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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 23 October, 2018
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'If ever there was a sign that the boom is back, it’s vultures building student homes on Summerhill'

Affordable student housing is essential and could be a solid investment for the Government. So why are we handing it over to the vultures, writes Éilis Ryan.

Éilis Ryan

YOU DON’T NEED a degree in town planning to see that purpose-built student accommodation is booming in Dublin’s north inner city.

On Summerhill, North Brunswick Street, Dorset Street and Gardiner Street, colourful hoardings in front of long derelict sites scream out glossy lifestyle slogans: “Dublin will take care of your nights out – let us take care of your nights in!”

Dublin City Development Plan, meanwhile, talks about student housing as “high quality,” “attractive to students” and “a revitalising force”. What it doesn’t say is “sky high rents” and “massive multinational investors”.

Student accommodation is the latest in a long line of lucrative investment opportunities that our Government is dangling in front of multinational investment funds as part of our mythical economic “recovery”. The results aren’t benefitting students in need of affordable housing or the tens of thousands of households languishing on Dublin’s public housing waiting list.

Where will all the people go?

Since the middle of 2015, planning permission has been granted, extended or is currently being sought for over 6,000 student beds across Dublin’s north inner city. The total land covered by these applications is approximately 11 hectares. This is enough land to build roughly 2,000 large (compared to current standards) homes, at medium density, with generous open space and amenities.

Some of these sites – the former IDA site on Summerhill, and CIÉ land in the docklands, for example – were state-owned once, and should certainly have been developed publicly. But even if all these sites were developed through private developers for profit, Part V requirements would ensure the delivery of 200 social housing units on these sites.

What possible rationale – other than pure greed and profit – is there for exempting student housing developments from social housing requirements? Even if one believes student-only developments are positive, plenty of students are themselves in need of low cost, public housing. And indeed, by the Government and council’s own logic of “mixed tenure” development, creating segregated ghettoes of up to 1,000 students, siloed away from the rest of the community, seems to lack logic.

11 hectares of vacant land is a significant amount in the context of the inner city. A 2016 audit of vacant land in the inner city identified a total of 72 acres of vacant land between the canals. Only 13 hectares of this land is council-owned, and the council intends to use much of what it does own for private housing, not public because, it argues, building only public housing on any one site will create social ghettoes.

So, on the one hand, the council is forcing through the development of private housing on public land, to create, it says, inclusive and diverse communities. And on the other hand, it is actively encouraging 11 hectares of land to be developed in a way which completely excludes any social housing whatsoever.

Land is a finite commodity and housing demand is going up not down. So where, precisely, does the council think current and future households on waiting lists in the north inner city are going to be housed?

But will students, at least, benefit? Unlikely

shutterstock_59887279 Trinity College. Source: Shutterstock/Rob Wilson

But, the argument goes, purpose-built student accommodation will at least free up existing accommodation in the private sector and, given students want to live centrally, the inner city is where it must be located.

Even if we take this argument at face value, the particular method chosen to deliver this – private sector development, incentivised by tax breaks and social housing exemptions, and with zero control of rents – is unlikely to deliver. Even a cursory review shows that student housing in Dublin has become a globally tradable, lucrative commodity.

Zigurrat Students currently has submitted planning applications for the development for 734 student beds across three different sites in the north inner city. It already owns a block of student accommodation in the former Montrose hotel – which it rents for an astounding €13,260 per annum – over €1,000 a month, and three times the full maintenance grant.

Price Waterhouse Cooper was recently granted planning permission as receiver for Wintertide Ltd, a subsidiary of Johnny Ronan’s Treasury Holdings, for a 970-bed development on Sheriff Street.

Within three months of being granted planning permission, the site was sold on to EFIV Irish Property ICAV. EFIV is an investment vehicle wholly owned by BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management agency, controlling global assets of over $5 trillion.

Two further sites, along with two more south of the river, were originally funded through Oaktree Capital – a fund which manages assets globally worth €97 billion and sold last December for an estimated €230 million to asset management company Hines, who manage global assets worth €93.2 billion.

What’s the alternative?

The most straightforward concern about all these cases is that immediately after being granted planning permissions, land, development plans and semi-constructed developments in the student-housing sector in Dublin, are now being traded by the largest and hungriest investors in the world. Each of these trades carries a cost that must be borne by students in the rents they pay.

But more to the point the entire system pays little regard to the actual needs of students. A student coming from a low-income family in Westmeath does not suddenly lose their need, and right, to access public housing upon starting university. And few parents, often supporting two or three adults living outside of home, can afford annual, unregulated rent hikes.

So is there an alternative?

Well, a public alternative might, for example, involve the state establishing a student-housing corporation, and investing in publicly owned, rent-controlled student accommodation.

Graduated, rents could ensure affordability while also covering costs, while letting student rooms as tourist accommodation in the summer could provide additional revenue but this time, for the public good, not to line BlackRock’s trillion dollar pockets. Equally, there is little reason why student housing could not be built integrated into larger public housing developments on state-owned land.

Student housing is a solid investment. But why is it that for every dead, wasted subsidy to a useless entity like Irish Water, our Government refuse to invest in those things where they might actually make a return, like housing? But if ever there was a sign that the boom is back, it’s the vultures building homes for students on Summerhill.

Éilis Ryan is a councillor for the Workers’ Party in north inner city Dublin. She is an active member of the Dublin 7 Housing Campaign and co-authored the Workers’ Party’s costed proposal for mixed income public housing in the inner city, Solidarity Housing. www.facebook.com/cllreilisryan

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Éilis Ryan

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