Why We Need a Right to Housing

Posted on May 29, 2019: by Patricia King

In the aftermath of the recent elections, it was instructive to hear complaints from government TDs on the frequency with which the housing crisis had surfaced on the doorsteps. Many cited it as a factor in the government’s somewhat underwhelming performance.


The surprise is that they were surprised.


Perhaps they missed the fact that on May 18 - just one week before polling - up to 20,000 people marched through Dublin on a housing protest organised by Raise the Roof.


And it wasn’t just the numbers, but the range of organisations and groupings that took part: trade unions, women’s groups, student unions, political parties, Traveller organisations, housing agencies, homeless advocates and community groups.


But what was heard in the aftermath of the elections is symptomatic of a wider disconnect that has come to characterise the official handling of this issue, described by one commentator as a “crisis that is morphing into a catastrophe.”


This sense of disconnect was underlined by recent comments from the Housing Minister on the concept of ‘co-living’. If anything, they revealed a distinct lack of empathy in the upper echelons of government as to the real impact of the crisis on tens of thousands of working people across the country.


An entire generation of younger workers and families face being locked out of the housing market for years to come, given the lack of affordable homes available and the almost total collapse in public housing provision.


In 1975, local authorities built 8,794 homes nationally. Last year they struggled to get past 800. 


Meanwhile, the rental sector is synonymous with insecure tenancies and spiralling rents.


We now have more than 10,378 officially homeless, including 3,794 children. The trauma and damage being inflicted on those children was well documented and highlighted in the recent report from the Ombudsman for Children.


Add to this the tens of thousands of people stuck in cramped, unsuitable accommodation, many relying on the goodwill of extended families to secure a roof over their head.  Unlike most European countries, Ireland makes no attempt to count the ‘hidden homeless’.


Concepts such as ‘co-living’ are not designed with the needs of these young workers and families in mind. Instead, they are tailored to the requirements of investors and property corporations.


In effect housing provision has now been outsourced to the private sector and this experiment has proven an abject failure, through a succession of ministers.


Whereas housing was once viewed as a ‘public good’ it is now a commodity and the speculative plaything of global corporations and private investment funds.


This deeply ideological and very deliberate process has been described by the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Leilani Farha, as the ‘financialisation of housing.’


Housing in Ireland, she pointed out, “has disconnected from its core social purpose of providing people with a place to live…with security and dignity.”


In that context squeezing people into boxes (co-living’) physically smaller than jail cells is entirely logical and highly profitable.


Welcome to the new normal.


We need to turn this process on its head if we are to have any hope of resolving this emergency.

Last October – with the support of Raise the Roof – the Dail debated an agreed, opposition party motion on housing. It set out a number of key measures to tackle the crisis:


  • Declare a housing emergency
  • Invest in a major programme of public housing construction
  • Take action on evictions, rent certainty and security of tenure in the rental sector
  • Create a legal Right to Housing

That motion was passed by a majority of TDs and parties, meaning that the measures it outlined enjoy majority political support.  It must be implemented as a matter of urgency.


Overall, a key priority is to ensure that we re-establish housing as a public good, as opposed to a commodity.


In 2014, the Convention on the Constitution overwhelmingly recommended that we create a new Right to Housing.  More recently, an opinion poll conducted to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights found 82% of the Irish public favoured treating housing as a human right.


Most policy experts and housing/ homeless agencies agree that such a right should form a key part of any overall resolution and that it would help shape future housing policy, in a similar manner to the Right to Education which is enshrined in the constitution.


Raise the Roof has created an online petition calling for a legal Right to Housing, an initiative that has the full support of Congress and affiliated unions.


I would urge you to sign up -  - and to convince your family, friends and work colleagues to do likewise.


By doing so, we can take a major step towards bringing this emergency to an end. 

- Patricia King, General Secretary, Irish Congress of Trade Unions