Providers of Purpose-Built Student Accommodation Have Been Saying There’s a Lack of Demand for It

Dipto Barman, a PhD student at Trinity College, emailed about 150 places and went along to nine viewings before he found somewhere for him and friends to live, he said.

“The first problem is that the price is really high,” he says. Most agents also prefer professionals to students, he says.

It held up other parts of getting on with life, too. International students need an address before they can open a bank account and apply for their PPS number, he says. “It is really hard. It is just very stressful.”

Yet while students say they’re scrambling for somewhere to live, those who provide purpose-built student accommodation have been telling the council that they anticipated a lack of demand for it, and so they needed to convert it to short-term lets or co-living so they can fill it up with people.

Dublin City Council has granted planning permission to student accommodation providers in the city to allow them to convert as many as 1,055 student beds to be used as short-term lets up to 31 May 2022, suggest planning records.

(For two of the complexes, it’s unclear if permission is limited to certain blocks or not.)

That means they can keep rents high, says Lorcan Sirr, a housing lecturer at TU Dublin. Dublin City Council “should just leave them alone and let them suffer because then at some point they will have to reduce their rents” to get students in.

A spokesperson for the council said: “At the height of the pandemic, when most students were studying remotely, short term lettings were allowed on a temporary basis only.”

But the first permissions to convert purpose-built student housing to other uses were granted before the pandemic began, while the most recent decisions were made at the beginning of this month.

A spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education said: “For accommodation to be removed from student use at a time when there are significant student accommodation shortages runs contrary to the aims of the National Student Accommodation Strategy and is deeply disappointing.”

How Many?

Dublin City Council granted DWS, which runs the Point Campus, permission to change, temporarily, the use of 713 students beds to short-term lets, a change which took effect in January 2019.

In September 2019, the council then allowed DWS to move to co-living, converting 599 student beds to accommodate professionals. That permission ran until September 2020, when it was renewed for another year.

At 274 North Circular Road in Dublin 7, owners Global Student Accommodation (GSA) got planning permission to use student housing there for short-term lets year-round in 2019, to run until May 2020.

Planning documents don’t clearly show how many bed spaces were covered by that change of use.

But those permissions were granted before Covid-19 reached Ireland in early 2020.

Since Covid-19 reached Ireland, a number of other student complexes have also been converted to short-term lets, with permission from Dublin City Council.

DWS has not applied for the change of use this year, to continue using the Point Campus as co-living or short-term lets.

But GSA has been granted permission for short-term letting allowed at six of their complexes, including the one on North Circular Road.

Heyday Student Accommodation at Carman’s Hall in The Liberties has also got permission to use 68 of its beds for short-term lets up to the end of May 2022.

Despite the apparent oversupply of expensive purpose-built student accommodation, new applications are also still being approved.

In June 2021, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for a large new student complex with 584 beds at Park Shopping Centre, Dublin 7.

A spokesperson for the board said that queries about the fact that new permissions are still being granted should be directed to the Department of Housing.

It “sets the policies, directives, etc. that all planning authorities, including the Board, must observe”, the spokesperson said.

Beyond Affordable

Most two-bedroom flats that Barman, the Trinity student saw, cost around €1,800 to €2,000, he says. Their final place costs what €1,900, which a few of them will split in a flat share.

The purpose-built student accommodation in Dublin that he looked at online was particularly expensive and out of reach, he said, at around €250 per person per week. “The students’ ones are just crazy.”

Luxury student accommodation is outside the price range of most students, says Caoimhe O’Carroll, the Union of Students in Ireland’s (USI’s) vice president for the Dublin region.

The decision by Dublin City Council to grant permission to the providers to flip beds to short-term lets is inexplicable, says O’Carroll.

“Dublin City Council has been so steadfast in refusing short-term letting in the city,” she says. “It’s nonsensical, it’s ridiculous and it suggests there is no demand for student accommodation in Dublin when it is the absolute opposite.”

Most students have a maximum budget of €500 to €600 per month for rent, she says, but the purpose-built student accommodation is almost twice the price of a room in a shared house – so most Irish students don’t even consider it as an option.

The model also exploits international students, many of whom are desperate to secure accommodation before they arrive or soon after, says O’Carroll.

Students don’t need access to on-site bowling alleys or cinemas, says O’Carroll. “The vision of these complexes has been lost.”

Sirr, the housing lecturer at TU Dublin, says the student-housing model was promoted on the basis that it would free up family homes by taking some students out of the rental sector. But it isn’t doing that because it’s too expensive, he says.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says rents charged by student accommodation providers are not a matter for the planning authority.

“However, the planning system operates in [a] market economy which includes the principle that increasing the supply of PSBA (purpose-built student accommodation) would result in more affordable rent,” she says.

But it’s not doing that, says Sirr, because the operators are backed up by large investment funds and they can afford to leave the homes empty.

Instead, the council is supporting the student accommodation providers to keep their prices inflated, he says. “The planning system is being used to maintain high prices.”

“Why should planning permission flip-flop for what are arguably poor business decisions?” he says.

In most other EU countries, student housing is much more affordable, he says. He recently looked at the University of Porto, he says, where the student accommodation was priced at between €180 to €250 per month.

Why Did They Do It?

A spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education said that it is currently engaging with the Department of Housing and exploring ways to ensure that purpose built-student accommodation remains for students.

Meanwhile, some applications to change the use of student housing to short-term lets note that a Department of Housing 2016 circular calls for flexibility from councils in relation to planning conditions for student housing.

“Such an approach would recognise the need to establish a steady rental income for such student accommodation throughout the year,” the circular is quoted as saying.

Student-housing companies Heyday and GSA, which got permission to use student-housing as short-term lets this year, didn’t respond in time for publications to queries as to why they don’t just drop their prices and accommodate students instead of applying for permission to use beds for tourists.

When it comes to solutions, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that it will work with the colleges to ensure that more student accommodation is built using a cost-rental model.

“Minister O’Brien has acknowledged the need to increase the availability of accommodation for students, which he believes is the most effective way to provide real choice and options,” he says.

However, decisions on planning permissions are matters for the local authority and the minister cannot interfere, he says.

The Planning and Development Act 2000 says “the Minister shall not exercise any power or control in relation to any particular case with which a planning authority or the Board is or may be concerned”, says the spokesperson.

They are planning to introduce a new regime for short-term lets with a view to ensuring the availability of long-term residential accommodation, balanced with the needs of the tourism sector, says the spokesperson.

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Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Jeremy Ryan
at 22 September at 19:54

We continuously hear that "large investment funds… can afford to leave the homes empty." Maybe they can but why in practice would they do that? I live beside a large student accommodation development in D7. It is far from empty now the campus had opened…

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