The coronavirus pandemic gives un an opportunity to reimagine the Constitution and to place the right to a safe and secure home at the centre of it, writes
Over the past few weeks, we have seen the publication of a coalition framework document and exchanges of letters between possible coalition partners as the parties continue to negotiate a potential programme for government. This negotiation is taking place in a very changed world, where the Covid-19 pandemic has turned life in Ireland upside down. As we reopen our economy and society once again the priorities agreed now may frame a new Ireland, an Ireland that draws important learning from the crisis.
One piece of learning has been the centrality of our home to our wellbeing. For many of us it is striking that the public health advice has been to “stay at home” in circumstances where the most vulnerable in our society lack the safety of a home.
In Ireland we have developed an institutional archipelago of congregated facilities to address social care needs, including care homes for the elderly and people living with disabilities, direct provision centres, homeless shelters, family hubs, and long-term congregated supported housing for those experiencing homelessness.
In such settings, experience now shows, viruses can and do thrive, passing more easily from one person to the next. We also have to think of those who have been forced by the housing crisis to live in overcrowded situations with multiple generations in a single home, sometimes in a single room.
The chronic instability associated with housing insecurity and institutional living puts already vulnerable people at further, acute risk and makes managing a public health emergency much more difficult. Organisations and state services, which have been leading this essential work, know first-hand the enormous efforts being undertaken to keep these vulnerable populations as safe as possible. They also know how much easier that work is when the person has access to a safe secure home appropriate to their needs.
It is essentially about the common good of the community recognising that everybody needs safe, affordable housing and this must be at the heart of our recovery.
Building on what we have learned over previous decades and in the face of this pandemic, social care in Ireland must be retooled so that support is provided in homes and not in institutions, wherever possible. This is for the good of all living and working in institutions and most of all, it is for the common good of the entire community.
The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition framework document speaks of “a new social contract”. If such a new relationship between the citizen and the State is to succeed, it must be built on the solid foundation of a constitutional recognition of the fundamental importance of home to every one of us.
Such a right to housing in the Constitution has never been more urgent. The Irish nation has experienced a decade of a dysfunctional housing market, creating a crisis which has affected all of us and impacted most heavily on the vulnerable.
The General Election 2020 result shows that the Irish people are united in their desire for the housing crisis to be tackled urgently, proactively and effectively. The Covid-19 health emergency has further reinforced the importance of a safe, secure home as essential in avoiding the clear risks associated with life in congregate residential settings.
We also need to focus on the need for a safe, secure home for children, families and individuals.
A right to housing in our Constitution will not solve our housing crisis or answer all the complex questions about planning, financing and building new homes, but it will ensure that all future governments, as well as our policymakers and public services, will be bound to prioritise the constitutional right of children, families, and individuals to a safe, secure home. It will ensure that all our laws and policies are founded on and reflect the need to provide adequate housing. It will remove the constitutional blocks experienced by the previous two governments by allowing the protection of property rights to be properly balanced against a clear right to housing. And where no other remedy is available, it will provide a basis for asserting a justiciable right before the Courts.
We need to analyse the impact of Covid-19. While the moratorium on evictions has kept tenants in their homes for now, we know that sudden mass unemployment on an unprecedented scale due to Covid-19 will threaten those who have already faced historically high rents in a highly stretched rental market. The unavoidable delays to new construction caused by Covid-19 are likely to result in housing output falling significantly this year. An extraordinary national effort will be required to tackle these crises and a new government, leading this effort, will need every possible tool to legislate effectively for the common good.
A home is the foundation for our lives. Without a home, our health, family life, education, and employment prospects all suffer. A right to housing is the natural starting point from which all other rights flow. It is time this is reflected fully in our Constitution.
Wayne Stanley is Chairperson of the Home for Good Campaign, which describes itself as a broad coalition of organisations and individuals who believe that constitutional change is an essential underpinning for any successful programme to tackle our housing and homelessness crisis.