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A student’s experience of renting outside Ireland: My landlord in the Netherlands said ‘I could stay forever’

While renting in Dublin city centre, housing rights researcher Emma Nic Shuibhne was confronted daily with Ireland’s housing crisis

Born and raised in Baile Átha Luain (Athlone) in the heart of the Midlands, I moved to Dublin in 2015 to start my degree in Law and Philosophy.

In the spring of 2018, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study in Uppsala, Sweden, for a few months. I completely fell in love with the place.

It wasn’t just the beautiful town that enchanted me, but also the exhilarating feeling of stepping outside my comfort zone.

Once I graduated from UCD, I toyed with the decision to go abroad to do a master’s. After researching a bit, I stumbled upon a course in Durham, in England. Enticed by the pictures of the hilly city, I started my course in 2019, and studied there until the lockdown in March 2020.

I completed the course and my thesis in Ireland during the lockdown. My master’s focused on International Human Rights Law, which looks at laws created by the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

We got to choose a research project at the end of the course, and I found myself drawn to a topic that I had touched upon in UCD – housing rights. In particular, I was interested in researching how the international right to housing could be used to protect the rights of members of the Travelling community, who frequently experience evictions or inadequate accommodation conditions.

After finishing my master’s, I was fortunate to get a job in the not-for-profit housing sector in Dublin. At the time I was renting in Dublin city centre, and I found myself confronted daily with the realities of Ireland’s housing crisis. Over half my wages went on rent every month, and I was finding it increasingly difficult to manage financially.

Living in Dublin city centre, you witness the impact of successive governments’ failures in the housing sector, but you also see the amazing work of non-governmental organisations and activists

Living in Dublin city centre, you witness the impact of successive governments’ failures in the housing sector, but you also see the amazing work of non-governmental organisations and activists who work to help those who are forced to live on the streets. I found myself concerned that there seemed to be no “impact” of the right to housing that I had studied in university within the context of the Irish housing sector. But I really believed in the potential of this right and I knew I wanted to further investigate how it could be used in reality.

I searched for PhD opportunities to study the international right to housing and how it could be implemented. Lucky for me, I found a group in the Netherlands who wanted to do exactly that!

I started my PhD with the Evict project in the University of Groningen in 2022. My project focuses on the impact of the right to housing in Ireland, the UK and Spain. I look at how the international right to housing actually prevents people from losing their homes through evictions or mortgage repossessions.

I am really interested not only in how the legislature, governments or courts refer to the right to housing, but also in how activists and everyday citizens engage with or use the right.

While I am about halfway through the PhD now, the research has pulled up more interesting questions than I have had time to answer. However, I am more convinced that we need a constitutional right to housing in Ireland. The Dutch have a constitutional right to housing which ensures authorities must provide sufficient living accommodation.

While in the Netherlands there are issues with the rising cost of rent (particularly in the cities), and landlords attempting to game the system, the situation is in stark contrast to Dublin.

The Netherlands have rent checks where you can check if whether your landlord is charging you fair rent, based on several factors

When I moved to my first apartment in the Netherlands, my landlord told me I could stay there forever if I wished. This was completely different to my experiences in Dublin, where I was lucky to get a lease to cover an entire year.

The Netherlands also have rent checks where you can check whether your landlord is charging you fair rent, based on several factors. If a tenant finds their landlord is charging too much rent, they can apply to a rental tribunal to make a decision to (hopefully) to lower the rent.

In reality, a lot of people will avoid this in order to maintain a good relationship with the landlord, but the fact it exists is interesting. Overall, there is a feeling of a less unequal balance in the rental sector than you feel exists in Ireland.

Having spent years thinking about the potential of the right to housing, I am eager to see the wording for the Irish housing referendum that will be set out by the Housing Commission. For me, a strong right to housing represents more than a legal safeguard – it shows a commitment to create a fairer society.

  • Emma Nic Shuibhne is from Athlone and now lives in the Netherlands where she is studying for a PhD in the University of Groningen since 2022.
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