Sprawled out across a damp second-hand mattress in a dimly-lit sitting room littered with beer cans and left-over dinner, he barely flinches when the door swings open.The room temperature is tepid on a cold Autumn morning and Cameron is surrounded by bags full of his clothes and personal belongings.
It’s likely not dehumanising, but an overbearing sense of agitation fills the room.
Cameron Fennessy is a final-year Law student from Gort in Galway. He found himself homeless due to a shortage in rooms in the surrounding areas of DCU. The waiting lists for student-purposed complexes like Shanowen Square, Shanowen Halls and Gateway Student Village were lengthy and the lotto-like arbitrary nature of allocations means many like Cameron are left to fend for themselves.
Every summer – running into September and occasionally October – students scramble for a room for the upcoming college year. Many are lucky. It’s misfortune and tiresome frustration for others.
“For over a month, I was living on the couches in the sitting rooms of different friends houses. It was annoying that I had rely on my friends being home at a certain time,” he says, “Or else I’d be sitting outside the door in the cold waiting for them to get back.”
Cameron routinely browsed renting sections of property websites like rent.ie and daft.ie. He checked the ‘DCU Accommodation’ Facebook page religiously, often refreshing the page repeatedly in desperation. Using these notices, he made several calls and sent several emails a day. He also balanced this uncertainty with a 30 hour weekly rota in a city bar.
This frustration was compounded by the fact he: “rarely even got a reply from any of them” he says. A sign of local landlords’ strength in numbers relative to rocketing demand.
Far from an outlier, Cameron’s troubles are symptomatic of a larger housing malaise across the country. According to the most recent Daft.ie Rental Price Report, rents have now risen for 21 consecutive quarters.
The cost of a single or double room in Dublin rose by an average of over 7 per cent in the year to September – rents even rose by over 3 per cent between the second and third quarters of 2017, showing that the problem is immediate and certainly not showing signs of easing.
The post-2008 economic downturn saw construction stagnate. This included student-purposed accommodation as third-level institutes tightened their buckles as scrupulously as one would expect during a sustained period of national austerity. Third-level funding is currently in limbo itself with colleges increasingly seeking out private investment.
All the while, student populations are rising. DCU has seen full-time student enrolments rise by 25 per cent between 2013 and 2016. The Higher Education Authority have said they project a 30 per cent increase in student numbers over the next decade.
General Manager of DCU Campus Residence John Caffrey said demand for on-campus accommodation “is at a ratio of 4:1 and with an increase in overall student numbers we would expect that ratio to increase.”
For many, the solution is clear: the provision of purpose-built student accommodation. The private rental market is over-populated with those whose best interests, financially and socially, lie outside of the sector.
Sinn Fein spokesperson for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoin O’Broin has maligned the current government for not doing enough to ameliorate the housing crisis, which he says students are suffering from too.
“There are certain categories of renters that are all piling into the mainstream private rental sector that ‘technically’ shouldn’t,” he says. “Students, people who should be in local authority housing and even those wishing to buy property but are unable due to the unaffordable cost of private housing.” He says.
Ronan Lyons, an economist and Assistant Professor at Trinity College who authors the quarterly Daft.ie rental reports, also makes it clear that purpose-built complexes are required so that at a minimum, additional annual demand is satisfied.
Lyons points to the UK where he says roughly half of students live in purpose-built accommodation. In stark comparison with Irish students, purpose-built rooms only constitute 10 per cent of total student dwellings.
“We certainly need more purpose-built student accommodation. By my own estimates, roughly one block a month in Dublin is required with each block being 300-350 beds. That’s what we would need to see for the next decade in order to try and rebalance the scales,” Lyons explained.
With their being close to 100,000 students in Dublin alone, Lyons says that even if students pack into rooms – like many do – they still constitute a large chunk of the rental sector.
“It’s even more the case in cities like Cork and Galway where students make up even larger fractions of the rental market,” he added.
The idea of building student-only rooms is almost self-defeating in 2017, however, as the cost of construction means that unless €200 a week is charged, such complexes are not viable options for the average student.
And even if they are financed effectively and constructed, they will inevitably lose out to the wider rental market where rents may lie between €130 and €150 a week.
“It’s very expensive to build in today’s economic climate and within that, it’s very expensive to build student-purposed accommodation. That’s the real challenge, once you solve that, the private sector and the universities themselves can then provide the accommodation because they’ll be able to pay back the money borrowed in order to build.
“Without that, you’re only going to get a small amount of student accommodation built and it’s going to be targeted at high-income students,” Lyons commented.
However, DCU has plans to invest in another 850 rooms and are in the early planning stages for 550 of those rooms to be built on the DCU Glasnevin Campus. The on-campus rooms are the cheapest when compared with other Dublin universities.
O’Broin, like Prof Lyons, agrees that increased regulations, rent caps, subsidies or grant aid are counterintuitive when tackling the student accommodation crisis.
“The single best intervention would be to provide a steady stream of student accommodation because the difficulty with increasing subsidies, such as the rent supplement and Housing Assistance payment, is that the market just absorbs them quickly and rent prices can go up by that factor.”
Lyons recognises the plight students such as Cameron go through when chasing a room. Although in favour of the regulation of the rental market, a political process fraught with layered bureaucracy, he envisions supply as the only manageable solution in the long-term.
“The worse the imbalance between supply and demand, the stronger the bargaining power the landlord has relative to a tenant student,” he says “You’re always going to get some landlords abusing the system.
“The best way to get landlords to behave well is to take away their bargaining power, not necessarily introducing rules and regulations which must then be enforced. Because purpose-built [accommodation] is large-scale, it’s going to be much better managed in terms of security and of course there will be pastoral care on-campus and other useful facilities,” Lyons says.
Lyons emphasises: “The best way to stop rogue landlords is supply, it’s quite straight-forward in theory.”
It’s profoundly telling that even large residential suburbs like Glasnevin and Santry, where rents stand cheaper than the city, cannot come close to meeting the demand for affordable student-rooms. Cameron painted a grey, nerve-wracking picture of the type of disappointment he faced daily.
“I saw an ad on rent.ie for an affordable price, in around the region of €500. I gave the landlord a call and he answered. He then started changing prices on the phone,” he says. “Being in the situation I was in, I didn’t mind paying extra for the room. He then told me I could have the room and told me he would give me a call back in an hour or so, but never called me back. It angered me that some of these landlords attempt to manipulate students to pay extortionate fees knowing the situation that they are in,” he added, visibly frustrated.
Cameron’s persistence eventually paid off. A close friend’s housemate happened to vacate her room in the Shanowen Square complex without warning. He was unerringly quick to pounce, negotiating an agreement with Shanowen’s management.
Back in the room, Cameron picks up his blood-red sports-bag, sighing in exasperation before he makes his way to the bus-stop for the almost daily commute to work. He is to move into the room within two days. The new-found serendipity, however, has done little to affect his disillusionment with student-housing: “It’s not fair for students to be put in this situation, especially when we have important college work to do and it can really interrupt our studies.”