As the housing crisis rages, it seems likely voters will soon get their say on proposals to enshrine the right to a home in the Constitution – but critics say we should be careful what we wish for.
Why does it look like Irish voters will soon be asked to make a big public statement about the housing crisis?
Because the Government thinks putting a right to a home into our Constitution would be a powerful symbol of its determination to solve the problem.
Last Tuesday, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien presented the Cabinet with his plan to set up a new commission of experts that will devise long-term policy for this sector. His most eye-catching proposal is a referendum to amend the Constitution and make every Irish citizen legally entitled to have a roof over their heads.
Already, however, the idea has caused division – with some campaigners thinking it could be a game changer, others dismissing it as a gimmick that will make no practical difference.
Doesn’t the Constitution cover property rights already?
Yes, but it’s quite one-sided. Article 43 states that people have a “natural right” to own “external goods” and the State cannot pass a law to abolish this. It also says that these provisions must be guided “by the principles of social justice”.
According to some housing campaigners, governments constantly use Article 43 as an excuse not to take radical measures such as freezing rents. A study by the Oireachtas Library and Research unit has shown that since 2009, at least 13 bills were dismissed on the grounds that they would be unconstitutional.
So putting in a right to housing would mainly be about providing some balance?
Yes. Supporters fully admit that changing our Constitution would not mean everybody getting a free house in the morning. They do, however, claim it would oblige the State to come up with policies that treat property as homes – not private investments.
“If we don’t have a right to housing as our overriding goal and vision, we will just lurch from crisis to crisis,” says Dr Rory Hearne, an assistant professor at Maynooth University and one of the idea’s biggest fans.
“I think that absolutely, getting this referendum would put a major, major impetus and pressure on our State at all levels to work and solve permanently the housing crisis.”
What about the arguments against?
These can be summed up in the old warning: be careful what you wish for. Critics say that a universal right to housing is an unrealistic promise and the Constitution is no place for such commitments anyway.
They point to the Eighth Amendment, passed in 1983, which was supposed to prevent abortion in Ireland forever, but couldn’t cope with exceptional tragedies such as the X Case involving a raped 14-year-old girl.
Before the Green Party entered Government Buildings last year, it got a briefing on this issue from the Department of Housing. The civil servants there were clearly not enthusiastic, saying a right to housing could make the State wide open to court challenges.
“It may lead to raised expectations,” the document argued, “and/or leave the State mired in legal wrangling for years to come, with money that ought to be spent on housing ultimately wasted on legal costs.”
But there seems to be political agreement that this has to happen?
Yes. Until recently, only the left-wing parties were pushing for a constitutional right to housing and Fine Gael junior minister Damien English dismissed it as an unnecessary distraction in 2018.
However, a referendum was promised in last year’s Programme for Government and motions or bills on the issue have been put forward by Fianna Fáil senators, as well as Sinn Féin and Solidarity-People Before Profit.
Even President Michael D Higgins has raised the question, in his usual roundabout way. “I welcome previous discussions… on the possible incorporation of economic and social rights in our Constitution,” he said in a 2018 speech on ‘The Idea of Home’ at the Galway International Arts Festival.
“This is a debate that we urgently need to continue… can and should we integrate the idea of the right to a home into our law and policy-making in a serious way?”
Ultimately it’ll be up to the voters, so what do they think?
On the early evidence, it would be amazing if this referendum wasn’t passed. At the Constitutional Convention in 2014, 84pc recommended adding a right to housing (along with healthcare, social security and supports for the disabled).
A survey by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) last December was less conclusive, but still found 64pc in favour.
“Housing is a right, not a commodity,” said the IHREC’s chief commissioner Sinead Gibney. “It’s where our children grow, where our families gather and where generations should feel safe and secure.”
How many other countries have done something similar?
A total of 81 nations have some sort of right to accommodation in their constitutions, although within the EU it’s only seven out of 27. One European capital, however, has recently shown how referendums can be used as an attempt to dramatically change housing polices.
Last September in Berlin (where rents have gone up by 45pc since 2016 and only 14pc of people own their own homes), 59pc of voters backed a proposal that would force any investment company with more than 3,000 properties to sell them to the state for below market value.
In practice, that would mean the city taking control of around 240,000 apartments – but it’s far from clear this will actually happen since the referendum is not legally binding.
While Dr Rory Hearne has said the Berlin result should be “a flashing red warning sign” for Ireland, the Irish Property Owners’ Association chairman Stephen Faughnan thinks it will just “result in less availability of accommodation and further exacerbate the problem”.
Finally, just how bad is Ireland’s property crisis?
There have been some hopeful signs recently, such as this week’s resolution of an eight-year dispute at Oscar Traynor Road in Coolock that will create 853 State-supported new homes (although Sinn Féin claims the less well-off “will be squeezed out”).
The big picture, however, still makes for grim reading. Property prices have risen by 12pc over the last year, almost back to Celtic Tiger levels, the number of rental properties available is at an all-time low (just 820 in all of Dublin) and homeless figures recently went up for the third month in a row to 8,212.
So whether or not a constitutional right to housing is a good idea, everyone can agree on one thing – fine words will mean absolutely nothing if they’re not backed up by actual bricks and mortar.