Ireland's student accommodation crisis could get a lot worse and students need to get real

Richard Chambers looks at the reality of the student accommodation crisis ahead of the CAO offers on Monday

August 22nd is a date that has long been circled on the calendars of school-leavers and anxious parents. This year’s CAO offers have an added dread in the shape of the almighty scramble for a room that’s facing our best and brightest.

For much of the summer, we've heard tales of the struggle facing students looking for accommodation but we're yet to fully get to grips with it. Ground Zero is coming on Monday.

Students’ unions are aware of what’s looming beyond the weekend and have been preparing for this day for quite a while. They’ve carpet bombed 100,000 homes across Ireland with leaflets, trying to tempt homeowners with the promise of €12,000 tax free, if they offer out a room to a student in need of a roof over their head and a hot meal.

Speaking as he knocked on doors around Sandymount, in the heart of what journalists would have us know as Dublin’s ‘leafy suburbs’, Jack Leahy, Vice President of the Union of Students Ireland, spelled it out:

“Obviously, students get their offers on Monday, they start to think about where they’re going, and we expect a big upsurge in demand then.”

Until now, however, the idea of living in digs has failed to sway many students off pooling with mates and trying their luck on the already over-crowded and, frankly, broken rental market.

Leahy and the USI are trying to change that. “We’re convinced it’s a win win”, he says.

“We’d appeal to students to be realistic. Digs arrangements are, in most circumstances, fantastic. You can still live independently but have some of that pressure taken off.”

Video by Laura Gaynor

The argument is yet to be won. Speaking with several people who are offering a bed in their family home out to students, you hear the surprise in their voice that they’re yet to receive half as many expressions of interest as they expected.

Most of, if not all of, the calls they’ve taken so far have come from foreign students who are in desperate need of a place to stay and don’t understand that their potential hosts might not be too keen on having them around at weekends.

Digs are not ideal. I understand the lure of independent living. It wasn’t open to me as a 17-year-old leaving school back in 2007. I had a huge degree of uncertainty over where I’d end up. My mother forked out a deposit on a room in Cork in case I didn't land in one of Dublin's universities. In the end, the CAO offers gave me a clean shot at UCD.

I commuted. I still get cold sweats over the idea of wedging myself onto a train at 7 in the morning with a soggy Metro under my arm and someone’s arm pit in my face, and into town before switching onto the DART or a bus bound for Belfield. All told, the trek took the best part of two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening.

By the time I made it in to UCD, I felt the hard part of the day was done and my productivity was shot. Now, at least half of that was down to being ill-equipped for a career in Law, but any student advisor or guidance counsellor worth their salt will tell you that long-term commuting is far from conductive to a good education.

I'm fully aware there are worse commutes. Many of my friends and former classmates came from as far afield as Ballinasloe, Carlow and Wexford every day to attend classes. We all would have given our left arms to be able to live on campus. That simply wasn’t open to us and, for many of today’s students, it’s not open to them either.

The reality is pretty clear. If you are a student looking for accommodation in Dublin, Cork, Galway or any of the other towns and cities around our third level institutions, you might want to start considering digs. Be real about it.

Of course, in an ideal world, you'd love to have a place between your mates and yourself. Of course, in an ideal world, you'd be able to balance study and host parties on the side. Ireland, in 2016, is far from an ideal world.

Jack Leahy and Dan Waugh of the USI handing out leaflets encouraging homeowners to consider letting their spare rooms to students. 

Those responsible for the state of our housing market have failed many of us.

They’ve failed young couples, many of whom have come through third level education and are looking for their first step on a new road. They’ve failed mortgage-holders, who’ve been forced to ditch their dreams to service their negative equity. They’ve failed our most vulnerable, living with their kids in hotel rooms, pleading with council workers to be moved up the housing list. They’ve failed foreign workers, to whom Official Ireland has sold our country as an advanced tech-topia - an Oz with iPads. They’ve also failed our students.

The impetus now is on the government and private companies to get to work. The multinationals our politicians are so indebted to require a conveyor belt of talent. We won't get that if students are forced to withdraw from a course they can't attend because they live 300 kilometres away from college. Developments like the Binary Hub and the accommodation at Montrose Hotel near UCD are a start, but we have a long way to go before this problem, and far worse ones besides, are brought under control.