Words: Eva O’Beirne
The Cork Student Housing Co-Operative seeks to reform the exploitative system faced by Ireland’s youth.
District sat down with Isabel, Aidan and Tadgh, all committee members of the co-op to discover how a group of students plagued by the housing crisis have banded together to create a democratic alternative to unpredictable landlords and unfair rent costs.
When asked how they would define what their co-operative is and how it works, Isabel noted that they’re trying to figure it out themselves. “It’s essentially a business that is run by shareholders who themselves are the owners,” she explained. “Each member has a stake in the co-op, it could be as little as one euro, but it is instant money the co-op can use but has to repay if you leave. Think of it like a credit union but for housing.”
The co-op will also focus on education on tenant’s rights and is currently open to membership from students in the following third-level institutions: City North College of Further Education, Coláiste an Spioráid Naoimh, College of Commerce, Munster Technological University Cork, St John’s Central College, University College Cork.
“Because we are the first housing co-operative in Ireland, we’re very much figuring this out as we go,” noted Isabel. “But the amount of time, research and dedication we’ve put in as a committee speaks for itself.”
“There are unfortunate realities that we have to deal with, and we didn’t want to need to be the ones to take the means into our own hands, but we have to try and deal with this,” continued Tadgh.
When asked about their individual experiences with the housing market and renting in Cork, all three had varying stories but all had a cohesive theme: the current supply doesn’t match the needs of it’s customers. Tadgh explained how many of his landlords have been “under the table”, not registered and therefore can’t be held accountable. Known as “digs”, Tadgh described the arrangements as “pretty precarious”.
“I’ve been evicted twice. Security really can’t be undervalued when it comes to student accommodation. People are choosing affordability instead of safety, it’s desperate,” he explained.
Aidan detailed his experiences as an international student and the expectation to pay a full year’s rent immediately when booking his accommodation for college: “I was stressed for weeks. It was a hostile experience really. How could I come up with this money out of thin air?”
Aidan explained that many international students experience delays when trying to acquire working permits in Ireland, which prevents them from getting jobs. “I have to make a decision between going out and having fun with friends or getting the bare minimum in grocery shopping. It is difficult at times, it really does affect you the longer you have to deal with it.”
Isabel was quick to point out that current plans to increase student accommodation in Cork won’t solve the crisis. Instead of focusing on affordable, accessible housing, developers plan to build ‘luxury’ apartments that are out of most student’s price range. Placing more importance on profit rather than education, rooms are often left empty instead of lowering the rent.
Privately-owned purpose-build student accommodation (PBSAs) have received criticism from organisations such as the Union of Students Ireland (USI) as they are priced higher than the average student rent, at 250 euro per week as opposed to the 197 euro per week. But who benefits from these high-cost apartments? PBSA’s don’t attract Irish students, as revealed by an EY report from 2019. It’s findings showed that 79 per cent of residents of PBSAs are international students.
When asked about college-level and student union support in acquiring housing, there was a hesitancy to both praise and dismiss efforts made by University College Cork and its students’ union. “The residentiary services in college were very emotionally supportive but they were so over-subscribed that they couldn’t help me find accommodation. They could point me in the right direction but couldn’t assist me,” noted Isabel. “The SU is incredibly active and they have repeatedly called out issues but on a national scale, there needs to be something done.”
Tadgh brought up the protest from two years ago in UCC that involved students camping out in the college’s quad. The protest was organised due to rent hikes across the country for students. “The SU does have a seat at the college board for accommodation but by sitting at the college board, they cannot vote against the interest of these businesses which makes no sense to me. And then the pandemic hit, so nothing has been resolved.”
He mentioned that he feels he cannot trust the college to put students’ needs first due to the focus on profit rather than student welfare. “I would be very sceptical to giving the college a seat at the table when it comes to our co-op, because of their previous attitudes. Other co-ops in the UK have done this, but its difficult to trust the college, certainly.”
All three members pointed to fees as another area of major stress for students studying in Ireland. Irish students currently pay the highest college fees in the EU. The current EU average for college fees is 727 euro which is nearly four times less than the cost of college fees in Ireland. The combination of high college fees, barriers to subsidies and grants, and the housing crisis have caused students to resort to couch surfing or commuting daily from other counties in order to continue their education.
“There’s definetly a feeling that education has been commercialised and there’s no real barriers to stop it,” noted Tadgh. “You have to work a job to stay afloat, you have to take out loans and all of these things detract from the quality of your study which leads to further issues. It’s one big domino effect.”
The current average cost of student accommodation in Cork is 7,000 euro per year.
The USI launched the “Fuck the Fees” campaign in November to challenge the cost of college in Ireland. The campaign underlined the desperation of students and the idea that niceties were no longer necessary. Unfortunately, there is no set timeline for the lowering of fees in Ireland despite promises by the Department of Higher Education to do so.
In general, the exploitation of tenants appears to be on the rise. In the past few months, the Irish Examiner has been detailing the issue of landlords pressuring renters into sexual activities in lieu of rent. Just this week, the paper reported that four international students in their early 20s, who were individually seeking accommodation in Limerick City were led to believe that they were being offered a private room by a landlord. After a brief exchange, all four individuals realised they would actually be sharing their would-be landlord’s bed.
The National Housing and Homeless Coalition have designated Saturday, February 26 a day of protest over the housing crisis. With protests in Galway, Dublin, Kilkenny, Limerick and more, it will be one of the first nationwide movements to demand adequate government action.
With so many issues facing young and inexperienced tenants, it is no wonder that these students have taken matters into their own hands. When asked about the future of the co-op, the three members clearly outline the timeline for the next few months.
From collaborating with other co-operatives based in the UK, to applying for grants and approving their constitution, this group certainly has expansion and growth on the top of their to-do list. The idea that housing can become a collective investment rather than snatched by developers and cuckoo funds will greatly appeal to Ireland’s student population who are trying their very best to get by.
Elsewhere on District: Irish Gig of the Week: Denise Chaila