, that ensures we do not have the same cost problems in Limerick as one sees in Dublin, Cork and Galway. I have statistics for 2014 which set out that there were 6,500 public units in Dublin, 813 in Cork, 764 in Galway, 446 in Waterford and 2,590 in Limerick. One of the reasons is that the University of Limerick sits on a large campus that is not in the city centre. Either way, the statistics show huge cost increases. Trinity College Dublin's students' union carried out research in April 2016 which showed that the average rent for students totalled €490 per month while the maximum was €704. There has been a huge jump from that to the €900 per month and more in DCU now. I assume that with TCD being in the centre of Dublin, the cost of private student accommodation is even greater again.
We need to see control as well as more public student accommodation. There is an onus on both the Department and the higher education institutions themselves to provide student accommodation where they are also increasing student numbers. The proposal with which we are dealing, however, is about ensuring rent pressure zones are applied to student accommodation in the private sector, which is eminently sensible. Otherwise, private providers will be able to charge whatever the market allows them to. We have seen that grow exponentially over the past couple of years. As such, it is imperative to control it. Private providers will charge whatever they can get. We have heard the statistics on the increase thus far as well as on the projected increase in the number of extra places by 2024. That will happen and more students will come into the system. Unless something is done quickly, those who provide private accommodation will charge whatever they can get. Whatever they can get will be whatever hard-pressed parents and mature students paying for themselves can pay. The alternative is that people cannot go to college.
This is a serious issue, in particular in terms of ensuring that students and their families are not priced completely out of attending college if they are not lucky enough to live near a third level institution in the first place. Students who have to live away from home while they are in college face exorbitant rents which are likely to increase further if a stop is not put to this. The legislation is necessary. I commend Sinn Féin for moving it and I express the Labour Party’s support.
We are discussing the issue of student accommodation and the rip-off of students by unscrupulous landlords. The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O’Connor, acknowledges the need for change but states we must proceed with extreme caution and that we have a difficult balancing act. I would argue that we must proceed with extreme urgency and must rebalance the respective rights decisively in favour of those students who currently face quite shocking levels of exploitation. I will give some examples from Cork city to illustrate precisely what I am talking about.
Is the Minister of State aware that this year, at least three students of the Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, study by day but sleep in their cars at night because they cannot afford the rip-off rents being charged by the landlords in the locality? One sleeps in one's car, gets up early in the morning, goes into the gym, showers and brushes one's teeth. One then goes and does a day’s study and whatever one is doing in the evening, after which one goes back to sleep in one's car. I refer to not one student but at least three students.
Is the Minister of State aware, for example, that in the suburb of Bishopstown, Cork, where the Cork Institute of Technology is situated, some rents are a little bit lower? The reason for this is that the bedrooms in the houses have been partitioned, not into spaces for five or six students, but for nine, ten, 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15 students. There are 15 partitioned spaces in one house and rent of €400 per month for each space being charged. There are at least 25 such houses. Many of them are owned by one landlord. If there are between nine and 15 students in each of those houses, that is more than 200 and possibly not far off 400 students. The landlords have tried to comply with the law - to avoid being got at - by operating in the same way as a hostel would operate but this is completely immoral. Someone who spoke to me today about that situation stated that one would not put an animal in those houses and yet those are the conditions for some CIT students in 2018. I have plenty of other examples here but I do not want to eat into Deputy Boyd Barrett’s time.
There must be not extreme caution but extreme urgency and a real rebalancing of rights. The rights that exist for other tenants should exist for students and be extended beyond that as well for both sections.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for bringing forward this Bill. Obviously, we will support it. It is right that student accommodation should be brought under the remit of the RTB in order that the sector can benefit from some of the protections, in terms of the rent caps and other protections, that are available to tenants in the private rented sector.
Deputy Ó Broin acknowledged, as did Deputy Darragh O’Brien, who had brought a similar Bill forward, that students’ correct determined decision to protest against outrageous rent increases by private landlords who own student property, particularly the DCU Shanowen shakedown protests but also, more recently, the protests around similarly shocking rent increases in Galway, has forced the issue onto the agenda. I should also mention that while the protest Trinity students held recently was to a large extent about the repeat fees, it had also been preceded by attempts by the college to significantly increase rents for the on-campus accommodation. It is good the students are fighting back. It is important that we here listen and do something. Therefore, I absolutely support this move.
However, I will go a little bit further and say that it is not enough. The problem is that rents are already too high. Limiting the increases, as would be done if we bring student accommodation under the RTB, to 4% is no good when student accommodation is already too expensive. It is better than nothing - at least, it prevents totally extortionate further increases - but it does not deal with the problem that student accommodation is already way beyond what is acceptable in terms of affordability for significant numbers of students, leading, as Deputy Barry stated, to shocking cases where people sleep in cars or where students are simply dropping out of college because they or their parents cannot afford the rents which have been allowed to reach the present extortionate levels.
Student accommodation, if one can get it, is averaging between €700 and €1,000 a month. Student grants are a maximum of €3,000 to €5,000 a year. If one is a less well-off student, or one of those who is not eligible for grants but whose parents might not have that much money, one is in trouble. It is a real problem.
