A referendum on inserting a right to housing into the Constitution would open a conversation about how Ireland treats its housing crisis, a housing activist and university lecturer has said.
Dr Rory Hearne, assistant professor of social policy at Maynooth University, believes that a shift in how the country values its housing issues is needed.
The housing expert said there is a minority perception that housing should be treated as an asset rather than a home, which he says benefits landlords and real estate investors.
The Programme for Government commits to holding a referendum on housing rights, and there are two Bills providing for a referendum on enshrining the right to housing in the Constitution.
A private member’s Bill put forward by Solidarity-People Before Profit seeks to put the Government under Constitutional pressure to provide adequate housing for its citizens.
A similar motion brought forward by Fianna Fail senators also seeks to put a right to housing on a Constitutional footing.
Dr Hearne said that Ireland has been in a housing crisis for some three decades.
The country’s housing crisis has led to a social crisis of homelessness, particularly in Dublin, and the emergence of “Generation Rent”.
Dr Hearne said the crisis goes back to the failure to treat housing as a human right.
“It goes back to housing policies and economic policies in this country that have different approaches to housing, predominantly, I would say, treating it as an investment asset,” Dr Hearne said.
“It’s this idea of people accumulating wealth through their home, be that as a pension or a way for people to make money and this whole idea of the property ladder and not treating as what it is, which is a home, a fundamental need, a basic human need, that everybody has.”
Property rights are protected under Article 43 of the Constitution, however the insertion of housing rights would delimit those.
The property rights are often cited by Government as a barrier to bringing in rent freeze legislation and stronger protection for tenants and homebuyers.
However, some constitutional experts have argued that the property rights afforded by the Constitution could be delimited by the common good.
Dr Hearne said a referendum on housing rights would spark a conversation on how the country treats housing issues.
“I think that having a referendum would enable us to have a conversation as a country, just like in marriage equality, just like in repeal, about how we treat housing,” he added.
“I believe that there is a value shift needed in how we treat housing, similar to the value shift that has happened in terms of social issues like those previous referendums.
“There is still a certain perception, and I think it’s a minority perception, but there is very much this idea of treating housing as an asset rather than a home.
“That benefits in particular, a very small number of landlords, real estate investors, but it doesn’t benefit the majority of people.
“A referendum would really offer that opportunity for us, as a society and a country, to say: we no longer are unclear about how we view housing, we view housing very much as a human right.”
He said he believes that a Constitutional right to housing will help solve Ireland’s long housing crisis.
“If we don’t have a right to housing and we don’t have this as our overriding policy goal and vision, we will just lurch from crisis to crisis,” he added.
“I think that absolutely getting this referendum would put a major, major impetus and pressure on our State at all levels and all obligations, to work and solve permanently the housing crisis.”
Seven countries in the European Union, including Spain and Belgium, have the right to housing protected by their constitutions.
Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said there are two reasons behind inserting a right to housing.
“One is pragmatic, the other is principled,” the Dublin South West TD said.
“The pragmatic argument is that the Government has repeatedly hid behind the Constitution when it comes to taking action on housing.
“When we tried to have proper rent controls the Government said “we can’t do it” because of right to property in the Constitution.
“This is a way of saying: well you say the Constitution is a problem, we don’t agree with that, but we are going to insert a right to housing so we will remove all doubt from it.
“It becomes an actionable thing. For example, a family that has been homeless for a few years could say that the Government is not vindicating their constitutional rights.
“It would certainly put pressure on the Government in terms of their housing policies so people can have access to a home.
“People are affected by the housing crisis in different ways. You have rough sleepers, then you have people who are homeless but are couch-surfing, then people in rented accommodation who are really struggling, and there are young people who want to buy a house but are struggling.
“This would give all those groups of people a route to vindicate their right to housing as it affects everyone.
“At a very basic level it means that everyone has a right to an appropriate home.”
People spend on average up to 40% of their income on rent.
Dublin also has the one of the highest rents in Europe and new figures from Daft.ie show house prices have risen by 13% nationally in the last 12 months.