Living with It: Students, Accommodation and COVID-19 in UCC

Current Affairs Editor Alana Daly Mulligan talks with UCC Students about the state of student accommodation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Editor’s Note: Interviews were correlated through a combination of phone-calls and student submissions through a Google Forms system. The responses varied from somewhat normal complaints about residents playing loud music, to the more dire, like unsanitary living spaces, threatening landlords, “menacing” security guards, among other issues. For the safety of our contributors, some testimonials will be anonymous. The views and opinions expressed by individuals in this article are not necessarily the views of Motley Magazine or its affiliates. 

“It’s not your typical first year, or your typical college experience”, first year arts student Katie Halpin-Hill tells Motley. With a later start date than normal, an increase in the number of places allocated to incoming students, and of course, the pandemic, the pressure’s been on students to find a place to call home in Cork. 

Student accommodation has become a booming industry often operating on opposing ends of the spectrum. On one end, you have the luxury complexes. With everything from island cookers, to flat screen tvs, to quirky labels beside your ensuite telling you not to flush your goldfish or ex’s jumper down the toilet (shout-out to the evil capitalist marketing team at Amnis House for giving me a giggle as I took a shit in my friend’s loo on a night out last year when that was a thing one could do). But this couture-university experience comes with a hefty price tag that in UCC-owned accommodation flies just below the €6K mark, but in private accommodation can skyrocket upwards of €10K annually.

On the other end, there’s the potentially nightmarish avenue of renting. You’re confronted with the reality of dodgy landlords with insecure lease agreements and squalid living conditions aspirational of Ireland’s tenement crisis at the turn of the 20th century, inadequate heating and lighting, drainage issues, we’ve all heard these horror stories.

This year has been particularly hard on first year students coming to UCC. Katie Halpin-Hill has already had a brush with the risks of COVID-19: “My flatmate was a close contact and she had to isolate in her room for a couple of days while she waited for a test, and again while waiting for results…We had to give her meals outside her door, and she said for her, it was very lonely and she was scared…We almost began feeling symptoms ourselves because we were such hypochondriacs and the psychological impact on us was just scary.” 

Situations like this have become common for students and was one of the main concerns flagged in our survey. One student has been in their apartment alone without roommates since UCC’s two-week plan was announced on 25th September. “If I have to restrict myself to my apartment, I may very well find myself running out of food quickly as I wouldn’t be able to shop and it would make it very awkward to collect deliveries as there’s contact”. 

But is accommodation worth coughing up upwards of €4K a year, particularly in the age of COVID-19? It seems our respondents are divided. Second year Applied Psychology student Maeve O’Keeffe is one of many students on the fence about this issue: “On one level I think I’d go mad if I was living at home, with poor WiFi, more distractions, and being away from my friends. At the same time, I sometimes feel guilty because I could technically be doing this from home with everything online”. 

Other students are more certain: “Absolutely not, there is no point in paying extra rent just to sit in a tiny room by myself”, says one second year Arts International student. However, with the Students’ Union having secured an agreement with UCC Accommodation to refund all students who choose to go home, there is at least some peace of mind for students living in university-owned accommodation. For students like one anonymous first year World Languages Student, this has been a fortunate turn of events: “Because of the rising cases and the inevitable lockdown impending, I decided to move back home after having spent only three weeks in my student accommodation… there was no reason for me to be paying for housing when I may as well continue my studies from the comfort of my own home. I think the fear of being separated from loved ones at home during a lockdown for an uncertain amount of time is a big factor in why students would want to move home as well.”

Despite this, the fight with privately-owned complexes is just beginning says Beth O’Reilly, the Students’ Union’s Commercial & Fundraising Officer: “We’re hopeful that private accommodation companies will be lenient with their leases at this time, but ultimately we’re campaigning for government legislation that prevents student renters from being forced to stay in accommodation during this period of online learning. If a student feels unsafe or uncomfortable in their environment and wishes to move back home, this shouldn’t be an issue and they absolutely should be given a refund of rent.”

