'Surprised and disappointed' - Housing minister criticises Dublin City Council CEO Owen Keegan over ‘sarcastic’ student accommodation comment

Dublin City Council CEO Owen Keegan

Ciara O'Loughlin

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has added his voice to criticism of Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan over a response he gave to a students’ union which had questioned why the council was allowing purpose-built student accommodation to be used for short-term lets.

The intervention by Darragh O’Brien came after Further Education Minister Simon Harris criticised Mr Keegan for ‘sarcastic’ comments made in a letter to UCD Students’ Union (SU).

Mr Keegan said he was “surprised” that UCD SU hasn’t entered the property market in order to provide lower-cost accommodation for its members if it believes excess profits are being made from student lets.

Last night, Mr O’Brien tweeted: “Very surprised and disappointed at content of this letter and don’t agree with it.

“I issued guidance to all local authorities 2+ weeks ago on this very issue and I expect it to be adhered to.

“I’ll continue to work with Simon Harris to help address very real challenges students face.”

It comes as student unions across the country say it has been the hardest year in recent times for students looking for accommodation, with some getting rooms in hotels and hostels until they get a more permanent room.

In a letter seen by Independent.ie, written to the UCD SU president, Mr Keegan said: “If you genuinely believe that excess profits are being made in the PBSA market I am surprised the students’ union has not entered the market itself and provided lower-cost student accommodation for its members.”

This was in response to a letter in which Mr Power hit out at council officials for not conducting “a rudimentary level of stakeholder engagement with Higher Education Institutes prior to granting permission for conversion to tourist lets”.

A number of student complexes were granted permission from Dublin City Council in 2020 to use its accommodation as co-living apartments or short-term lets, as many were not in use due to many students attending college online during the pandemic.

However, many of these complexes will continue to host co-living and short-term lets until May 2022.

Heyday Student Accommodation at Carman’s Hall in The Liberties, Dublin, has received permission to use its facilities for short-term lets until the end of May 2022, along with Uninest student accommodation – which has been granted permission to convert 571 student apartments into short-term lets.

In his initial letter to Mr Keegan, the UCD SU president said: “May we suggest that if in future a PBSA provider expresses concern at their ability to fill room allocations despite thousands of students being unable to find accommodation in Dublin, that DCC suggests a reduction in rent as opposed to facilitating the further displacement of students from the very limited supply available to them.”

In response, the DCC chief executive said the council has no input on the price of accommodation.

He added: “The grounds for granting temporary permission have been to optimise use, to enhance security for the remainder of the student accommodation, and to deliver an acceptable level of day and night time activity considered important for the creation of a living city.”

In the letters, Mr Keegan also outlined that there were no objections received in relation to the Uninest application.

He also said the council supports the development of PBSA as part of the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland plan.

In a statement to Independent.ie, Mr Power said Mr Keegan’s attitude is “depressing”.

He said: “UCD SU has no confidence in the DCC CEO. While we understand that housing is an emotive issue, allowing these conversions to be facilitated was an appalling lack of judgement on the part of DCC. The dismissive attitude displayed, however, is depressing.

“That said, Mr. Keegan rightly highlights the 2016 Government circular which gave license to local authorities to prioritise the enrichment of accommodation providers over the public good.

“Similarly, the National Student accommodation strategy places too much emphasis on the role of private PBSA providers, and has allowed universities including UCD to develop elitist, discriminatory accommodation strategies.”

Minister Simon Harris said he “fully agrees” with UCD Students’ Union and called Mr Keegan's comments “sarcastic” and unhelpful.

He tweeted: “Fully agree with UCD SU. Student accommodation must be for students. Students raised this with Darragh O’ Brien & myself & Darragh issued a circular to ensure this. Lots of work underway & needed to make improvements. Dismissive & sarcastic comments don’t help.

“I have met UCD SU on student accommodation. The points they make are valid. My Department met with all college management bodies last week to identify solutions & new approaches to student accommodation.”

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