Diggin' It: Soaring rents force students to go old school
Finding a home near college is a pricy business for the average student these days, which explains why good old-fashioned digs have made a comeback
In the darkest winter mornings, when Sean Moore would board the Dublin-bound train from Portarlington, he came to believe that his entire college life would be spent commuting to and from Dublin. He ended up spending the first year-and-a-half of his four-year photography degree at DIT Grangegorman travelling to the capital every morning and back down to the family home in Offaly every night.
It was, he says, both exhausting and soul-destroying. "There were so many times I'd want to stay out with friends, but I couldn't. And it wasn't like I could get a later train - my parents were having to collect me from the station, so it was affecting them too."
But in February of this year, the drudgery of a long daily commute finally came to an end when the 20-year-old learned about a new initiative, THE HomeShare, and he wound up living with 91-year-old pensioner Thomas Kealy at his home near Dundrum, south Dublin. The completion of the Luas CrossCity means he can travel by tram from his lodgings straight to college.
"It's worked out really well," Moore says. "I get affordable accommodation and Tom gets companionship and someone to help him with tasks - like his eyesight is bad, so there are some things he can't do."
And it is affordable: after paying a one-off fee of €350 to THE HomeShare, Moore is charged a monthly rate of €195. "It's a massive difference compared to what you might be expected to pay in accommodation in Dublin. As it was, I could barely afford to pay the €275 per month that it cost to use the train, so if it wasn't for an initiative like this there is no way that I'd be able to live in Dublin.
"Tom might be an elderly man, but that's not a problem to me. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I was used to be around more elderly people. It was normal to me to be able to talk to somebody of that age."
If the idea of living with a stranger more than seven decades their senior is one that some students might baulk at, more and more are having to employ novel approaches when it comes to securing accommodation in Dublin and in college cities and towns throughout the country.
According to John-Mark McCafferty of national housing charity Threshold, student accommodation is in a crisis at present and there's no end in sight. "We have a situation where there isn't enough supply and the accommodation that is available is far too expensive. Students' rights are not covered under the Residential Tenancies Act and they find themselves in an especially vulnerable situation."
While a considerable amount of purpose-built student accommodation has been constructed in recent years, especially in Dublin, much of it is priced outside the reach of many students. One high-end offering is seeking €440 per week. "Is there any home-grown student that can afford that kind of money. It's the sort of rent that a young professional in their 20s or 30s might be willing to pay if sharing with another professional or it might suit cash-rich students from overseas.
"At the moment you have a situation where a minority of students are essentially homeless, although they are not characterised as such. They're having to sofa-surf by spending one night with one friend, and another with another friend. It's an unsustainable situation."
McCafferty says students are also being compelled to travel long distances. "It's hard to see that changing until there is greater supply - and that includes more digs, home-shares and the provision of affordable purpose-built accommodation for students. And it really does need to be affordable. Too often, student accommodation prices are being hiked up way beyond the 4pc permitted in the rent pressure zones."
In April, hundreds of DCU students staged a sleep-out at the Shanowen Square Student Residences to protest the 27pc rise in rent for the 2018/19 college year.
"It's a complete disgrace," said DCU students union president Niall Behan during the protest, "and we are going to get out here and show our support to all students affected by the accommodation crisis all over Ireland - it's a national problem. Why is it that tenants and the tenancy boards only allow a 4pc increase, but students are expected to fork up an extra 27pc?"
His complaints fell on deaf ears. Anyone seeking a room at the Shanowen development will pay the increased rate of €8,695 in rent between September 10 and May 25.
Dr Brian Gormley, head of campus life at DIT, says the student accommodation problem is twofold in places like Dublin. "There's certainly a shortage in the private rented accommodation right now," he says. "The flats that people would have rented years ago in places like Rathmines and Phibsborough just aren't there - or aren't there in nearly enough quantities.
"By contrast, in the new private, purpose-built accommodation, there's a lot of supply. We block-book rooms and we still have rooms available for students. They're more expensive - the rooms are around €190 per week. And the newer student accommodation can come in around the €230 to €260 mark, which can be prohibitively high for many students."
Gormley says digs-type accommodation has come back into vogue after years in the margins. "From our point of view, the numbers staying in digs have more than doubled in recent years and it certainly works out for students in their first year - it helps them settle into life in Dublin. And we'd have students that move into digs in first year and enjoy it and stay with that family right through their college career.
"It is very different from the digs that others might have known in their college life," he adds. "I don't think landladies are as overbearing as they used to be and students have more freedom now."
Gormley says advantageous tax breaks are helping to push up the popularity of digs. "They can rent out a room tax-free for up to €14,000 per year and that's really helped. We've a lot of local families in the Grangegorman area who would rent out to students during term time and then out to English language students in the summer."
The Union of Students of Ireland (USI) have heavily promoted the concept of digs this summer and there's said to have been a significant increase in the number of students opting for such accommodation.
One student at UCD paid €600 per month for a room within cycling distance of the university last year and will be returning to the same family for the second year. "It's worked out well for me, especially when you consider just how expensive it is to get student accommodation in this city. Commuting from where I'm from - the west of Ireland - wouldn't be an option. Would I rather my own place, where I feel I could do as I please? Of course I would. Who wouldn't? But beggars can't be choosers and I think I'm one of the lucky ones."
Lucie Cunningham is the brains behind THE HomeShare and she believes the concept can help alleviate the student accommodation crisis.
"We match two unrelated people to live together for mutual benefit," she says. "Typically it's an older householder who would have a spare room available in their home that they would offer an accommodation seeker. At the moment, we have a lot of students coming to us. They would offer the room in their house in exchange for about 10 hours a week of companionship and support - that support could be anything from meal preparation, making breakfast before college, or light household duties, or pop out to the shops. But even talking to each other."
She says the initiative has proved to be especially popular with students, particularly those college-goers who appreciate an environment where they can study without distraction. "I know a 28-year-old mature student living with an 86-year-old gentleman. She was living in what should have been a two-bedroom bungalow, they turned it into a three-bed - but there were seven of them in that house. She was saying the noise in the house was just not beneficial for her to study in. But now she's in a nice quiet house and there's no noise, and there's nobody competing to use the facilities. And you've the added benefit of having an older person who has life experience."
Cunningham says THE HomeShare endeavours to match people with common interests. "I've an 18-year-old who's going to be moving in with a 94-year-old lady next week - the lady used to be a teacher and the student is just starting a textile course in NCAD."
Sean Moore also believes he is luckier than many of his fellow students. "I do a bit of work - 15 hours a week - and I'm able to pay my own accommodation. Before that, my parents had to get a credit union loan to help me so it takes a bit of pressure off them. And I stayed up in Dublin during the summer. It's helped me to get to know the place a bit better and to take part in the life of the city and college, because before that I was simply travelling all the time.
"I have a friend who isn't able to afford to live in Dublin to do his course up here - he's from Cork, and he's not able to go to college this year because of how expensive accommodation in Dublin is at the moment."
Increasing numbers of students are being forced to defer courses - or simply not take then up at all due to the accommodation shortages, while others - as Sean Moore once did - are being forced to spend hours each day commuting.
"A large number commute to DIT," says Brian Gormley. "We have students coming from Tipperary, Wexford, Westmeath, Cavan… a lot from Monaghan. The Matthews bus from Drogheda and Dundalk would be highly populated with DIT students.
"They're students who feel it is more advantageous and cheaper to make those journeys than to rent in Dublin."