75% of Student Housing Stood Vacant at Close of Last Year, Government Figures Suggest

Caroline O’Connor booked a room in one of Dublin’s multiplying purpose-built student accommodation for November, but she doesn’t think she will go back in January, she says.

“To be honest I don’t really like it that much,” she says. “It is way too expensive for what it is.”

The furniture and decor of the apartment look cheap, says O’Connor. She pays €265 a week for a room, shares a kitchen with four others, and has to pay extra to do laundry, she says.

Her sister is paying less for a “beautiful apartment” in Grand Canal Dock sharing with one other person, she says.

In May 2017, the government of the time laid out its National Student Accommodation Strategy, which sought, it said, to encourage the development of blocks just for students – to free up mainstream rentals for others.

But a long-standing unknown has been whether that has happened or not, and whether, in particular, rooms in the more expensive blocks are lying vacant.

Research commissioned by Dublin City Council at the end of 2018 cited concerns about vacancy that year in some blocks.

Figures from the Department of Education and the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) suggest that student-housing complexes across Ireland were 29 percent empty at the end of 2019, and 75 percent empty at the end of 2020 after Covid-19.

These days, though, two of the biggest student accommodation providers in Dublin say that they are fully booked.

Sparse to Full?

Global Student Accommodation (GSA), aka Uninest, owns seven student housing complexes in Dublin.

“All of GSA’s properties in Dublin are at full occupancy,” said a spokesperson, on 23 November. “Our priority is always our student customers, and this is reflected in the demand for our accommodation.”

A spokesperson for Aparto, a subsidiary of real estate investors Hines, also said on Tuesday that it is “currently at full capacity in its 4 operational Dublin facilities”.

The Aparto website says the company has five complexes, but that the Montrose complex near University College Dublin is closed for refurbishment.

Ireland-wide, the picture at the end of 2020 seems to have been very different.

“At the end of 2020, there were 10,691 Student Specific Accommodation tenancies registered with the RTB,” a spokesperson for the RTB said.

Each student tenancy is registered with the RTB as an individual tenancy, even if it is part of a flat share. In other words, a tenancy is equivalent to a bed space.

Meanwhile, there had been 42,200 student bed spaces built across the country by the end of 2020, said a spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education.

That suggests that three-quarters of existing student beds at that time, or around 31,500 student bed spaces, were vacant.

At the end of 2019, before the pandemic struck, around 29 percent of student housing, or almost 11,500 beds, were empty, similar figures suggest.

By the end of 2019, 28,414 student-specific accommodation tenancies were registered with the RTB, said a spokesperson. (Owners of student-specific accommodation have had to register tenancies with the RTB since August 2019.)

Around 39,900 student-accommodation bed spaces had been completed at the end of 2019, said a spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education.

The RTB said it couldn’t give more up-to-date figures because the registrations for tenancies in student accommodation developments for this academic year are currently being processed.

At the end of 2018, those who talked to Ernst and Young for research on student accommodation for Dublin City Council noted concerns at that time about vacancy.

They said that “the issue of vacancies is a concern in the market at the moment with stakeholders providing insight into possible reasons”.

Possible reasons cited were a “glut” of new developments coming on stream in 2018 after a period of undersupply, says the research, as well as the developments coming on to the market in the middle of the academic year “after the vast majority of students had successfully sourced their accommodation”.

Out of Reach

Earlier this year some student accommodation providers said that there was a shortage of interest and applied for planning permission to convert to student beds into short-term lets.

GSA, which now says it is full, was among them. It got permission for short term lets at six of its seven complexes.

Students have said they desperately need accommodation, but that the student accommodation on offer is outside their price range.

O’Connor, who says she is thinking about leaving her student bed, is studying for a master’s in real estate at TU Dublin. It’s mostly online, so she doesn’t need to be in Dublin every day, she says.

Next semester she might hop a train from Cork when she needs to, she says. It would save a lot of money.

It’s a good location near college and town, she says, but she can’t shake the feeling that she is being ripped off. “It’s just crazy compared to accommodation prices in Cork.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that the government plans to work towards delivering affordable student housing complexes.

“The Programme for Government contains a commitment to work with Higher Education Institutes to ensure that more accommodation is built on and off-campus, using cost-rental and other models,” they said.

The government’s housing strategy, Housing for All, also commits to supporting technological universities to develop purpose-built student accommodation, he says.

Point Campus, near the 3 Arena, is one of the largest student housing complexes in Ireland with 966 bed spaces.

According to its website, prices start at €230 per week for a room in a shared flat. There is a special offer though for existing tenants, if they renew their contracts for another academic year they get €500 cashback.

The RTB publishes a searchable database that shows which addresses in the country have registered tenancies, but doesn’t yet do so for student housing complexes.

“The RTB will be publishing a register of SSA (student-specific accommodation) tenancies in the future that the public will have access to,” said the RTB spokesperson.

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

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