Q&A: Is it time to include Right to Housing in the Constitution?

As the housing crisis escalates, it looks like voters will soon get their word on proposals to ensure the right to a house in the Constitution – but critics say we must be careful what we wish for.

Why does it seem like Irish voters will soon be asked to make a big public statement about the housing crisis?

Because the government thinks that the right to a house in our constitution will 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 establish a new commission of experts that would formulate long-term policy for the sector. His most appealing proposal is a referendum to amend the constitution and give every Irish citizen the right to legally have a roof over their head.

Although, already, the idea has caused division – some campaigners think it could be a game changer, others dismiss it as a gimmick that won’t make any practical difference.

Isn’t property rights already included in the Constitution?

Yes, but it is quite one-sided. Article 43 states that people have a “natural right” to own “external things” and that the state cannot pass any law to abolish it. It also says that these provisions should be guided “by the principles of social justice”.

According to some housing campaigners, governments consistently use Article 43 as an excuse not to take radical measures like freezing rents. A study by the Orchatas Library and Research Unit showed that since 2009, at least 13 bills have been rejected on the grounds that they would be unconstitutional.

So the right to housing will primarily be about providing some balance?

Yes. Supporters fully believe that changing our constitution will not mean that everyone gets an empty house in the morning. However, they claim that this will force the state to come up with policies that treat property as homes – not private investments.

“If we don’t have housing rights as our prime goal and vision, we’ll go from crisis to crisis,” says Dr. Rory Hearn, an assistant professor at Maynooth University and one of the biggest fans of the idea.

“I think absolutely, getting this referendum would be a huge, major impetus and pressure on our state to work at all levels and to permanently solve the housing crisis.”

What about the arguments against?

These can be summarized in an old warning: Be careful what you wish for. Critics say the universal right to housing is an unrealistic promise and that the Constitution has no place for such commitments anyway.

They point to the Eighth Amendment, passed in 1983, which was supposed to permanently ban abortion in Ireland, but could not cope with extraordinary tragedies such as the X case, in which a 14-year-old girl was raped.

Before the Green Party entered government buildings last year, she had received a briefing on the issue from the Department of Housing. Civil servants there were apparently not enthusiastic, saying the right to housing could make the state wide open to court challenges.

This, the document argued, “could raise hopes,” and/or leave the state embroiled in a legal wrangling for years to come, over what should be spent on housing, ultimately wasted on legal costs.

But there seems to be a political consensus that this has to happen?

Yes. Until recently, only the Left was pushing for the constitutional right to housing and Damien English, the junior minister of Fine Gael, dismissed it as an unnecessary distraction in 2018.

However, last year’s program for the government promised a referendum and proposals or bills on the issue have been put forward by Fianna Fail 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 inclusion 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 we seriously integrate the idea of ​​the right to home into our legislation and policy-making?”

Ultimately it will be up to the voters, so what do they think?

On preliminary evidence, it would be surprising if this referendum had not been passed. At the Constitutional Convention in 2014, 84pc recommended linking the right to housing (along with health care, social security and support for the disabled).

A poll conducted by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) last December was less conclusive, but still found 64 percent in favour.

“Housing is a right, not a commodity,” said IHREC chief commissioner Sinead Gibney. “It’s where our children grow up, where our families gather and where generations should feel safe and secure.”

How many other countries have done something similar?

A total of 81 countries have the right of residence in their constitutions, although within the European Union it is only seven of the 27. However, a European capital has recently shown how the referendum can be used as an effort to dramatically change housing policies.

Last September in Berlin (where rents have risen 45 percent since 2016 and only 14 percent own homes), 59 percent of voters supported a proposal that would allow any investment company with more than 3,000 properties. will force the state to sell it down. market value.

In practice, this would mean the city taking control of about 240,000 apartments – but it is unclear if this will actually happen because the referendum is not legally binding.

While Dr Rory Hearn has said that the Berlin result should be “a flashing red warning sign” for Ireland, the president of the Irish Property Owners’ Association, Stephen Fougnan, thinks it will “result in low availability of housing and exacerbate the problem”. “.

Finally, how bad is Ireland’s wealth crisis?

There have been some optimistic signs lately, such as this week’s resolution of an eight-year dispute over Oscar Treynor Road in Coolock that would build 853 state-supported new homes (though Sinn Féin claims the less well “will be squeezed out”). ” )

However, the bigger picture is still up for serious reading. Property prices have increased by 12 percent over the previous year, almost back to Celtic Tiger levels, the number of rental properties available is at an all-time low (all in Dublin just 820) and homelessness figures are at their lowest. Just increased in the third month. One row for 8,212.

So whether or not the constitutional right to housing is a good idea, everyone can agree on one thing – nice words would mean nothing if they weren’t backed by real bricks and mortar.

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