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Student Accommodation and Renters Further Troubled by Pandemic

Decisions to be made around accommodation are compounding the stress and uncertainty of the upcoming term for students across the country. A blended learning model means that the number of times a student is on campus for lectures, as opposed to online, may only be a couple per month, decreasing the need to find housing close to college.

Renting accommodation in Cork may no longer be necessary for many students but for others, they must make decisions and pay deposits while their timetable is still unclear, and may enter a contract made risky by the threat of a second lockdown.

The student accommodation sector was in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is still hungover from last semesters’ controversies of #RefundTheRent and the #OccupyTheQuad protest. For 17 days, over 200 students rotationally camped on the Quad to protest UCC Campus Accommodations’ decision to increase its rent by 3% for the upcoming year, signifying a 19% increase over just 3 years. Their demands, for a reversal of the increase and implementation of a rent freeze, were not fulfilled by UCC Campus Accommodation and the occupation, led by UCCSU, ended as a result of the onset of the pandemic. From there, another problem for student renters grew.

Student accommodation owned by UCC—Castlewhite Apartments, Mardyke Hall, Victoria Lodge, University Hall and Victoria Mills—issued refunds of two-months rent if students returned home due to COVID-19. However, some private landlords refused to allow the early termination of contracts, and others withheld the deposits and rents of students they let to.

Many private student accommodation complexes such as Amnis House of the Uninest Group, refused to refund students who were returning home until late May. Now, the company is offering students credit incentives of up to €250 if they book accommodation at its new complex on South Main Street. Such complexes and others like it across the country are promising flexibility to student renters during an uncertain time: at Lee Point installments are broken down to four payments; Sheila’s Hostel now offers accommodation on a week-by-week basis; and DCU has created a hostel-like, nightly booking system for its campus housing.

The flexibility has been welcomed but it is not universal, such is the concern of the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI). The USI has called on Darragh O’Brien, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to implement emergency rental measures to protect students. There should be no penalties for the early termination of rental contracts and no withholding of deposits or prepaid rents for reasons relating to COVID-19, the USI demands. Neither should any evictions of students occur during the pandemic.

The Minister agreed to meet with the USI on August 25th, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage later stating that “while it would be hoped that, in the current circumstances, landlords would show flexibility to students… [rental] agreements are a private matter between students and landlords, and the term should be clearly established before the tenancy begins.” The Department maintains that the current government is committed to improving “the supply and affordability of rental accommodation.” On the same day, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on housing Eoin Ó Broin offered to meet with the USI to draft an opposition bill on their proposals.

The supply of student housing, notoriously strained in recent years as the total number of enrolled students in Ireland has grown to over 225,000, has turned into a highly profitable industry experiencing a boom. 1,528 on and off-site student bed spaces have been built in Cork since 2016, with planning granted for upwards of 1,413 more – construction that has been halted, necessity put in jeopardy, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students who do not have accommodation booked at the beginning of term are advised to contact the Office of Accommodation and Community Life at reservices@ucc.ie, or their website at ucc.ie/en/accommodation.