It is a major problem that so much of the planned student accommodation the Government hopes will come on stream will be delivered by the private sector rather than the universities themselves building student accommodation that is set at affordable levels because, even if we bring it under the RTB, the providers can set the price of all the new accommodation at whatever they like. After that, they might be limited, if this Bill is passed, to an increase of 4% but when it is first rented they can charge whatever they like, and they are likely to charge rents that are completely unaffordable for students. Something has to be done to stop that from happening.
I thank Sinn Féin, and, indeed, Fianna Fáil previously, for placing a spotlight on this area. I have no hesitation in supporting this Bill and the limited protections being sought for student accommodation under the tenancy board.
However, like the previous speaker, I would say that the crisis in student accommodation is simply a symptom of what is being allowed to happen. I live in a city, Galway, where there are two third level institutions, as well as the Galway Technical Institute. We have approximately 25,000 students. If anything illustrates the emptiness, if I might put it like that and I could use a much stronger word, of repeated Government policy, it is the fact that right beside the GMIT on the Dublin Road, there is a hotel that has been empty for over ten years. The hotel should have been used for student accommodation. It should have never been sold by the State in the first place. When it was sold, it was held in private ownership for a period and then left empty. It still remains empty on the Dublin Road, if the Minister wishes to go to see it. It highlights what has happened in Ireland with our reliance on the market. That hotel should have been taken back into State ownership and used for student accommodation, which would have helped relieve the difficulties in Galway.
Galway is a city that I have used repeatedly as an example because the crisis there is far worse than that in Dublin, in my opinion, based on the facts. We have people waiting on a waiting list from 2002 who never once received an offer of accommodation.
That illustrates it. We have somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 people, depending on which statistics we use, on a waiting list. The Simon report, “Locked Out of the Market”, a snapshot study in March of this year is really worth looking at. They go through various towns and cities and they confirm the limited number of properties available. Bear in mind that the Government’s strategy is utterly reliant on the private market and we have twisted language to talk about social housing, which is really private accommodation with a housing assistance payment. That is what we are reliant on and then we look at Galway and there was an average of 15 properties available to rent in Galway city centre over the three days of the study. Much worse than that, not a single property was available within the four categories allowed under the housing assistance payment. There was no property available under the single category, for a couple, for a couple with one child or for a couple with more children. We are utterly reliant on the housing assistance payment and there are no properties available. To make it even worse, the discretion allowed for an increase of 20% still does not allow anyone in Galway to access property under the housing assistance payment.
We have to put this in context. In addition, in Galway the figures for homelessness on 27 April, and I failed to get the more up to date figures, showed 21 families with children in hotels and bed and breakfasts. We only have a population of something over 70,000. There were two couples in bed and breakfasts, three single people in bed and breakfasts, two families in transition and a further large family was staying somewhere else. Interestingly, this was in addition to the Fairgreen hostel and the Osterley hostel which looks after women. Then we have the new language. Throughout the winter, approximately ten county clients used the cold weather response bed. We have another system called the harm reduction packs; that is a sleeping bag plus food. That is what we are reduced to in Galway, giving out a harm reduction pack.
I am not here to give out. I am just over two years in the Dáil and I have used that time to highlight issues and offer solutions. We have any amount of land zoned residentially in Galway city bought at huge prices. I am asking the Minister why we are not building houses. I checked before I came in here and we plan to build 74. We have not built one single house since 2009. Some of the zoned land went back under the land aggregation scheme, some of it is in Galway and we are paying millions in interest alone, not to mention the loans, and the land is just sitting there. We are not building on it so one has to ask the question “what is going on here?”.
A number of things are going on. First, there is absolutely no sense of urgency from what I can see between the city council and the Government on monthly reports and updates. Second, a scandalous amount of that land, and I understand it is more than two thirds, has been set aside for a road that is most unlikely to go ahead but with the best will in the world will go ahead in 2024. Residential land bought at a huge price is left sitting there for a road in the future that will certainly not help us to comply with our obligations under climate change.
I live in the Claddagh. I have spent the last two years trying to find out why one house remains empty. Prior to it becoming vacant, it housed a family. There was nothing wrong with the house but it has remained empty. I do not wish to be parochial in any way but this illustrates the lack of urgency. It is a lovely house in a residential area remaining empty for up to two years. The latest explanation for that is that it now suddenly requires major works, which they did not seem to realise earlier. That is one example out of approximately 70 properties that we know.
I am listening to the Government talking about the provision of social housing when really it is talking about a housing assistance payment. Here we have the students coming forward. I really welcome the draft legislation but it is just a symptom. How many more symptoms do we have to raise in this Dáil before the Government realises that reliance on the market is simply making the problem worse? If we keep paying for and propping up the market it will make matters much worse. There has not been a single direct construction of student specific accommodation by either of the colleges in Galway. That is an absolute disgrace. They are now looking at building accommodation – after the horse has bolted. We are now also in a situation where we have jumped from 2011 where we had 19% of our population in rented accommodation, that was approximately 305,377 households, which has now gone up to almost half a million households reliant on the private market and still the penny has not dropped. I appreciate that the Government inherited difficulties but I see no urgency and I use Galway city and County Galway as an example.
