C: Gript

Four questions voters must ask about a “right to housing”

Four days ago, the Irish Government announced that it intends to proceed, during the term of this Dáil, with a referendum on housing:

The Government will receive recommendations on the wording for a referendum on a right to housing this month, clearing the way for a vote in the Coalition’s lifetime, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has said.

The Housing Commission has been tasked with examining the wording for any referendum on creating a constitutional right to housing and Mr O’Brien expected it would deliver its work “early in the new year”.

There are at least four questions that any sensible voter should be asking about this proposal. Let’s run through them, quickly:

  • A right to housing…. For who?

Put simply: There is either a right to housing, or there is not. If there is a right to housing, and an obligation on the Government to vindicate that right, then it is a universal right. Every person, upon turning 18, has the same rights. By “right to housing”, do we mean that the Government has the obligation to hand a set of keys to some dwelling to every citizen upon their 18th birthday? Because that will get expensive, very quickly.

Of course not, John, you might say. But of course, you can’t swear to that: This is the thing about rights. Courts, ultimately, decide how far, or how little, they range. If the constitution says that the state has the obligation to provide housing to every citizen – even with some caveat like “in so far as is practicable” inserted – then it will be up to courts, and courts alone, to decide what that means. Voters will no longer have any meaningful say in the matter. You’ll be placing a huge area of policy in the control of judges. Do you really trust Irish judges with public policy?

  • Irish citizens, or the world?

Fun fact: You have the exact same rights in Ireland as any other EU citizen. Except when it comes to voting, the Government is not permitted to discriminate in your favour ahead of a citizen from, say, Spain or Italy.

It would, you might think, be sensible to clarify, ahead of any referendum guaranteeing a right to housing, exactly how far that right extends and to whom it extends. Does it apply to EU citizens, for example – and, if so, won’t that create incentives for EU citizens in countries lacking such a right to move to Ireland to vindicate it? Does it apply to non-EU citizens?

Would the present Government, for example, really prioritise Irish nationals over migrants and asylum seekers, when it comes to human rights? And again, isn’t there a real risk of creating another massive “pull factor” for immigration?

  • How does it conflict with a right to property?

Question: Does a person’s right to housing over-ride their neighbour’s right to live in peace, or their landlord’s right to receive rent?

We talk a lot about rights in Ireland, much less so about responsibilities and duties. It is therefore a fair question to ask about how a right to housing might be used by bad actors within the housing system to create legal and social trouble for their neighbours, their landlords, and their own families. Can a landlord, for example, evict a person from a property if so doing would make that person homeless? Indeed, how can any right to private property co-exist in a society where there is a right to access housing? The referendum we are asked to vote on might not directly contradict the right to private property that exists in the constitution, but it might well conflict with that right.

And where rights conflict, the courts, not the voters, will be the ones to decide which rights matter more. This is something that should legitimately worry voters.

  • What power does Government currently lack that, it needs?

When referendums are proposed as a tool to solve problems, it is usually because there is some legal impediment to the Government enacting a policy: The constitution, for example, barred both same sex marriage and abortion, and therefore needed to be amended.

So, what is the barrier to the Government providing housing today, which only a referendum can solve?

The answer, so far as this writer can divine, is nothing. If it so wished, the Government is within its rights to build or purchase as much property and housing as it wishes, and to assign that housing to whosoever it wishes. There is no need for a referendum, if all the Government wants to do is give a house to anyone who wants one. The obstacles there are economic, not legal: It would take time and money to buy and build those homes.

But those economic obstacles will remain, even after a referendum. It is for those proposing such a change to make clear what difference – in practical terms – their policy would make.

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