O’Reilly has also been essential in the dissemination of information regarding the Union and University’s joined effort in the My COVID Plan: “My COVID Plan started out because we were meeting with representatives from the HSE and began to question whether the messaging targeted towards students had been effective in outlining what to do ​if​ you become a close-contact or symptomatic,” O’Reilly explains, “Obviously, with a virus as infectious as this one, it’s so important that for the safety of students and the community at large that everyone is equipped with the knowledge on how to safely self isolate and restrict movements.” O’Reilly tells Motley that everyone’s COVID Plan will look a little different but that it’s an essential conversation to be having, despite the challenges particularly facing students who may not know their housemates as well. “We wanted to open the floor to students to share how they are preparing to deal with the virus, and give other students ideas that might work for their situation.” 

Of course, the accommodation situation has largely been escalated by the lackadaisical level of communication from the University; “I think the cost of student accommodation is extortionate and the fact that there was little to no clarification for students on whether it was needed or not this year was incredibly disingenuous,” says final year Arts student Rían Browne-O’Neill. With that being said, students have been quick to point out what the university has done right: “The way they incorporated safety and COVID-19 regulations and how they used that in Canvas this year, to ensure that everyone realised how serious the virus can be was really good”, Halpin-Hill says in our phone conversation. 

Despite this, there’s a conversation to be had about tenant rights for those living in their privately rented accomodation, mental health supports being put in place to help students through this challenging time where isolation continues to divide us, and for those who can’t go home because of challenging home environments, what of them? “Students are scattered; we need to stand together for fair treatment”, says a final year Arts student. With a lockdown on the horizon as the second wave of the virus rolls in, the question is will students come together and demand change not only for these times, but those ahead, or shall we just continue to live with it? 

Tell us about your landlord experiences? 

“I had to break the rental contract as my course changed to being online. My landlord tried to convince me that I needed to keep paying the rent for the full year anyway and that I legally couldn’t leave a rental contract. When I insisted that wasn’t the case, she told me that she would “chase” me, insulted me and threatened to report me to the LTB. She then gave my number to her daughter without my permission. Her daughter is a solicitor and she rang me trying to harass me, insisting again that I couldn’t break a contract. I told her not to call me, only to email me and she refused. I hung up and broke the contract in writing, losing my deposit. I do realise that the loss of the deposit is legal though.”

What’s the security like in your accommodation?

“No guests allowed. I was stopped at the gates one night when I was going to let a friend in to use the loo. They check your name and ID.” –Maeve O’Keeffe, second year Applied Psychology, University Halls. 

“They’re good at enforcing the restrictions.” – Anon, second year Zoology, Deans Hall Crosses Green

“Some are nice, some aren’t. They ask to show my key although one asked my roommate to produce his student ID over the key which seemed ridiculous as every student has one.” – Anon, final year Arts, Victoria Lodge

“I’ve been told by my housemates the watchman came to the apartment when they thought they were having a party (I was at home for the weekend at the time) but other than that I haven’t noticed any sort of rule enforcement, even though I’ve seen and heard large gatherings of students around. We were threatened with a €200 fine for breaking restrictions but I don’t know anyone who has received this fine.” – Fia Daly, first year Early Years & Childhood Studies, Castlewhite

What’s your experience been like so far?

“The place was dirty as if it was left since lockdown dust everywhere and what I thought were my roommates food in the fridge was actually left from someone either over summer or pre-lockdown perishables old utensils and open biscuits etc.” – Anon, final year Arts, Victoria Lodge

“I have found it very isolating being unable to even have a friend over for coffee (I’d feel much safer doing that than going to a coffee shop). Of course I appreciate why the rules are put in place but it’s very much felt something that’s been imposed upon students in a defensive manner rather than a collaborative approach with residents – that’s what irks me most. At the end of the day, this is my home for the year, I’m twenty-three years of age and I guess not being given the due respect that many of us are competent adults able to conduct ourselves responsibly feels like an insult to my own intelligence as a young-adult trying to get by like everyone else is at present!” – Rian Browne O’Neill, final year Arts

“Hygiene was satisfactory on arrival, the apartment seemed clean and staff were very helpful. I was expecting some sort of sanitised safety seal on the door, but it didn’t bother me. The provided hand sanitizer dispenser at the door of my building was empty for the first few days. There are a few minor problems with my apartment but nothing major, and I had the opportunity to address these issues with an inventory form we had to fill out. Overall, I’m satisfied, but annoyed at fellow students who don’t follow the rules – Fia Daly, first year Early Years & Childhood Studies, Castlewhite

“The Staff in reception are lovely. What is concerning though is how the maintenance staff have entered our accomodation multiple times with no prior notice, I came home one morning to find someone in my room about an issue I reported about 10 days prior.” Anon, Masters in Strategic Marketing and Practice, University Halls. 