I support this Bill to give students in student specific accommodation under licence the full protections of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, including access to the Residential Tenancies Board and inclusion in the rent pressure zones. I thank Sinn Féin for bringing it forward.
I understand that it is an extremely expensive time for parents of college students. We need to look at ways to ease the burden for parents. I am aware that many parents would place more than one security deposit on student accommodation over the summer months ahead of the announcement of college places in order to secure accommodation for their child. This is grossly unfair to parents as until college places are offered, they cannot say with certainty what accommodation their child will need. These parents end up losing a substantial amount of money in these security deposits. Landlords of these student lettings are not left out of pocket. As we all know, there is such a high demand for student accommodation that once a parent withdraws his or her interest from the accommodation the place will be filled immediately. We need to put in laws on protection of security deposits in student accommodation prior to college places being announced. No parent should have to fork out multiple deposits in order to secure college accommodation for their child. I recognise that the Student University Support Ireland, SUSI, grant system was introduced in 2012 and is a welcome support for parents and students but in the past there has been a delay in the time it takes for grant applications to be processed, thereby leading to a delay in payments which puts parents under major financial difficulty. While I welcome the improvements which have been introduced by SUSI in 2016 to 2017, including an earlier application opening date, I still urge the Minister to ensure that grant applications are processed and payments are made on time for this year.
As students rents have become so expensive and the availability unsuitable, more students have taken to commuting to college by means such as a public bus service. I have heard first hand from my constituents who use the public bus service that it can cost them approximately €66.50 for a five day student travel pass. This is a huge cost for parents and students.
We recognise that we have a housing crisis in the country and a lack of adequate student accommodation. If more students were given the option to commute from their home towns to college this would take pressure off the current lack of student accommodation but these students need to be provided with a cost efficient bus service with suitable routes, coinciding with their college start and finish times.
I am glad to get the opportunity to speak on this very important matter this evening. I support the call that certainty and fairness be applied to rents for students in third level education. Students and parents, especially those who cannot access SUSI - and many middle income earners are not entitled to a grant - find themselves under immense financial pressure to go through the third level education process. Accommodation, college fees, living expenses and travel can easily exceed €9,000 and even €10,000 for each student.
Students from all around Kerry have long distances to travel to Cork, Limerick, Galway, Dublin and Waterford from places like Lauragh, Kenmare, Cahirciveen, Dingle, Tralee, Killarney, Listowel and all the places in between. These are savage distances to reach their accommodation and their colleges. I have seen students who work during their holidays and at weekends and who earned between €3,000 and €5,000, if they had a good job, at weekends, holidays and bank holidays to help their parents but that puts their parents over the threshold and deprives them of the grant. This anomaly should be rectified because it is good for students and youngsters to work. If they start off by working they will continue working. They can easily go the wrong way, the easy way, if they do not start off by working. It is vital that something be done to ensure that, whatever else happens, the money the student earns is not included in the assessment for the grant application. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider that because I have seen it hurt them when it is taken into account in the parents’ assessment.
I compliment and thank Sinn Fein on introducing this Bill. It is very important to acknowledge the trials and tribulations that students and their parents go through in trying to get, and better themselves through, third level education. My brother has rightly outlined the enormous expense involved and the torture in the racket of trying to get accommodation, which can be quite frightening and extraordinarily expensive.
It is right to say that students work very hard and diligently trying to make as much money as they can to help their parents with the massive costs but then it comes back on them. I have seen numerous cases where the genuine hard and good work of the student has adversely affected the parents, in that all of a sudden they do not qualify for a grant, just because they put in that effort, because they worked on Saturdays and Sundays and did their level best. They were up in the morning instead of not being out. We want to encourage the young people of today to work at every opportunity. We get only one shot at life and it is not a practice run, it is only right and proper to work at every level and in every way we can. That is only the right thing to do and we want to encourage them to do it and not let them think that if they work now to earn their few bob and save, it will come back and hurt their parents.
The other problem is the availability of accommodation. Every obstacle is put in the way of the people who try to provide the accommodation. That is wrong. Before now there were incentives. I am not saying every incentive was right because some of those incentives had an opposite effect by blowing into the bubble of increasing the value of properties and that was not right. Surely to God there is some sensible and practical way to encourage people to make more accommodation. It is a question of supply and demand. If there is more good-quality accommodation available for students, it helps bring down the overall cost instead of people in a mad panic trying to get accommodation. It is very difficult for parents. It is a very stressful time when people do not have disposable money and are really struggling to save to better their children, to improve their lives. I should have declared at the beginning that it could be perceived that I would have an interest in this type of business as well but my job now is to speak on behalf of the constituents I am elected to represent, their parents, the students and their grandparents. My job is to come in here and support Sinn Fein in what it is trying to achieve.
The Green Party is happy to support the Bill before the House this evening. I commend Sinn Fein and Deputy Ó Broin on bringing it forward. This Bill seeks to expand the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 to apply to students living in student accommodation. It is not a complicated issue and seeks to extend rights to students, which they should not have to demand, the basic rights of any tenant be included in rent pressure zones and have access to the Residential Tenancies Board.
