Even during the summer months, with the Oireachtas in recess, Ireland’s housing crisis is something that continues to generate news headlines on a daily basis. Articles about rising property costs, mortgage rates, unaffordable rents and even the ostensible travails of the private landlord have proliferated of late. Due to the longevity and severity of the crisis, discourse about the increasing difficulty of affording to buy or rent (or lease out) a home is now commonplace.
In addition, there is now a rising level of interest in a proposed referendum to amend the Irish Constitution so that a citizen’s entitlement to a home becomes a legal right. A referendum on housing is part of the current programme for government and is being explored by the Housing Commission which was established earlier this year.
In a recent Irish Times article barrister and politician Michael McDowell says that “The gross untruth implicit in such a referendum is that there is something in the Constitution that is holding back the Government’s capacity to provide housing in greater quantity and at affordable prices.” As well as renouncing the utility of a referendum, he points out that we don’t need more legislation, we need more houses to be built.
McDowell is correct about there being nothing in the Constitution which is blocking Government action to solve this issue. In fact, during the State’s early response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the implementation of rent freezes – a step long deemed impossible based on constitutional protection for private property rights – was found to be “constitutionally sound.” But somehow rent freezes in response to the housing crisis have remained unconstitutional, with the Taoiseach ruling it out emphatically.
Of course the need for more housing, especially more affordable housing, is the primary concern. But we in the JCFJ believe that there is value in holding a referendum on the issue. Of course, we can’t know fully how effective a tool a successful outcome of any referendum on housing would be, without first seeing the proposed wording. Without an enforceable ‘right of action’ against those charged with assisting households when they fail in their responsibilities, the right to housing will be toothless in practice. But a carefully worded proposal which contains within it the legally enforceable right to a home could allow individuals to pursue this right through the judicial system, which would require the government to be accountable to those who have borne the real brunt of this crisis – homeless people.
The amount of people homeless in Ireland has returned to pre-pandemic levels. There are – once again – more than 10,000 individuals and families currently [according to the latest available figures] in emergency accommodation – hostels, family hubs, B&Bs – including more than 3,000 children. These people are existing from day-to-day, in what is supposed to be short term shelter, and some have remained there for years. As appalling as these figures are, they don’t even account for the thousands more who are effectively homeless, e.g. people who are staying with friends or unable to move out of a family home, the men and women in our institutions, and everyone who is in an otherwise precarious ‘temporary’ situation because of the crisis.
Do we believe, as a society, that these people have the right to a home? The word home is crucial here, because in the abstraction of discussion of ‘the housing crisis’ it can be forgotten that it is the fundamental human need for a home that is at the heart of this. Our homes are fundamental to our sense of security and belonging; they are the basis for our whole lives. The conditioned habit of thinking about housing in financial terms alone places a psychological distance between most of us, and the ones who literally do not have a place to call their home.
A referendum on the right to housing would reflect what our values as a society are, at this point in time. Its success may threaten not only the government but also the property owners, private and institutional. A successful outcome would send a clear message to the establishment and to the world that in Ireland, we value people more than ‘assets’. Conversely, our failure to pass an amendment on the right of everyone to a home would be a damning indictment of us, far removed from our self-image as a compassionate and caring society. The resulting polarisation would surely be a disaster we would struggle to move forward from.