Could SU “digs drives” be a short-term solution to an intensifying student housing problem?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As the student housing crisis intensifies around the country, it’s easy for an SU to feel pretty powerless in the face of surging demand and dwindling supply for beds.

But as well as advocating for coping mechanisms that enable students to live further away and/or pay more for the privilege of doing so or campaigning for reduced recruitment, over in the Republic of Ireland a new trend has emerged – a solution that, while still a sticking plaster, at least is enabling more students to live logically and frugally than would have been otherwise possible.

The housing crisis in the capital is a few years on from the UK – with things getting so bad that TCDSU President László Molnárfi says students are “sleeping in cars, couchsurfing with friends or dropping out of education altogether”.

So this summer a number of SUs around Dublin have been collaborating on a “Digs Drive”, proactively asking homeowners in the city to make their spare rooms available to students either temporarily in September or ideally for the whole of the academic year.

Last year, University College Dublin SU arranged a mass leaflet drop to homes in areas close to campus and those well-connected by public transport. This year it’s stepped its efforts up, collaborating with other SUs and taking to the city itself to find potential landlords.

A survey carried out by the union in 2012 found a quarter of respondents commuting over an hour both ways to get to campus, which it suspects has become worse over the past couple of years. Some students report making a four-hour round trip every day.

As well as attracting considerable media attention and keeping the issue salient in the minds of decision makers, it’s proving to be both a solution that’s better than the alternatives and something that SUs can practically do to alleviate the worst aspects of a growing crisis.

Band-aid solution

It’s not without its downsides, of course. Some of the SUs have seen a growth in homeowners seeking 7-day rents for just five nights of the week, and some homeowners have been seeking student labour in exchange for a room. And the need for space for students to meet socially becomes even more important when they’re effectively living on their own.

UCD SU highlights three issues in particular:

  • UCD has a high proportion of international students. When deciding whether to advertise a 5 or 7 day let, it asks homeowners to keep in mind that international students do not have the option to head home on the weekends, and will require a 7 day let agreement in most circumstances.
  • In severe circumstances, students are refused access to the kitchen, laundry facilities, and living spaces of a home. It encourages homeowners to allow students to make themselves at home and use the amenities included in the home.
  • Due to the current cost of living crisis, it implores homeowners to set an affordable level of rent – highlighting that many of its students are being forced to take out private loans to afford accommodation, or considering taking a leave of absence.

Ultimately, it is your home, but we wanted to highlight a few of the core issues above. Thank you in advance for your consideration– every additional room is a student empowered to continue on with their academic pursuits.

To help, having attempted to ignore the problem for several years, last year the government was pressured into souping up a proper student accommodation strategy – with long term plans helping universities to invest in capital, and short term fixes like its Rent-a-Room scheme, under which homeowners can earn up to €14,000 a year tax-free.

And to try to weed out poor landlords, the SUs are both offering advice to students on how to avoid scams and questions to ask this emerging type of landlord, and sessions for homeowners themselves on expectations and how to make the relationship a productive one.

UCDSU President Martha Ní Riada highlights that:

…digs arrangements are increasingly a part of the student housing landscape, so this needs to be done in a way that is fair to students” – asking those utilising the scheme “to ensure that the lodger has access to appropriate facilities and isn’t subject to onerous conditions, or not to make a stay contingent on other conditions, such as housework or caring responsibilities.

Of course there have always been “homestay” options for students – but this really is on another scale, with SUs being proactive about a solution in a way that keeps the public awareness high and retains pressure on both the Irish government and its universities to find better solutions. If you’re not already, I suspect many SUs may have to go down this route and block book some time for leafleting in August – or maybe even in December in time for the January intake.

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