This legislation is sorely needed as in recent months we have seen several instances of enormous and frankly exploitative rent hikes in student accommodation. In DCU, students in Shanowen Square last March were faced with the announcement of a 27% increase in rent for the academic year 2018-19. Earlier this year students in Cúirt na Coiribe in National University Galway, NUIG, were faced with an increase of up to €1,000 for 2018-19. That hike came in the middle of examinations, leaving students with huge decisions to make in a very short space of time if they wanted to secure accommodation for next September. The level of stress and anxiety this caused for students in the middle of an examination period is entirely and absolutely unfair in dealing with any tenants. To put it simply, students are being exploited. We, and many other parties on the left, have sought greater security of tenure for tenants and for more stringent caps on rent. It is remarkable to think that none of these might be applicable to students without this much-needed legislation.
The lack of investment in student support has resulted in third level institutions pushing more and more of the burden onto students. We saw this in the Trinity College Dublin protests at supplemental examination fees. It is not right or fair and something needs to be done because students are feeling too great a burden through lack of investment and are being forced to carry the cost. I welcome this move to bring students further into the fight to ensure greater rights for tenants of all descriptions and I call on the Government to move quickly to support this Bill’s passage through the Oireachtas or, if there are definitional issues to be addressed, as the Minister of State has indicated, that it moves quickly to incorporate it into its own legislation to be enacted as soon as possible.
I welcome this Bill and commend Deputies Ó Broin and Funchion on bringing it forward. I thank the students, particularly those in DCU and in Galway, who first brought this to public attention. There is no doubt that the objective of this Bill to include student tenancies under the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 giving them access to rent pressure zones and to the Residential Tenancies Board would be helpful to students and their families. I hope that objectives and policies indicated in this Bill and in the Fianna Fáil Bill could be accommodated by the Government in its Bill, which it has said it will bring forward in June of this year. There is no doubt that the issues raised would be helpful overall.
What is really needed is rent control and rent decreases because rent has reached rip-off levels. Rent generally speaking is approximately 25% higher than it was at peak boom levels. The Minister of State put her finger on this when she mentioned constitutional issues. I have said on more than one occasion, and make no apology for saying it again tonight, this Oireachtas should declare a housing emergency because there is a huge housing emergency in student, local authority or private rented accommodation. Were the Government to declare a housing emergency, that would allow it to deal with the huge crisis. There are almost 10,000 people homeless, 3,500 of whom are children, there are 100,000 families on local authority waiting lists and between 25,000 and 30,000 are in housing assistance payment, HAP, accommodation, which is desperate for families.
They do not have two ha'pennies left at the end of the week to rub together. What is required is the declaration of a housing emergency to allow us to introduce legislation to control and decrease rents and to take other necessary measures to deal with this issue.
Rent increases of 27% at Dublin City University, DCU, and 18% at the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, are huge and now students find they have to pay €1,000 a month for accommodation. That is €9,000 a year, three times the level of the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, non-adjacent grant rate. They have to feed and clothe themselves and live after that. This creates huge difficulties for parents and families, particularly low-income families. It is a barrier to further education for very many students and families in this country.
Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama. Measaim go bhfuil an liosta ag an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Is moladh simplí an rud atá os ár gcomhair anseo. Tá sé molta nach mbeadh cíos i leith áitribh atá ar cíos ag mic léinn ag ardú i gcriosanna brú cíosa ar ráta níos mó ná mar atá ceadaithe d'aon sórt tithíochta eile sa cheantar. Tá fás as cuimse ar thógáil ionaid chónaithe le haghaidh mic léinn, le hinfheistíocht mhór ó thar lear ach go háirithe, le feiscint le tamall beag anuas. Ní chóir go mbeadh cead ag rachmasaithe ó thar lear, nó fiú rachmasaithe atá lonnaithe anseo nó gur Éireannaigh iad, leanúint leis an sórt gadaíochta atáimid tar éis í a fheiscint cheana féin nuair a bhí siad ag ardú cíosanna ar ráta 20% nó 30% sa bhliain. Is scannal amach agus amach é. Bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an Teachta Healy a labhair romham. Bhí sé ag lorg go mbeadh an Rialtas ag fógairt éigeandáil tithíochta. Tá sé ann agus tá sé ann le blianta. Tá sé thar ama go n-adhmálfadh an Rialtas go bhfuil fadhb ollmhór againn agus nach bhfuil aon chinneadh Rialtais ag déanamh mórán difríocht dóibh siúd atá ag fáil tithe nó árasáin ar cíos sa chathair seo is cuma más clanna iad, más mic léinn iad, más daoine iad atá gafa in ionaid do dhaoine gan dídean nó. mar a chonaic muid inniu, más daoine iad a bhfuil cónaí orthu i ngluaisteáin nó a leithéid.
There is a logic to the proposal in this Bill to extend rent pressure zones to cover student accommodation. Anybody who has recently visited the Liberties in Dublin will have seen large developments of student accommodation. When we check the groups behind these developments and the people who intend to profit from them we find they are not always long-term investments where a rent increase of 1% or 2% a year would be appropriate. These are people who are looking for a quick profit and want to squeeze the most out of students or their parents. That is the reason we are seeing rent increases of 20% or 30%. One of these groups is GSA, which is one of the largest groups developing student accommodation in Europe or perhaps in the world. Another is Hines, the American group. Even in my area, some of those whose names we have often heard associated with building works in this city have been also associated with these developments. I urge the Minister to take on board this Bill and to act on it rather than merely listen to what we are proposing.
