Why do we need a Constitutional right to housing? In a recent opinion in this paper (17th August 2022), Michael McDowell rightly highlighted that there is nothing in our Constitution which prevents our Government from taking steps to tackle the under supply of housing in this country. And yet, the housing crisis worsens, with homelessness on the rise, rents continually increasing and housing supply at an all-time low. Why is this?
Because, without a right to housing in our Constitution, the Government is not obliged to ensure that we all have access to affordable, secure and adequate housing.
Without it, Government is not obliged to use the powers they have to address the housing crisis. Without it, the Government can use the Constitution to avoid implementing progressive housing policy. This has been clearly evidenced in the seventeen Oireachtas Bills of remedial legislation, which failed to progress before Dáil Éireann, as described in the 2019 Oireachtas Library and Research Report on property rights and housing legislation (https://www.homeforgood.ie/assets/files/pdf/enquiry_2019_715_-_property_rights_and_housing_legislation.pdf).
Without a right to housing, the Government may simply opt to leave the provision of housing to the open market, which is profit-driven, with no interest in ensuring that we all have a home to live in, with dignity.
A Constitutional right to housing would place an obligation on successive governments – no matter their political leaning – to ensure that we all have access to secure, affordable and adequate housing. It would result in house-building and provision becoming as integral a part of the State’s work as the provision of, for example, primary schools, provided for in the Constitution. It would put the onus on Government for ensuring that this fundamental human need is met.
As for the interplay of a right to housing with other rights, specifically the right to private property, no one right will supersede another. It is a matter for Government to balance each constitutional right when tension between them arise. It will be for the Courts to adjudicate to ensure that such balance is achieved. This is already an integral part of our existing constitutional order; no new, radical system is required to negotiate this interplay of rights.
A referendum on housing is an opportunity for the public to mandate Government to reset Irish housing policy so as to align it with 21st century realities.
Threshold Policy Officer
Home for Good