In recent days, the Connaught Telegraph, Donegal Live, Mayo News, Tipperary Live, Limerick Leader, Westmeath Examiner, Kerryman and Connaught Tribune have made headlines about the student housing crisis. A President of Waterford’s student union warns it will be ‘worse than ever’. A Tipperary TD warns it’s “getting out of control”. A Limerick businessman predicts “Armageddon”.
there’s a dormitory “crisis” every year here, but this year it’s different – it’s really national. A combination of the ongoing housing crisis, the first full post-Covid return to campus, the failure to reopen “grave” housing, and additional demand for housing from Ukrainian refugees has strained the system in unique and unprecedented ways.
In every crisis there are opportunities. The opportunity here lies in one of the little-known, counter-intuitive characteristics of Irish housing: it is grossly understaffed. According to Eurostat data, 70 per cent of Irish people live in houses with vacant bedrooms – far more than in any other country in Europe apart from the island states of Malta and Cyprus.
Common sense might suggest that this is primarily a feature of affluent, rural homes. In fact, it spans the entire housing spectrum: a third of city dwellers, three in ten people live in rented housing and half of those at risk of poverty live in understaffed housing. It seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. The ratio of people to rooms per house (another indicator of the same phenomenon) fell from an average of 0.86 in 1971 to 0.53 in 2016, according to census data from the Central Statistics Office.
This represents an extraordinary resource: hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms. “We have more than enough housing in Ireland,” Padraic Kenna, director of the Center for Housing Law, Rights and Policy at the National University of Ireland, Galway, told me. “It’s not about supply – it’s about access. There is a huge supply of housing here that needs to be developed.”
The housing crisis isn’t the only reason we should try to get more of these spaces to be used. Construction is an emission-intensive sector: climate protection requires the most efficient use of our building stock. The energy crisis means homeowners and renters alike are facing higher bills and potential shortages this winter: one of the most effective ways to reduce a bill is to split it.
With the advent of the hybrid working model, a new urban living option is now needed: single rooms for people who only need a base in the city a few nights a week.
All of this means that something long out of fashion could be coming back into vogue: digging. The small size of the market suggests that Diggs is suffering from an image problem. According to Revenue, nearly 10,000 households took advantage of their Rent-a-Room relief scheme (which allows homeowners to earn up to $15,000 a year tax-free) in 2019, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
A new push is being made to draw attention to the program, but an obvious question arises: if this incentive has not previously had a significant effect, is the incentive inadequate? If only one student is admitted, the tax-free income should be closer to 6,000 euros. So how could the incentive be improved?
Two social goods are at stake here: a) supporting higher education by providing housing for students and b) optimizing the use of the existing housing stock. The most obvious way to advance these social goods is to pay for them.
What impact could an annual lump sum payment of €2,500 per student (on top of paid rent) have on the program? That would cost 50 million euros a year for 20,000 beds – far cheaper than any other housing model. The 2016 National Student Accommodation Strategy estimated that 20,000 new dig beds would free up about 5,000 housing units for the broader rental sector: that would be 15 percent of the annual target in the government’s Housing for All plan.
“We need to look for creative solutions that will bring additional affordable capacity into the system, especially over the next two to three years while we wait for new builds to come online,” said Declan Raftery, Dublin City University’s chief operations officer ( DCU ), told me. “If we can use existing inventory more effectively, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
Aoife Gleeson, President of the Students’ Union at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, said purpose-built student accommodation is preferable, “but it is not a quick fix and there must be short-term solutions now. Things like more excavation are definitely an answer to that.”
But the excavation system remains very old-fashioned, Gleeson noted. The College Housing Officer maintains a list of homes offering digs, with few additional details. It’s miles away from the functionality of Daft or the transparency of Airbnb with its self-regulatory review system.
“There should be a more streamlined way for you to browse and see what’s the best solution for you,” Gleeson said. “Everyone has different needs” Airbnb started out as a kind of short-term excavation platform, listing shared apartments in people’s homes; There is no inherent reason why excavations could not be managed and perceived in a similar way. Airdigs, anyone?
Here is an additional social good to pursue. Many of those living in houses with excavation potential are elderly. “The over 90 per cent of people aged 65 and over living in underserved accommodation are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation,” noted Social Justice Ireland in its 2022 socio-economic review. A Dutch seniors’ village, Humanitas, offers rent-free accommodation to students who are willing to spend some of their time being good neighbors for their retired flatmates. The excavation model – especially if more thought and resources are put into it – can be a way of working towards what Social Justice Ireland calls the creation of ‘livable communities throughout the life cycle’.
Whatever the means of increasing the use of excavation, the premise is that part of the solution to both our housing crisis and the conundrum of how to massively increase the housing stock while reducing emissions from the construction sector is optimize our use of inventory.
Most obviously, this means re-using vacant flats and repurposing other buildings (e.g. above the shop) as housing; Though these solutions have long been touted, advances have been sclerotic, marred by unimaginative thinking and an abundance of caution about fiscal stimulus for the real estate sector that is a legacy of the 2008 crash. (Last week’s Tax Strategy Group papers included a review of the Living City Initiative, which aimed to encourage the return to residential use of run-down, old inner-city buildings. It found that there were only 78 applicants overall over the 2015-2018 period .)
Because digs are invisible — you can’t see empty bedrooms from the street — they’re a less obvious and less dramatic solution, but they have this extraordinary advantage: no other project has the potential to create new housing for thousands of people in a matter of weeks create, at the expense of some basic investments and shiny marketing.
But free advice to the minister: don’t call it ‘co-living’ or ’boutique’.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/old-fashioned-digs-are-the-way-out-of-this-student-accommodation-crisis-41910036.html Old-fashioned digs are the way out of this college housing crisis