Home truths: It's stupid not to enable 'stu-pod'
We're coming to the time of year when new students and returning college goers must get themselves out into the world and search for accommodation.
It's not a new story. Year in and year out, we hear about the students' plight in search of rooms, digs, house shares, dedicated student accommodation and flats. But thanks to a 10 year building hiatus and the worst housing crisis in memory, the summer and autumn of 2016 will present Ireland's returning students with the very worst home hunt ever experienced.
The soul destroying reality facing young people at a time when they should be relaxing is weeks of scanning the internet, making lists of addresses and phone numbers, getting on a bus or plodding on shanks' mare to different parts of their target cities. On open viewings, they get there early and hang around for hours, forming queues - mostly to be rejected yet again. Too often there's nothing at the end but a relative's couch.
Students are a great big component of the housing crisis. It is estimated that there are around 180,000 students going to college this year and around half of these - 90,000 - will require accommodation. If there were a way to take them all out of the equation at once, it would have a significant impact.
There is a way to do it and it comes from the prefabricated sector. Unlike professionals, students don't need much space and their space has minimal requirements. They'll want a single bed, a shower, a toilet, a small kitchen and a living/study space. Heat, light, water, cooking. That's it.
On the other hand, many cash-strapped home owners with spare rooms simply won't rent them out. Why? Because they fear or dread the experience of having to share a house with a stranger. It's not an easy choice to pick someone they don't know to live with their children, to allow someone they don't know to take the keys to their home. It must be galling to come home from work wanting nothing more but to flake out on your sofa and watch your favourite tv programme, only to discover your tenant's posterior is already parked in that coveted space.
However, if a detached and self-contained space could be provided elsewhere on the property and counted for income earnings under 'rent a room' tax relief, many homeowners would jump on it. Similarly, students would prefer a self contained private space than share a bedroom in a cramped rented house.
Most people know what a Shomera is: the Irish company founded by Frank O'Sullivan produces an upmarket type of pod garden housing for gyms, home offices, dens and playrooms.
Most standard semi-detached Irish homes have room in the garden for a 250 sq ft Shomera which requires no additional planning permission. This is the size of an apartment with enough for a small bedroom, shower room and wc, kitchenette and living area.
In his great housing plan due to be revealed in the autumn, Simon Coveney could do worse than tender manufacturers like Shomera to come up with a one-size-fits-all design for a standard self-contained unit which can be factory built and quickly assembled on site. One standard design or even a basic palette of three - to suit the most common garden spaces - could then be mass approved by Ireland's local authorities.
O'Sullivan estimates that a standardised unit of 250 sq ft, which is coated in galvanised and plastic sealed metal and which accommodates all student requirements - constructed, installed, insulated, plumbed for sewage and wired for electricity - would cost €35,000 all in, the price of an average brand new family saloon car.
He says: "You don't even have to change planning regulations. The problem at the moment is how Section 6 is interpreted. This is the aspect which deals with structures built, detached from the main residence and governs usage.
"At the moment, the planning authorities interpret usage for habitation very conservatively based on precedents set in the 1960s. All it takes is for central Government to direct a more liberal interpretation of Section 6 and these type of prefabricated kit homes are good to go."
We can call it the 'Stu-pod' - a standardised 'pod' home for students. Let's go two steps further. What if the Government issues a grant to assist homeowners with the investment - say €10,000 per unit, with strict conditions they are actually rented? They did this for eco installations for insulating homes under SEAI and for upgrading homes under the recent home improvement legislation. And what if the banks formulate standard manageable finance packages (perhaps under a mortgage top-up) for construction?
There would be a stampede and the crisis would be eased by 90,000 spaces. Let's not be stupid. Let's enable the 'stu-pod'. You know it makes sense Mr Coveney.