Irish Examiner – Room swap a novel solution to ease rental crisis

AS higher education authorities warn of a 20,000 undersupply of housing for students for this academic year, and with reports of students forced to sleep on couches and share 10-bed rooms in hostels, Irish startup Switching Rooms is offering an alternative solution to the student housing crisis.

Aisling Byrne’s own struggles with finding suitable accommodation led her to set up Switching Rooms in 2016.

Living in Galway and working in the film and television industry for more than two decades, Ms Byrne would take on short-term rental contracts in Dublin when a job on set came up.

The costume designer, who has worked on television series such as Love/Hate and Raw and film sets including Maze, was finding it increasingly difficult to secure affordable accommodation.

“The prices went from €1,000 to €2,000 a month, which was doable until all our go-to people had nothing left,” she explains.

She started staying in hotels, but found she had to move out “when there was something on in the Aviva or a wedding”.

Eventually, she resorted to leaving her house at 4am to drive to Dublin.

Ms Byrne knew the accommodation shortage wasn’t limited to Dublin.

“Driving up and down those roads, I thought there has got to be another homeowner in Dublin in the same situation, who is working in Galway from Monday to Friday,” she says.

She found no solution online. Ms Byrne thought that if she, as a working professional, struggled to find somewhere affordable to live, “how can parents do it, especially if they have two or three kids in college?”.

Comparing Switching Rooms to “Airbnb with no rent,” Ms Byrne says, the platform is “for anyone who has a spare room and who needs a room somewhere else”.

Parents can host a Switching Rooms member in return for a room for their college-going son or daughter and cut out the cost of rent altogether.

Other expenses such as food, Wifi, or laundry can be factored into the agreement as well.

Ms Byrne, who has been in touch with accommodation offices in colleges across Ireland, including those who participate in the EU student exchange programme, Erasmus, says she initially thought there could be an issue where students were going from their own home to living with other parents’ rules.

However, a very positive response from DCU’s student union dispelled that concern.

One comment from a student was: “My parents have five of us at home, and they’re paying for three of us to go to college and if we could find a way not to have to pay out rent, that would be amazing.”

Ms Byrne says this generation is used to the sharing economy.

While she has “come around” to Airbnb, and the benefits are “amazing, the Wifi is there, the washer and dryer are there”, the younger generation takes it for granted.

Having launched earlier this year, there are 200 users signed up to the site, and Switching Rooms has already had some swaps.

She says the feedback from parents has been great, with parents calling to thank her for her “very novel idea”.

Despite plans in the pipeline for construction of purpose-built student accommodation, it’s too little too late for students in college this year, Ms Byrne says.

Her solution doesn’t compete with new build projects, she says, “because what I’m offering is a solution to take the rent out of the whole equation”.

Currently, sign-up to the platform is free, with a fee to be introduced later on when the brand is more established.

Having just been approved for an Enterprise Innovation Grant, Ms Byrne has also been accepted onto Acorns, a programme for rural-based early stage female entrepreneurs.

Ms Byrne wants Switching Rooms to become a household name.

With a launch planned in Spain as a starting point for the continent, she has plans for the brand to go global.

“I want it to become a site where a student in Argentina who wants to go to the South of France can go on and search, that it can become a worldwide swap for students,” she says.

However, while she sees Switching Rooms to be an option for students, she believes it can also help to ease the wider housing crisis.

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