Student accommodation in a new complex in Cork was advertised at an asking price for some units of €210 a week and for others units the asking price was as high €225 a week. That works out at approximately €900 a month. University College Cork, UCC, Students' Union was asked to advertise and promote it. I must commend it on refusing to do that. It stated, "We have seen an increase every year in rent for student accommodation, and have seen other colleges take a stand. Enough is Enough." It refused to promote the accommodation. That clearly illustrates the market and opportunities that exist for those who wish to make a very significant profit from the lack of student accommodation. Where there is such a shortage, there always will be the potential to exploit the position. As in any situation in any part of the rental market, there are good landlords but also bad landlords. Where such inequality exists between tenants and landlords, it is important that protections are put in place. That is the reason this legislation is very important. It is right and proper that we address what is essentially a loophole. The Government has already long conceded the principle, at least, of rent certainty. That being the case, why would it not extend it to student accommodation? An example has been already given of the 100% rent increase in the Shanowen student accommodation since 2014. There is the potential for that to happen on a much wider basis if we do not address this issue.
The Bill also provides for protections with respect to the Residential Tenancies Board. As Deputy Ó Broin pointed out, that applies equally to landlords but many students are living in accommodation that is appalling, lamentable, overcrowded, damp and in very poor condition and because of the inequality in terms of the situation they are in, they do not feel empowered to do anything about it. This legislation would assist in that regard.
I commend my colleagues, Teachtaí Ó Broin and Funchion, on bringing forward this important legislation. Shortly before I was elected I was involved in a dispute with University College Dublin, UCD. It related to a car park and the introduction of car parking charges. At the time we were considering the demands placed on the car park by the students and the staff. It became apparent during the course of that dispute that students were in some instances sleeping in their cars because they could not afford accommodation. Students who could not afford accommodation in Dublin were travelling to college in the early hours of the morning, parking their cars on the premises and sleeping in their cars before lectures. It is not easy to be a student. My daughter is a student in UCD and it is tough enough. Many students have to work and study, and they want to do their best. On top of that, they are now falling victim to parasitic landlords. I commend the students on their activism. It is regrettable they have to take time away from their studies to protest, as they did in DCU and NUIG, but it is not surprising they have to do that because so much that can be achieved has to be achieved through protest, given the make-up and functioning of this Government.
I urge support for this Bill on the basis that if we do not show our solidarity with those students, we send them the message that we think it is okay for them to be exploited, for their parents to be crucified to pay exorbitant rents, and for those students who cannot afford rents to continue to sleep in their cars. That is really the choice; we stand with them or we stand against them.
This has been a useful debate. Previous speakers spoke about the scale of the problem, the way it is impacting on many of their constituents and we heard stories of students sleeping in cars. It is important on the day that is in it, when a homeless man died in Newcastle, that we should mention the fact that there are homeless people sleeping in squalid conditions. Unfortunately, that man has died.
The only point that was out of sync in this debate was a point included in the Minister's script. I do not blame him for that, as I do not know who wrote it. His script states, "This is a delicate balancing act of ensuring the vital protection of our students and increasing the availability of affordable student accommodation, while ensuring the constitutionally protected rights of property owners." The point was made that we already have rent pressure zones. I am concerned we are making this issue more complicated than it needs to be. Certainly it is a difficult issue to address and we want to get it right, but we should not be trying to create barriers where none exist.
We are aware of people being exploited. Traditionally the accommodation that many students lived in was squalor but we are in the 21st century today and things have not improved. We can all give stories about students living in sheds and in accommodation with subdivided rooms and so on. If one speaks to a welfare officer from any of the student unions he or she will tell of students who come to college hungry and starving. They do not have enough money for food, never mind accommodation. This is the reality we are dealing with.
Deputy Darragh O'Brien's intervention was good when he asked the Minister of State where we are going from here. That is the big question. I agree with the spirit and the intent of this proposed legislation and it is a way forward. It is really up to the Government now to follow through on this. It is not enough for the Government to say that it will support the Bill. If we get the dead hand and nothing happens on it, that is no use either. Collectively, any Minister who sat in the Chamber tonight and listened to the debate will realise there is a crisis out there and we need to do this. It is about urgency but it is also about responsible Government. A responsible Government would respond immediately to this crisis which is affecting so many young people right across Ireland. All Members may speak of their own constituencies but this is happening in every area where there are students. Increasingly students are having to travel for longer distances and having to work longer hours. This impacts on their studies. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan hit the nail on the head when she spoke of the students whose families are not wealthy and the barriers they face in getting an education. We need to make things easier for students. They should not have to protest outside the Dáil. The responsibility is on the Minister of State.
On behalf of the Government I thank Deputies Ó Broin and Funchion for tabling the Private Members' Bill to propose extending the protections of the Residential Tenancies Act which currently applies to dwellings under certain tenancies, to also apply to dwellings provided under licence agreement for student accommodation.
