No room at the inn for a Constitutional Amendment



At first encounter the idea that a right to housing should be included in the Constitution doesn’t make sense. Surely, it’s absolute nonsense to make a promise to house citizens when there are 60,000 families on the waiting list for housing or double that if the number of families in receipt of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAPs) – where local authorities contribute rent to private landlords, costing €750m. a year – are included.

The State built 30,000 houses last year – a 45% increase over the previous year– but are barely able to to keep up with demand where the population is swelling and the price of privately developed new homes makes them unaffordable for Generation Rent. Giving a guarantee of homes, where the housing crisis, seen as the No. 1 issue by voters, can’t be resolved, sounds a bit like trying to fry chips without oil.

The current cure all “sure the State has loadsa cash“ isn’t the answer. Throwing money at the housing famine isn’t enough. The problem is far more complex.

The housing rights question has arisen due to the interim recommendations of the 2021 Commission on Housing. However the commission are said to have had a split about the type of Amendment required and it is far from clear how such a right might work in practice.

The Irish Constitution is now a bit like a patchwork, as since it was first drawn up there have been 38 Amendments, both to bring it up to date with changed times or to grant new rights. Many Amendments have been backed by legislation and have had prompt practical effect: there was the Amendment to allow Ireland to become a member of the European Community ( 1972), to lower the voting age in the following year and the same sex marriage referendum in 2015, among them.

Ask yourself if people should be housed and the answer is almost certainly  ‘yes’;  But whether having a right to housing should be inserted in the Constitution is a tricky question. For one thing there are two kinds of rights in the Constitution, prescriptive ‘this is the way things should’ be kind or rights which are not enforceable or the kind with teeth backed by legislation.

A majority of the commission favour the latter approach which opens up all kinds of questions and probably a considerable can of worms.

For one thing, there is the question of what kind of housing should be provided.  The Government could follow Finland’s shining example with their Housing First 2008 policy where people in need of homes are offered social apartments. For another, who would decide on eligibility for the right to a home.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned about the possibility of legal challenges where those who haven’t been housed could take the Government or local authorities to court and then money, which might otherwise be available to housing, gets eaten up in legal fees.  Imagine the 60,000 waiting on the housing list taking a class action against the State or disgruntled millennials, fed up with staying with their parents, demanding damages from the State for their plight.

An alternative point of view is that it needs to be done to speed up a solution to the housing crisis. Aoife Kelly Desmond, Chair of the Home for Good Group argues that the Constitution is unbalanced in favour of private property and that this has failed people in need of housing. ”It perpetuates high levels of dereliction and vacancy across the country and has contributed to a national housing crisis .While a constitutional right to housing wouldn’t solve our housing it has an enormous potential to be a catalyst for change.”

Personally, I doubt it. Amendment lite would be an ineffective virtue signal and window dressing. The alternative version – given the complexity and amount of legislation required – would take a long time. Better surely to act now and sort out the problems which are delaying the delivery of housing where clearly the biggest need is for social and affordable homes.

The planning system needs to be streamlined, land needs to be unlocked, the hands of local authorities untied, more construction workers trained with a restoration of apprenticeship schemes with a recruitment scheme for overseas workers in the short term.

Most of all politicians need the will to act now rather than use the Constitutional Amendment as a can to kick the housing crisis down the road.

We all know that people need and ought to have homes.

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