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Progressing the right to housing in Ireland

Posted on April 25, 2021: by John-Mark McCafferty

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John-Mark McCafferty, Threshold CEO

The below text is adapted from a speech delivered by CEO of Threshold, John-Mark McCafferty at Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute’s annual public housing conference on 23 April 2021

 

As a member of the Home for Good coalition, Threshold believes that a constitutional right to housing is required to improve access to good quality, affordable housing for all.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us all just how vital a home is – the safety, security and comfort of home have been key to weathering this pandemic. The home remains the front line in the battle against Covid and, with most of us having been confined to our homes for long periods and many of us working from home, profound questions about the meaning of home have been brought into focus.

The pandemic has also revealed the inequities of our current housing system. Issues of overcrowding, substandard housing and high rents have always been present, but have now been magnified.

While it is hard to see any positives in the current public health emergency, it does provide the opportunity to rebuild our society in a fairer and more equitable way. The lesson from the pandemic for housing is that a ‘return to normal’ is not good enough – pre-pandemic ‘normal’ in the context of housing was crisis. We now have a space in which to rethink our housing system, which I hope we embrace.

Fundamental to rebuilding better than we had, is the role of the State and the legislature. The public health emergency saw many pieces of emergency legislation introduced to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on renters. Threshold broadly welcomed these measures and, while we may have taken issue with some aspects, it was impressive to see the government respond with considered speed.

Simple truth

The issues that we in the housing and homelessness sector deal with are complex and often avoid simple solutions, but this, I think, can sometimes blind us to simple truths. The simple truth that I have learned from the pandemic is that, if the Constitution is an obstacle to solving the housing and homelessness crisis, the Constitution must change.

The Constitution protects the right to private property, but there is no countervailing right to housing. Property rights in the Constitution have, therefore, prevented the development of possible solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis for many years. The recent ban on evictions, for example, was a straightforward and incredibly effective homelessness prevention measure: we are told that it was only possible because the pandemic allowed for a wider definition of the ‘common good’ and that, during normal times, the right to private property would triumph.

While there is no single solution to Ireland’s housing and homelessness crisis, a standalone, constitutional right to housing would go some way to providing the legislature level footing form which to approach such matters.

The Programme for Government commits to a referendum on housing and we understand that this will be a referendum specifically on the right to housing. Now that the commitment to a referendum has been secured, the next step is to ensure that the wording of the referendum proposal will ensure the best possible outcomes for all people looking to secure a home.

What would the right to housing mean for private renters?

As it stands, a renter in Ireland can pay their rent, take care of their home and never breach one aspect of their tenancy agreement or lease, but can still be lawfully evicted by their landlord. A right to housing would mean that a private renter’s home has to be looked at, first and foremost, as a home, not just a financial asset.

Evicted tenants not only have to face into the daunting task of finding a new home in a very tight market – with very few homes available and most at high price points – they also have to leave their home. They may have lived in that home for one year or 10 years, but it was their home and now it is gone and they must find another. That is where the precarity of renting is really felt. If they don’t find another home, the reality is that they enter homelessness.

If they do find another rental home, it may be in a different location or even a different county. This means uprooting children from schools, taking them away from friends; it can mean a longer commute, or having to find a new GP or essential services. This precarity can impact one’s life chances and outcomes.

A right to housing in the Constitution would provide an opportunity to increase the security of tenure for private renters. It would mean they could secure a long-term home to settle down in in the private rented sector, the same way people do when they buy a home or are allocated social housing. This is just one of the positive outcomes that could be realised with a right to housing in the Constitution.