The unregulated nature of student digs

by | Dec 12, 2023 | CULTURE, EDUCATION

A photo of an empty bedroom, viewed from behind the door frame. There are books piled on the floor, a laptop, and a pillow.

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Digs are becoming an increasingly common form of housing for people in Dublin, with homeowners encouraged to rent out their spare rooms and students becoming more desperate for shelter of any kind. However, this is a completely unregulated and unsupervised form of accommodation, because of this renters have no protections under legislation. 

 

As digs become more popular due to extortionate Dublin rents, the cracks in the system are beginning to show. Students coming to Dublin are expecting to live their college dream of wild parties every night and new friends and romances every week. Instead, they’re faced with living with a middle aged couple who expect 8:30pm to be quiet time and set ‘curfews’ for this grown adult they’re renting to. 

 

On top of this, there’s a distinct lack of security felt by those in this type of accommodation, being constantly on edge that those they’re living with may get notions of renovations and kick them out accordingly. There’s no recourse for those that experience this, due to the unregulated nature of this scheme. If homeowners suddenly decide to build that home gym they’ve dreamed of, or that the renter using the kitchen at 8:45pm is simply too much for them to handle, they can essentially evict renters without a second thought. 

 

On top of all this, there is a group that is fully locked out of even accessing this accommodation – international students. The nature of digs being a five day a week arrangement effectively shoves out those who come to Dublin to study or work from abroad. Therefore they are faced with either the option of leaving or renting a shared room with a tiny toilet for about €800 a month.

 

The concept of people renting out rooms in their houses was introduced to take pressure off the housing market and provide another form of accommodation. The Rent-a-Room Relief scheme allows homeowners to make up to €14,000 a year tax free to encourage this.

A photo of a wooden table with a hard-back book that says "Landlord-Tenant Law" on the cover. There is a judge's gavel and a key with a house-shaped key ring on it.

Image: Designer491, Getty Images.

However, despite being an increasingly popular form of living for single renters in Dublin it is specifically excluded from the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) which provides obligations and protections for both tenants and landlords. Because of this, those paying rent for this type of accommodation aren’t tenants, but licensees.

According to the leading writer on this, barrister Patricia Sheehy Skeffington, the most important difference between the two is the lack of exclusive occupation of the premises for licensees. For all those lucky enough to not study Property Law, this means that licensees are only given permission to enter and use the premises, whereas tenants have an actual interest in the property and therefore have a right to exclusive occupation, free from the landlord. 

 

The lack of security in digs becomes all the more apparent when renters are only classified as those who have permission to use the premises rather than a contractual right. According to the UCDSU Report on digs, 71% of students surveyed didn’t know the legal difference between these terms, showing the information gap present even to those who are living in digs. 

 

Because people living in digs are excluded from the RTA, renters have no access to the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) who hear disputes between landlords and tenants for issues like wrongful eviction. Those renting the room out also have none of the legal obligations of a landlord, such as allowing exclusive occupation of a premises or giving fair and proper notice of eviction. As a result, those in digs are clearly much less secure than tenants in their accommodation. 

 

Stories collected by the UCDSU when surveying students in digs illustrates this perfectly. These range from the funny anecdotes of fussy homeowners to downright disturbing treatment of students in these homes. One student reported there was specific shower and kitchen use time, along with a ‘pseudo curfew,’ in the evening. This was a 20 year old man living with two strangers who effectively treated him as the least favourite child, he reported feeling more like a burden than a rent payer. Many share the feeling of being infantilised by these homeowners, not like the grown college students or young professionals they are. It’s hard not to feel that you’re twelve years old again when curfews become a factor in your life of wild parties and playdates.

 

As previously mentioned, digs is commonly a five day a week arrangement. However, due to the lack of regulation in this area, homeowners are fully entitled to charge for full weeks at market rates when renters simply aren’t welcome for the full week, and they are definitely not living in a typical shared living arrangement as seen in the housing market. Digs were specifically encouraged because they were separate to the market and saved students from the horrors of the market. However, now it is typical for homeowners to charge €800 per month, when a month really means three weeks. At those prices there really isn’t any incentive for students to go to digs, where they would be sharing with faux mammies and daddies for five days a week when they could get sole occupation of a room in shared living with people who won’t time their showers (probably). Digs is becoming the villain it was designed to defeat. It’s not offering students a safety net from inaccessible housing, it’s becoming inaccessible for those who need to stay weekends and who can’t afford such prices for only three weeks of living.

 

The international students and young professionals are the obvious group for whom digs is simply an impossible option. It’s not exactly feasible to fly home for the weekend when your home might be on a different continent. In third-level education institutes in Ireland, international students are thrown into the lottery for on campus accommodation, just like the rest of us. If they don’t get a spot it’s from the frying pan into the fire, and they are faced with navigating a foreign and expensive housing system. Being locked out of digs denies international students a second chance for accommodation that Irish students are granted, regardless of how questionable that chance is.

 

Without regulation, homeowners are fully entitled to their decision to exclude a large majority of domestic and international students from their room offer. It’s clear that in order to actually provide a viable alternative to the private rental sector, digs need to have some sort of legislative backing to weed out those who simply want a tax free side income from those who will actually provide fair and viable housing.

 

In January 2023, Minister for Housing Darragh O’ Brien ruled out regulations being introduced for digs, claiming it would frighten homeowners away from considering it and therefore reduce the supply. How much clearer could he have shown that this scheme is brilliant for a quick buck without any real responsibility? The stance taken by the government regarding digs is that some accommodation is better than none. This is not good enough. 

 

If someone was outside my door timing my showers and giving me a curfew as a grown adult, I would gladly brave the horrors of the private rental sector. Regulations don’t necessarily mean a plethora of obligations. The bare minimum would be a requirement for fair rents, fair evictions, some weekend availability and maybe even something akin to the RTB to hear complaints. The Rent a Room Relief is definitely beneficiary as it encourages homeowners to open their homes, and I commend those who do. But those who do it and are then shocked at the consequences of a student’s existence, such as eating, showering and not magically disappearing when needed are the reasons why digs aren’t a secure and viable option for students. The ‘luck of the draw’ theme of digs isn’t good enough, students are suffering from it, both domestic and international. 

 

As students we famously don’t require much; a loaf of bread and a box of tea bags will sustain us for weeks on end. However, the bare minimum when it comes to where we live is no longer suitable. In order to support our studies, our mental health, and dare I say our college experience, we need to live where we feel secure, comfortable and confident in our ability to pay the rent. I believe this can be described as one step above the bare minimum. 

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