Credit: D Storan

Why the proposed “right to housing” is a big mistake

Although it might feel like the war in Russia has suspended all domestic news, alas, that is not the case. One might legitimately wonder if even a global nuclear war would stop Irish policymakers from promoting bad ideas that sound good to voters who don’t have the time to really think them through. Probably not, is the answer:

CABINET IS SET to discuss moves towards a potential referendum on the right to housing.

The government’s Housing for All plan contained a commitment to establish a Housing Commission that would bring forward proposals for a referendum. 

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien will today visit the Housing Commission and hold talks with chairperson John O’Connor.

The commission is set to establish a referendum subcommittee to consider the complex Constitutional issues and the potential wording of such a referendum.

A referendum on the right to housing has been mooted for some time with politicians from government parties and the opposition among those who have pushed for it.

Polls, naturally enough, show majority support for a right to housing. And, of course, such a referendum is politically attractive, in the short term: What better way to demonstrate how much you care about the housing crisis than to devote six weeks or so of public attention to how much you support, as a politician, a right to have a home?

This being Ireland, with our national obsession with groupthink, the whole thing will be an orgy of self-righteousness, as usual: Opponents of any such referendum will be shouted down relentlessly, on the basis that only the truly villainous could believe that people do not have a right to a house. And of course, the broader policy implications will only be barely touched upon, if they’re discussed at all. We’re about to emote ourselves, once again, into misery.

Because a right to housing is, after all, a right to housing. The thing about rights is that they can be enforced, by the courts, against the Government. You have a right to liberty: If the Government is holding you captive without due cause, you can take a habeus corpus case to the High Court demanding your release. If the Government is breaching your right to practice religion then, as Declan Ganley did, you can challenge them in court.

The same will be true, of course, of a right to housing. And when you insert such a right in the constitution, you are effectively hoping against hope that Judges will interpret it sensibly.

After all, what does a right to housing mean? Does it mean the Government must provide you with a house if you cannot afford to buy one? Or does it mean that the Government must provide you with a house, full stop? What other rights do we have that are dependent on our financial capacity? Does the government only enforce the right to free speech on the poor, and leave the rich to buy their own loudspeakers?

And what will the level be, below which a constitutional right to housing exists? In other words, what kind of home do you have a right to? Does a bedsit count? Is a family in a one bedroom apartment having their right breached? Do they deserve a three bed, minimum?

Housing, after all, is not only about a roof. Sheds have roofs, as do most barns. The right to housing also implies a right to a certain standard of housing. So how does that work, then, if somebody buys a fixer-upper for next to nothing? Do they have a right to Government assistance to make their housing livable?

These questions might seem far fetched – but it is not hard to imagine legal cases being taken on almost all of them. Once a right exists, there will be obvious questions about what that right means in practice.

What’s more: Who does the right to housing apply to? Does it apply to Irish citizens? Because, you can be absolutely sure that our friends in the NGOs and the left political parties intend it to apply to all residents of Ireland, not simply citizens.

And one more thing: How does the right to housing interact with the right to property? If somebody has two houses, and another person has none, does the Government, given its obligations, have the right to CPO a second property?

None of this is necessary. It opens an enormous can of legal worms which will almost certainly inflict misery and unpopularity on generations of politicians to come. They could just build more homes, and facilitate the building of more homes, and people would forget about this idea fairly quickly.

But of course, this is a quick way to show how much our politicians care. So, they’ll probably do it, and damn the consequences. It is unparalleled stupidity.

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