“Hygiene was poor. Have tried to get a refund as I am immunocompromised and don’t feel safe in the accommodation and Brookfield have denied it.” – first year Med & Health Science, Brookfield. 

Is renting in Cork value for money, especially in the pandemic?

“It depends – for a lot of people, being in Cork and being able to meet up with friends is of huge benefit to their mental health. For others, the exorbitant rent prices are totally unjustified, especially considering that the city’s amenities are either unavailable or severely reduced.” – Anon, final year Computer Science 

“No. I am paying to stay down in Cork in accommodation when all my classes are online. I wanted to stay at home but decided the commute from [where I live] just wasn’t doable. Was only told my lectures were going online the weekend before we were all due to start. Feel misled and cheated. My parents can’t afford this waste of money and the guilt I feel is terrible. – Anon, first year Law

“I’m not sure, I just wanted to move away from home and try to have some sort of college experience.” – Anon

“Not sure. I thought so at the start, but as time goes on more restrictions make it less and less so. We’re a scapegoat for spikes yet, we haven’t even gotten a chance to see what would happen.” – Anon, final year Arts

“For me, I live with my friends and other friends are living in Cork too so it gives me a chance to see them whereas I wouldn’t if I lived at home. For the sake of my mental health alone, that nearly justifies the cost. My accommodation is not the most expensive so that made the decision a bit easier.” – Anon, third year Law & Business

How will the COVID19 affect your living situation?

“I may leave Cork, depending on what the restrictions will allow me to do in the city. If virtually all businesses and services are unavailable, and I’m unable to even meet up with a friend in an open outdoor space, there is no reason to pay rent.” -Anon, final year Computer Science

“Because my housemates and I live in a house with just the four of us, I think we’re kind of lucky in the sense that if one of us gets COVID, we can all just self isolate in the house together without having to worry about infecting other people in the building. I can imagine that would be an issue for people living in Victoria Mills or Castlewhite or any accommodation complexes with lots of people living in them. But because we have no security or anything, nobody can really enforce any of the restrictions. Some of my housemates have had parties and are still bringing people over despite the no guest rule and I feel like there’s not much I can do about it.” –  Molly Kavanagh, MSc Government and Politics 

“I usually travel between Cork and Kerry and worry I will be trapped in one county or another if restrictions become escalated. Currently due to Covid when I am in Cork I don’t interact with anyone for up to 2 weeks at a time, I imagine 6 weeks like that could be detrimental to my mental wellbeing.” – Anon, Masters in Strategic Marketing and Practice

“It has reduced how often I can go home to see my parents in another county, which I also work in so this has put quite a strain and worry on me day to day.” – Anon, second year Arts International 

Will you live in student accomodation if level 5 breaks out?

“I will want to go home if there’s a lockdown.” – Lucy Scully, third year Chemistry

“I’m currently trying to make my mind up on that – for now, I’m thinking yes but not for any more than three weeks. If level 5 lasts for 6 weeks like NPHET recommended then I’ll probably do three weeks here then three weeks at home.” – Anon, third year Law & Business

“I can’t decide if I’m honest, but realistically I think I’d move home, purely because I’d imagine most of my friends would be doing the same.” – Maeve O’Keeffe, second year Applied Psychology 

“I do as it may be isolating, everyone from my family has moved home and is working from home so I simply cannot be productive in my home environment.” – Anon, Masters in Strategic Marketing and Practice

Other issues?

“People don’t see us as anything more than hassle and waves of destruction but they’re all more than happy to take our money and use us when they get desperate be that in hospitals and frontline businesses which kept the country going or other means.” – Anon, final year Arts

“The intimidating emails UCC Student Accommodation have sent out have really made me anxious, threatening to fine us or expel us if we have guests in our homes all year. I understand not doing so when government restrictions require us to stop home visits, but when this is not the case it results in UCC Students having less tenant rights than anyone in Cork, potentially breaching our tenant rights to private enjoyment of our rented property.” – Anon, Masters in Strategic Marketing and Practice