As Covid-19 Travel Restrictions Continue, Some Worry About a Large Surplus of Student Accommodation

At a Central Area Committee meeting of Dublin City Council on Monday 15 June, councillors heard about a planning application for a proposed student housing development in Prussia Street in Dublin 7.

Speaking by phone on Tuesday, independent Councillor Cieran Perry says the area around the Prussia Street site is already saturated with student housing. “The number of student accommodation places is phenomenal,” he says.

According to the developer Prussia Properties Ltd, who submitted a Student Accommodation Concentration Report as part of the planning application, there are 11 other student housing developments which are built, under construction or planning-approved within a 1km radius of this site.

Following the drop in international travel since Covid-19, some experts predict a dramatic reduction in the number of overseas students and an estimated 79 percent of students who stay in the private, purpose-built accommodation are international students.

That has caused some to query whether there is sufficient demand to justify the number of student accommodation developments being granted planning approval in the city, and to wonder what will happen if there is too much.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that they would consider applications to convert student accommodation to co-living accommodation.

The Plans for Prussia Street

Prussia Properties Ltd has applied for planning permission to build a student housing development with 296 bed spaces at a site on Prussia Street, which would link the street to the TU Dublin Grangegorman campus.

The proposed development is near the Park Shopping Centre and would be five storeys high and extend to eight storeys at its back.

The planning proposals include a gym, a laundry room, study rooms, a canteen, a lecture theatre, which is adaptable for cinema screenings and bicycle parking according to the report.

A pedestrian and cycling road would link the campus to Prussia Street and will require alterations to the boundary wall of the TU Dublin Grangegorman Campus.

It is a strategic housing development so the planning application will be decided by An Bord Pleanála. The application was lodged on 27 May and the deadline for submissions is 30 June, 2020.

Overconcentration

When a developer applies for permission to build student housing, they have to submit evidence to show that there isn’t an overconcentration of it in the area.

They provide a map showing all the student accommodation developments within a 1km radius.

However there is no definition of “overconcentration.”

Prussia Properties Ltd’s Student Accommodation Concentration Report quotes a presentation, compiled in 2016, stating that the benefits of purpose built student accommodation includes releasing private rental units for non-student use, adding “liveliness” into areas and a boost to the local economy.

Some drawbacks, as stated in the report include noise pollution, high costs of student accommodation and the “transient nature of students and term times”.

It makes no reference to changes expected to international student numbers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“All indicators point to a significant increase in full-time students attending publicly funded HEIs (Higher Education Institutions), for the next decade from 2017,” it says.

But another of the planning documents, the Student Accommodation Management Plan, says that 79 percent of students in purpose built student accommodation are international students.

The Union of Students in Ireland agrees that there is an overconcentration of purpose-built student accommodation in some parts of Dublin

“There should be tighter restrictions on how many student accommodation blocks can be built in one local area if off-campus,” says their position paper on student accommodation from 2019. “Over saturation drives up the prices of land in urban areas, which affects communities and their ability to pay rent.”

Supply and Demand

Lorcan Sirr is a lecturer in housing studies and urban economics at TU Dublin. He says that there was already an oversupply of student housing in Dublin city before the pandemic struck.

Some private student accommodation already had high levels of vacancy in the 2019/2020 academic year, says Sirr.

According to a recent report in the Irish Times, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said international student numbers could be down by as much as 80 percent.

Sirr says that one of the reasons the student accommodation, which is built to a lower specification than ordinary residential accommodation, was permitted is because it was hoped that it would reduce demand overall in the rental sector.

He says that student housing provides less space per person than ordinary residential housing and does not provide each apartment with private outdoor space.

That worked in other cities like Antwerp where student accommodation was affordable, but since it is more expensive in Dublin, usually priced starting from €900 a month, it hasn’t worked here says Sirr.

Most Irish students can’t afford the rents and so they continue to share houses in the suburbs which works out a lot cheaper, says Sirr.

The planning authorities are still promoting purpose-built student accommodation “under the misguided notion that it will take Irish students out of the private rental and not have them competing with ordinary households,” he says.

But there is still a need for affordable student accommodation too, says a spokesperson for the Union of Students in Ireland.

“The USI believes that luxury student accommodation is not what students need right now,” she says. “Students need accommodation that is affordable and of a decent standard, not luxury at a great expense.”

They are calling for a cost rental model for affordable student accommodation “as opposed to the continuation of the National Student Accommodation Strategy policy of relying on the private market,” she says.

What Will Happen Next?

Prussia Properties Ltd has stated in their application that only students will be accommodated in the development on Prussia Street.

But some other student housing developers have sought permission to convert the accommodation to other uses, according to the Union of Students in Ireland and media reports.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council indicated that the council would “be favourably disposed” to applications to convert from student accommodation to co-living.

Any proposal to convert student housing will require a new planning application, but “The conversion to shared or co-living would require less modifications as this type of housing model is closer to student accommodation in terms of layout,” says a spokesperson.

“Any proposal will have to be assessed to see whether it complies with the policies, objectives and standards of the Dublin City Development Plan,” she said.

If it does and meets the standards requirements, then the council “would be favourably disposed towards such proposals”, she says.

According to the Union of Students in Ireland, prior to December 2019 some developers had already applied for a “change of use” to their planning permission, to convert purpose-built student accommodation, built more than 10 years ago, to co-living and short term lets.

In May 2020, Enda Cunningham writing in the Connaught Tribune reported that Westwood, a student housing developer in Galway, was hoping to turn the student housing complex in Newcastle into short term lets in light of delays to the project due to Covid-19.

Perry, the independent councillor, says the problem is that the developers can apply for a “change of use” after they get planning permission. “This is the problem with planning in Ireland,” he says.

Perry says he wouldn’t be surprised if planning authorities agreed. “If they have agreed to the madness of co-living it certainly wouldn’t be beyond comprehension that they would agree to previous student accommodation becoming actual accommodation,” he says.

That could take the form of co-living, short term lets, or “emergency type accommodation that becomes permanent as opposed to temporary,” he says.

“The only thing we can be sure of is that the developers won’t go at a loss, something will be put in place to accommodate them,” says Perry.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said they don’t intend renting the student housing for emergency accommodation or social homes.

“Any facilities we contract or lease for provision of emergency accommodation are subject to assessment in relation to suitability, value for money along with compliance with planning and building regulations,” she says.

UCD lecturer in architecture Orla Hegarty says that in terms of building structure many co-living buildings are very similar to student accommodation buildings.

“There obviously is a niche space in the market for people who need the convenience of booking something for longer than a hotel,” says Hegarty.

The problem as she sees it is that many co-living developments are operating more like hotels than residential accommodation but are not being regulated as hotels, including in terms of fire safety. “It is distorting the market because it is not being regulated appropriately,” she says.

Student housing is not built to the same standard as residential homes. “The problem is by building very specific buildings and building lots of them we are making this into permanent housing, for which it is completely unsuitable,” she says.

“We are using scarce resources to build overcapacity.”

[Correction: This article was updated on 24 June at 11.26am. A previous version named the spokesperson for the Union of Student Ireland , who wished to not be named. We apologise for the error.]

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

Reader responses

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Stu Alexander
at 25 June at 19:25

Thanks for this. My wife and I live locally to Prussia St and have been dismayed at the amount of student housing developments going up. She swore this would happen, I didn't believe her till now! Nice work.

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