The Student Housing Crisis: Are Digs the Solution?

A campaign headed up by Campaigns & Communications Officer Barry Murphy has exposed the problems that students are facing with getting acceptable accommodation around Dublin.

The campaign involves UCD students going undercover to view potential places and exposing their shoddy conditions using Snapchat. Some of the conditions revealed included kitchen utensils being stored in the bathroom due to lack of space in the kitchen. In another house, a bed can clearly be seen in the kitchen. Many of these spaces are advertised as single rooms when the reality could meaning sharing with up to 15 other people. Some of the landlords are requesting up to €750 a month with no lease or contract provided to the tenant. In one case, a potential landlord can be heard telling the students to go get a deposit out of a nearby ATM.

The problem is exacerbated when you read a new report from Daft.ie which revealed that rents are now 13% higher than they were at the peak of the Celtic Tiger in 2008. The problem is particularly bad in Dublin where the average monthly cost of renting a house is now €1,741. This is 1.5 times greater than the national average of €1,159. The report also revealed that the cost of a single room to rent in Dublin is €632 which is €200 more than in Cork and €250 more than Galway.

In an attempt to give a student specific solution to the ever growing housing crisis, UCDSU teamed up with TCDSU and Daft.ie to highlight the advantages of digs to both students and potential landlords. Geo-targeted adverts placed on websites like DoneDeal.ie, Daft.ie and Adverts.ie encourage homeowners to let out their spare room to students. Under current legislation, homeowners can earn up to €14,000 tax free by letting out their spare rooms. The aim of this campaign is to encourage more homeowners to rent out their spare rooms and ease pressure on the rental market.

Whether this campaign is working remains to be seen. An ad spotted on one Facebook group from a potential homeowner considered offering a room Monday to Friday provided that the renter was a dog lover and would walk the owner’s Labradoodles 4 times a week.

I spoke to 4 students who have lived in digs to learn more about their experiences.

Alanna Murphy*, 23

A science student in UCD, Alanna lived in digs for 3 out of 4 years in college and had an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“The first year I choose digs because I had no other option. I was moving up to Dublin for the first time as a college student and struggled greatly to find accommodation. The second time I choose digs was because I had to tried to live in student accommodation by myself for a year and didn’t really like it. It turns out I’m far too lazy to make food for myself.”

Paying €650 a month in her second digs, Alanna had a dinner made for her every night and really got on with her host.
“The women who ran it was lovely and was always up for a chat, which can be nice after a difficult day. The ‘vibe’ in my second digs, which was family occupied was very mellow and helped keep me in a positive frame of mind.  I got along really well with the whole family. My landlord and her husband have been very kind to me. They have both given me lifts to college on many occasions and have picked me up too.”

Alex Jones*, 20

A student in Trinity College, Alex has lived in two different digs in the last 2 years. She says that living in digs is generally cheaper than accommodation and has some advantages.

“There’s a person or family that you know are nearby to call if there did happen to be a crisis. I know from my parent’s point of view, they found it a lot easier letting me go knowing that I would be in a house with ‘real adults’.”

However, there are some problems with living in digs as Alex found out:

“You must bear in mind that often you’re moving into a family home. They will have a set up for how they like things done and it may be very different to the set up you had at home.”

This can be particularly difficult with the student lifestyle of going out during the week and coming home late at night.

“One of the difficulties I faced during the second year was that as I was very active in the societies in college. I would frequently be home late and want to cook when I came in. I don’t drink but my landlady found that I came home too late home to cook in the evenings so gave me a curfew in terms of when I was allowed use the kitchen.”

This was a problem for Alex but wasn’t the worst rules she came across:

“Personally, I found this very frustrating as it resulted in my needing to eat out more and thus increased my expenses. However, there were various other digs I heard of in which you just weren’t allowed use the kitchen.”

Ryan Murphy, 22

Ryan, a student in UCD lived in digs for around 2 years. He said he chose digs because he had to.

“There were very few alternatives available because campus accommodation was either unavailable to certain year groups or too expensive. Renting as a student was not affordable either. Digs was a last resort.”

Ryan was charged €150 for 5 days a week and was given dinner every evening. The owner was quite lax about rules compared to others. While his experience in digs was on the whole quite positive, Ryan explains his frustration about the housing situation for students as a whole:

“The overreliance of digs options for students feels like a symptom of a government-proposed, unsatisfying solution to the wider issue of lack of affordable housing for students in the city. Home owners are being encouraged to open up their properties to students looking to rent as a way of making possible additional income but in reality digs options are compensating for the wider failure of the rent situation in Dublin and lack of rent options.”

He also highlights the problem with living in someone else’s home:

“Some owners can be abrasive and overly strict. It does not feel like you have your own personal space as you do not own the property and live in it under the rules of the owners. It feels like you are invading someone’s personal life at times. Not being around people your own age such as elderly owners or families is not the most ideal experience and can at times impact your emotional experience of college.”

Katie Farrell, 22

Katie was undertaking a PLC in advertising in 2015 when she lived in digs. At first living in digs started off fine with the rent being relatively cheap and no particularly harsh rules in place.

“I had to keep to specific spaces within the kitchen in terms of where I stored things and I had to make sure I cleaned up after being there. I had full use of washing machine and there was no dishwasher so I had to wash up. I could be around at weekends if I wanted to be but for the most part I preferred to go home.”

This all changed around 6 weeks into the arrangement as Katie describes:

“They’d been away the week beforehand so I’d been there on my own. I went home for the weekend. I arrive back on the Sunday evening. I was in the kitchen getting a drink and they corner me kind of and are tell me ‘it’s not working out and we’re asking you to leave’.

The reasons they gave was apparently I’d left the kitchen messy, and that I’d gotten a stain on a sheet. They also said that I’d left clothes everywhere in my room. They told me to either move out the very next day or that I could stay for a week but they’d be taking the deposit I paid for that one week. The deposit was like €350 from which she took €18 out of it to replace the sheet.”

Katie was in utter shock. “I got made homeless for some pretty minimal things, without any notice and it’s only because I have amazing family that I wasn’t left literally on the street with nowhere to live.”

The Problem

Digs were never meant to be a permanent solution to the housing crisis but right now, they seem to be all we have. With rising rents for sub-standard accommodation right across the city many students will have no option but to opt for digs. The experiences highlighted in this piece are only a handful and not representative of everyone who has lived in the digs but the trend is concerning. A recurring theme throughout my interviews was people feeling unwelcome or being unable to be themselves fully when living in digs. You’re also at the mercy of the landlord and so minor infractions can put you in a pretty perilous situation as Katie found out.

 Each interviewee was asked for advice that they’d give students who were thinking about moving into digs;

Alanna: “I’d choose digs if you don’t mind living in someone’s home and are able to live with the restrictions this can place on you.”

 Alex: “People should be wary to understand what digs are and don’t expect their rent to be written up officially. Landlords can be liable to change rules because in their eyes it is their house after all. Checking what potential rules may arise is very important in deciding if digs is for you.”

Ryan: “I would recommend digs to other students as they are often more affordable than renting a house or on-campus accommodation. However, be careful to find a place whose owners’ personalities work well with their own.”

 Katie: “It was the best option available to me. I wouldn’t have chosen it if I’d had other options. I wouldn’t recommend it to students after the experience that I had.”

With colleges like Galway now looking at the possibility of using floating accommodation to house students, it’s clear that a quick fix to this problem is not on the horizon. Perhaps it’s time that UCD put those lakes to good use.


Rachel O’Neill – Editor

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