The empty housing/ghost estate phenomenon has attracted plenty of attention on this site and more widely. In the public imagination, such phrases conjure up in the main images of empty estates in Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon and elsewhere, those spectral landscapes of redundant concrete – tax-incentivised, never lived in. But there is of course an urban equivalent – the ghost apartment complex, such as those in Sandyford previously discussed on this blog. Indeed, the presence of many empty residential units in centrally located urban developments near services and transport links side by side with escalating levels of unmet social need is one of the madder contradictions of post-CT Ireland. This all highlights some of the more critical problems with market-driven housing systems (or cities or indeed regeneration processes). With everything utterly dependent on the vagaries of market swings (the stop-go cycles of construction and boom-bust price and rent movements), there is at best a very weak linkage between real housing need and market supply.

One interesting emerging trend in this context relates to the short-term strategies pursued by investors and speculators at a time of downturn. Many it seems have turned to students as a temporary source of rental income while they sit out the slump. This is reflected in several emergent trends. A number of property companies now have “products” targeted at the student accommodation market. For instance, Chubb Properties has several brand new developments on its books targeted exclusively at students. The Gateway Student Village in Ballymun offers a similarly specialised product: 109 3-bed apartments at a rate of €4,000 per room per college year (14th September to 20th June). DIT itself has organised a whole suite of “off-campus” accommodation for students, many of which are advertised on a reserved webpage on the website. One of the more interesting examples is the Herberton Dublin 8 scheme, advertised as “the village within the city” – for students. For generations of students, the village within the city for students was Rathmines. Now apparently it’s Herberton, which incidentally is also one of the two private blocks within the regenerated Fatima Mansions.

Both central and local government have recently taken an interest in this area. At the national level, the Centre for Housing Research (CHR) has recently launched a report outlining the future of student accommodation in Ireland, while at the local level, Dublin City Council has recently taken a direct interest in promoting Dublin as an ‘International Student City’. With specific focus on Dublin, the CHR report highlights a number of schemes in the pipe-line, such as on Cork Street in the Liberties. What it does not say, however, is how the transformation of existing empty properties fits with the plans to create more purpose-built apartments in the near future. The report also stresses the role which student accommodation plays in terms of urban regeneration, with the ambition for new developments to be integrated within their neighbourhoods. This was also raised at a recent seminar on the promotion of Dublin as an International Student City, with the avoidance of ghettoisation of particular student groups (according predominantly to country, region of origin or ethnic background) as a key issue. However, another issue might be how the ad-hoc measures outlined above allow for third-level institutions to develop a long-term relationship with the areas in which their students are now resident. This, of course, is where things may get more complex, and the issue of social specificity comes to the fore. While on one hand, those developments which are in a sought after area may well disguise the fact that they are overwhelmingly dominated by students, others may attempt to use security features as a means of enticing students into an area that has recently undergone regeneration. However, one of the afore mentioned developments, The Village Gate is at pains to advertise itself as a ‘modern spacious gated development’ on its web-page. The gating of student accommodation is, however, something which the CHR explicitly wants to avoid in the development of student housing in regeneration areas.

Gasometer being converted to Alliance Apartments, South Lotts Road, Dublin 4, 2005. Photo by Philip Lawton

It’s strange really. Not so long ago, many properties were advertised for working people only. A subset targeted SWA tenants specifically. But students need not apply was not an uncommon strategy adopted by landlords, whether small-scale or corporate. Or maybe not so strange. It would appear that the policy being pursued is to sit out the downturn and in the mean time achieve some kind of rental income by turning to the student market until a better economic alternative can be found. Could that be so? The signature building of the Gasworks development in Ringsend – The Alliance – provides a good example of the complexity of this situation. In mid-2008, Chubb properties were offering rents of €150 per week with all bills included per person to students willing to share twin rooms in two bed apartments. However, in an apparent re-think, the student solution was quickly discarded for a mixture between an ‘apart-hotel’ and long-term corporate letting strategy. According to sources within a number of different letting agencies, this is due to complaints from the management company responsible for the entire Gasworks development regarding the conversion of the Alliance to student residences. Anecdotal evidence would however suggest that the student market is being actively pursued, albeit not officially. For example, the current ad on for two bed apartments (€1350 per month) in the Alliance allows the option of converting double rooms to twin rooms. A strategy not dissimilar to the original Chubb promotion. However, through the Alliance website, the apartments are marketed to the corporate letting market as follows: “Each apartment boasts its very own unique view of Dublin City, some of the most impressive being of The Dublin Mountains and the glistening of the sea in the distance. Simply breathtaking!!” Perhaps corporate clients might not welcome their status alongside students as the flavour-of-the-month quick fix to the property market meltdown. With prices starting at €425 per week, and Google’s European headquarters just around the corner, it might also be that the short-term rental market is a more lucrative market than student accommodation (whoever the future owner of the Alliance may be!).

The example of student accommodation raises some pertinent questions regarding the consistency of contemporary planning practice and its relationship to development. Are students being used as a quick-fix but temporary solution as opposed to pursuing a housing strategy with actual benefits for both students and neighbouring residents, not to mention those stuck on housing lists? And what will be the long-term socio-cultural implications of this unplanned spatial trend? How it will all end we don’t know, but for now the news from the busted properties frontline is clear: If all else fails call in the students…

Michael Punch and Philip Lawton