It is helpful to have this worthwhile discussion tonight. While we might not agree on everything, the focus the Deputies bring to the area is important. Deputy Darragh O'Brien of Fianna Fáil also had a Bill in this space. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor, has been working with students and others in this space over the last couple of months, along with her Department, in trying to see how we can intervene to help. None of us wants students to be facing the situations such as they are.
Members spoke tonight about sending the students a message of solidarity, and that we are aligned with them. That is all very fine and it is important that we say this in the debate, but we also must ensure that we bring forward legislation that we believe will work. While the intention of the Bill is right, the Government is not fully convinced that it can work in its current form to achieve the result that we all want. It is not a case of us knocking the Bill back because it is not ours; it is about how we can work through it to make legislation achievable to give us the end result we need, and which will not present a constitutional challenge.
While the Government cannot at this juncture endorse this specific legislation as it is premature until such time as the legal considerations and implications are more thoroughly evaluated, we can readily acknowledge and welcome the broad spirit and objective of the Bill as a genuine attempt to improve the situation for students at a time of under-supply in the residential rental sector. I see this Bill and Fianna Fáil's Bill as genuine attempts to do this.
It is in the interest of Government to ensure student accommodation is affordable and not subject to excessive increases. The existing Government financial support for students is finite in terms of taxpayers' money for educational grants and supports, and all the other aspects of provision of third level education. This funding should not be exhausted by overinflated and unreasonable accommodation costs. Equally, parents’ or students’ own resources are hard earned and should not be swallowed up either. Students should not have to face entering the workforce with a massive debt to repay just to cover their accommodation costs. We need affordable rents across the State and not just for students. This has been the focus of our work over the past couple of years. Unreasonable accommodation costs have the potential to prohibit individual students from pursuing studies in their preferred field because their choice of course might not be on offer close to where they live. Location comes into play and for some, an educational course in Dublin is becoming less attainable for financial reasons, predominantly because of high accommodation costs. This does not just apply to Dublin; it could also be in certain parts of Cork and other areas.
We need to provide certainty to students whose finances are tight and finite, and help limit their financial burdens. The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O’Connor, highlighted earlier that the Government published its national student accommodation strategy to increase the supply of student accommodation and increase the take-up of digs accommodation. The Government has set a target to see an extra 7,000 bed spaces built by the end of 2019 and a total of 21,000 additional beds by 2024. We are currently on track to exceed these targets. The targets were set by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, working with the Department of Education and Skills, around the strategy some years ago, which was a specific action of the Action Plan for Housing. We recognised the importance of intervening to provide more student accommodation and to make it more affordable. Supply is the key issue. If we can introduce more supply into the market it will help to provide students with the ideal accommodation that is specific to their needs, it will help us to tackle the price of it and it will free up some of the other accommodation that students use - due to no other available choices - which is better designed for families.
There are different reasons for us wanting to intervene, so the Department is prepared to do this, working with the Department of Education and Skills. Since our strategy has been in place we have worked with that Department. I mentioned some figures earlier and supply has increased. I appreciate that Deputy Ó Broin acknowledged that in a radio interview this morning. He was right to say that it has improved but it is still not enough, as we always say in these cases, to really have a step change in the supply. The trends, however, are right. If we can build on this and add in the affordability element, we will be in a much better place to deal with the situation. The figures have improved in the context of what has been built over the last couple of years with nearly 3,000 new units into the system. Some 8,000 units are going through the construction phase currently, and about 5,000 have planning permission but have not yet started construction. I have just misplaced the actual figures but I will get the figures for the Deputies. While there is movement in this area it does not guarantee that it is at the right price and this aspect should be brought into focus. I acknowledge this and we are willing to work with Deputies on this issue.
A greater supply of student accommodation to meet demand has the potential to ease overall pressures on the rental market, including moderating rent increases, on the basis of increased competition and choice. The Department does not believe that Sinn Féin’s Private Members' Bill will achieve the outcome of having all student accommodation subject to ongoing regulation. I believe this is the intention of the Bill but it is not in the right order for that. I believe that this is the right outcome to seek, but this Bill will not deliver it.
The Sinn Féin Bill proposes to apply the protections afforded to tenancies under the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004-2016 to students living in student-specific accommodation under licence agreements. When one compares a tenancy agreement to a licence agreement they are very different. I am aware that the Deputies have acknowledged this but they are very different. We need more scrutiny in this space to make sure we have it right. We have been working on some of this legislation also and have scrutinised some of the data. We had a greater focus when we looked at this Bill and we have asked for advice from the Attorney General. We analysed it to see how best we could bring a solution forward that combines all the ideas, which are good ideas.
I am happy to tease that through with the Deputy but the most important element is that different aspects of licensing versus tenancy have different rights. I have a copy of the UCD licence and I am happy to give it to the Deputy. There are very specific details contained in it about what a licensee is entitled to and the service he or she will get and can expect. It is very different to a tenancy agreement. This is about looking to make sure we have the right legislation to protect people and to make sure that if we intervene in this area we can give the students the protection they need. We must ensure the legislation cannot be challenged and fail at a later stage.
When we debated rent pressure zones and changes in that regard I recall that a lot of our work was based on scientific data to make sure we got it right, that we would not lose a challenge if it happened and by intervening in a positive way that we could defend. We are not confident that the Bill put forward by Sinn Féin would put us in that position as there is still a bit of work to be done behind those ideas. It is about more than the legislation being brought forward, it is also about the rationale behind it. We are all aware that it is important and we all know what we have to do. We still have to gather all the data and the evidence to show the necessity for intervening in this space. We need to do this and add into the work we have been doing. This work is ongoing with the Department of Education and Skills and my Department. We have had several meetings, but this work needs to be added into the legislation - or whatever we bring forward - to try to make it work.
A conversation is also needed on whether or not to amend the existing legislation as proposed in this Bill or to bring in a specific Bill to deal with this issue. It might be better achieved if we have a specific Bill to deal with student-specific accommodation. I will not say if that is right or wrong yet; it is for looking at and for involving Members. It is not about taking over their work, robbing it and bringing it back in a month's time in another form. That is not what we are about. I believe that all Members genuinely want to bring about a solution. This is why we will not oppose the Bill. We cannot, however, accept it in its current form.
The Bill focuses, in particular, on ensuring that the annual rent increase limit of 4%, as it applies to certain dwellings in rent pressure zones, will also apply to student-specific accommodation provided under licence. A licensing framework, however, might best suit the business model of student-specific accommodation providers, rather than trying to bring them under the provisions of the Residential Tenancies Acts, which do not naturally fit with students who generally occupy their accommodation for around eight months of the year. There is a lot more involved in the licence, depending on whether it is public or private.
There is a risk that the expected supply of student accommodation coming on stream could be negatively affected by the proposed application of the Residential Tenancies Acts to student-specific accommodation provided under licence agreement. It does not mean that we do not intervene. It does not mean that we do not do anything, but we have to measure it and balance it to make sure we get it right. There is a fair increase in accommodation being brought through the system.
I am sure that there were business models for doing that. We must get this right, as we do not want to stop that supply, but encourage more. I agree that the balance is skewed against students, who are paying high rents. We will determine how to get that right.
We need to explore how we can legally protect all students from high accommodation costs regardless of whether they live in public or private accommodation or have signed tenancies or licence agreements, which are different. We need to provide students with a choice on where they wish to live during their college lives. Students should not be forced to take whatever accommodation they can get come August, which is often the case. Every Deputy has stories of family, friends and people whom we represent being left in the difficult situation of having to take up accommodation that is substandard compared with the price being charged. Instead of a raw deal, they should get value for money and reasonable accommodation that best suits their needs and is close to their courses. It is also worth pointing out that the 4% RPZ limit, if applied to student accommodation, would not be retrospective or cover new properties.
The measures proposed by Sinn Féin cannot be supported at this juncture on the basis that a more thorough analysis of their impacts by my Department and the Department of the Minister of State, whose name I forget at the moment-----
-----and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, must be done in order to determine whether amending the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2016 is the best approach to take to regulating student-specific accommodation provided under licence. We are focused on this. It may well be that bespoke legislation, subject to further legal advice, might better achieve the intended purposes of the Bill without adding significantly to the heavy workload of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. I recognise that Sinn Féin is prepared to accept necessary changes.
The Department of Education and Skills is liaising with officials from my Department - the Minister of State is leading that work and I have met her regarding the matter a couple of times - including through the forum of the Interdepartmental Working Group on Student Accommodation, which is convened by the Department of Education and Skills to examine the wide range of student accommodation types and ancillary services available with a view to considering how best to regulate pricing arrangements.
While the Government is not in a position to support the Bill at this stage, we do not oppose it. The Departments of Education and Skills and Housing, Planning and Local Government will consider the Bill's proposals further. They have been doing so in recent times. In the event it is considered that there is a policy-based case for legislation in this area, proposals will be introduced, either in a stand-alone Bill or in the context of the second of two residential tenancies (amendment) Bills envisaged for this year. It is not a case of telling students that we do not support them or are not with them. Rather, we want to get this right.
Like many in the Chamber, I have noticed in recent months a surge in applications for large-scale private student accommodation developments. While student accommodation is needed, we must ensure that there is regulation, especially of rents. Recently, there were protests at DCU after two privately-built student accommodation developments near the campus announced that they were hiking their rents by up to 27%. In the space of just four years, rent in some of the private student accommodation around the university has doubled, which is unfair. It makes a mockery of RPZs that a loophole exists whereby students are the only ones who can face rent hikes of such large amounts. This is placing a burden on young people and many of the rent increases will be shouldered by their parents. We need one rule for all in RPZs. Students cannot be discriminated against when it comes to the protection of tenants.
I have heard many stories of students not getting their deposits back because of minor issues and not getting maintenance issues sorted. Due to the considerable shortage of accommodation, many students are concerned about losing their tenancies if they persist with raising maintenance issues with landlords. It makes sense that students should have access to the RTB dispute resolution process and be able to avail of all the protections afforded other tenants.
Students are facing enough financial hardships under the Government. Between registration fees and the cost of living, travel and rent, students and their parents are under significant financial pressure. Free education has been eroded bit by bit, mainly through registration and other fees. Ten years into austerity, we have reached the point at which the cost of third level education is acting as a deterrent for some students, with rent a significant contributor to that.
Most ordinary people – workers, families, people in the private rented sector and those who want to buy their own homes – are struggling due to the chaotic housing market that the Government has created. For example, rents in Louth have increased by 13.5% in the past year. This is outrageous and shows that the Government's approach to housing has been a failure. The housing list has gone off the charts altogether. In Louth alone, more than 4,500 people are on the waiting list, many of whom have been waiting for upwards of ten years. Homelessness is at an all-time high.
Students are no different. The scramble for accommodation every summer is beyond ridiculous at this point, and Fine Gael is seven years in government. Not enough units are available in the rental market for workers or students, and student-specific housing is scarce and expensive and is not included in the flimsy protections that exist for tenants. Dundalk Institute of Technology has more than 5,000 students, many of whom are under severe pressure seeking affordable accommodation, yet the Government is still refusing to include Dundalk in a RPZ.
While we would like significant improvements in the overall protections for tenants, the Bill would at least bring those living in student-specific accommodation into line with other renters and offer them that basic protection. The Minister of State does not need us to tell him time and again that student accommodation is at crisis point, with a gross undersupply in the housing and rental sectors and extortionate rents in student accommodation across our cities. The Bill aims to give students in specific accommodation protection under the RTB and inclusion in RPZs.
I thank the Opposition parties that outlined their support for the Bill. I also thank the Government for its support of the spirit of the Bill and its statement that rent predictability is in line with Government policy.
I do not accept that this is a complex issue. Either one believes students should live with 20% to 30% rent increases or one does not. If one does not, then a range of legislative measures are available for application to student accommodation. The question then is on the best wording, to which I will revert.
It is remarkable that the Government still does not know whether the Residential Tenancies Acts apply to student licences. It is three months since this issue first hit the headlines, and I cannot believe it would take the Attorney General that time to clarify this from the Government's point of view. If and when he does clarify it, it would be good if the Government shared that clarification with us.
As to unintended consequences, students withdrawing from courses is an unintended consequence. Students being forced into long commutes, negatively affecting their education, is another unintended consequence. Surely this should come before everything else.
I have no idea what the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, meant when referring to the constitutional rights of landlords. That matter has been dealt with in the RPZ legislation. Otherwise, that legislation would have been unconstitutional. Limited and all as that protection is, we would like it applied in this circumstance.
I always get nervous when people say "Proceed with caution" because it really means "Do nothing" or "Do nothing within an appropriate period". Maybe what the Government is really saying is that it is nervous that any restriction on the ability of these institutional landlords to increase rents would impact on investment. Today, I referred to an increase in private sector investment. If that increases affordable supply, it is a good thing, but the companies involved in the market are not just domestic. They are global players with specific business models and resources. They can make sufficient profits without having to screw students and their families. As such, the idea that we need a comprehensive review of the student accommodation sector misses the point.
If the central objection is to the poor wording of the Bill, I have no difficulty with that. This is not about whose name is on the Bill.
I would be happy if, after proceeding with this Bill today, we were to throw it in the bin and ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, his Minister of State and his very able staff, with David Walsh and his team, to come up with better wording and to drop that into the residential tenancies (amendment) Bill that is coming before committee in a number of weeks. We already have given a commitment that we would progress that Bill because it contains other good elements. I fully agree with Deputy Darragh O’Brien. If, when that Bill is published, this issue is not dealt with, we will sit down as Opposition and will invite all others to craft an amendment that will have majority support in the committee and the House to insert it there. The choice coming out of here today for the Minister of State, Deputy English, is simple. It is either to draft his own wording for this so he does not have to complain that we are not doing it well, or face our amendment. It is one or the other because students simply do not have the time for a comprehensive review before this is addressed.
I accept that everybody who has spoken today accepts there is a problem. Everybody is saying that something needs to be done. Deputy Boyd Barrett is absolutely right. What we are proposing here is not radical. This is the most modest measure possible to prevent exorbitant hikes in the future. The most effective way to deliver good quality, affordable student accommodation is to seriously look at increasing lending or removing the lending caps on the universities to allow them to directly supply good quality, affordable student accommodation on their land or on land near to them provided by the State. That would cut out a significant amount of the additional profit and charges that come with the private sector delivery. It is not that I am against the private sector delivery. It delivers affordability but my preferred option and indeed the preferred option of many universities is to have greater access to funding, be that from the Housing Finance Agency, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund or the European Investment Bank to deliver the best quality affordable accommodation for students. The “Drivetime” radio programme broadcast a powerful interview by a young student from an affected university. Her family is now facing the reality of having to fund two students in two different universities who are unable to access any kind of accommodation at all, let alone anything affordable. In the first instance, let us tackle the student rent shakedown. Let us prevent landlords from jacking up rents by 20% to 30% and let us ensure that where universities want to borrow low-cost, long-term finance to build good quality student accommodation on university or public land, they are given every support by the Government to do so. I commend the Bill to the House.