Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Wednesday 11 October 2017

While working as a priest in the Inner City in Dublin, Fr Peter McVerry SJ encountered some homeless children and opened a hostel for them in 1979. He subsequently opened fourteen more hostels, three drug treatment centres and over one hundred apartments.The organisation he started has now been renamed Peter McVerry Trust.

The right to housing is a fundamental human right. The absence of a home means that a person is condemned to live in circumstances that do not accord with the innate dignity of every human being.

Without a place to call home, it is difficult—if not impossible—to live a fulfilled life. Without a place to call home, other fundamental rights are largely inaccessible, such as the right to health, to adequate nutrition, to education, to employment, to respect for family life, to privacy and to freedom from discrimination.

Hence the right to housing underpins many basic human rights; it is therefore one of the most fundamental of all human rights and its denial has implications far beyond what is immediately obvious.

The right to housing is more than a right to shelter. It implies a right to a space that a person or group of people can call their own, a right to security, and a right to privacy. Three of the key characteristics of adequate housing are:

  • Security of tenure;
  • Affordability; and
  • Adequacy (in terms of structures and facilities).

Hostel accommodation, emergency hotel accommodation, or family hubs may provide shelter, but they are not a home.

Governments have the responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to their basic human rights, including, and especially, the right to housing. This right is denied to many in Ireland. The number of people who are using homeless emergency accommodation is at a record 8,000, including 3,000 children. This does not include those sleeping rough, those living in tents or cars, those sofa-surfing, families fleeing domestic violence and living in refuges, or families who fled domestic violence but had no choice but to return home as the refuges were full. It does not include those who became homeless but were unwilling to use emergency homeless accommodation and went instead to live with relatives in now-overcrowded homes. It does not include the 500,000 people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who continue to live with their parents, many (but not all) because they cannot afford their own home. It does not include those living in substandard accommodation, mostly in the private rented sector, who cannot be considered adequately housed, even if they have a roof over their head. It does not include those who cannot sleep at night because they fear the landlord will raise the rent to a level they can no longer afford, or those in serious mortgage arrears who are afraid to open the post, lest it be a demand from their lender to vacate their home. My guess is that there are perhaps 500,000 people in this country who are seriously stressed out by their housing situation—or lack of it.

A constitution is a set of principles by which a country is governed. Underpinning those principles are the values that a society holds and by which it seeks to live. To insert a right to housing into the constitution is to affirm that society considers housing to be of such a priority in the lives of people, and essential if the basic dignity of every individual is to be respected, that it warrants a special place in the set of principles that guide that society’s legislation and policy. To refuse to insert it into the constitution is, in effect, to deny the central importance of adequate housing for both individual wellbeing and for the promotion of the common good.

A constitution also has an educational value. It seeks to affirm what is most important in the way we wish to live together as a people and it seeks, by referendum, to obtain the consent of the people to live in this way, with the principles and values contained within it. The right to education, which is in our Constitution, is now universally-recognised to be an absolute right for every child, which the Government must vindicate, regardless of class, social status, religion, disability, or ethnic origin, although in the past that right was often limited by social class or poverty. Inserting the right to housing in the Constitution would clearly signal that assuring adequate and affordable housing for everyone in the State is a central national moral and political objective.

What does it mean, in practice, to insert the right to housing in the constitution? Would it make any difference at all, or would it just be pious aspiration?

Certainly, inserting the right to housing into the Constitution will not solve the housing crisis overnight. It does not mean that everyone could demand to be immediately housed in an appropriate and affordable home, and could appeal to the courts to vindicate that right. Rather, it imposes a responsibility on government to progressively realise that right, taking into account the resources available to it. In effect, it would require the Government to clearly show that it was making consistent progress towards ensuring that the right to housing is available to everyone who is entitled to live in this country. It would require governments to justify their policies and their budgetary decisions in the light of the fact that the right to housing is now enshrined in the Constitution. In other words, the State would be obliged to identify the extent of the housing problem, establish targets and timetables for addressing the problem and to pursue policies, and make resources available, to meet those targets.

It would also allow for an appeal to the courts, if the Government patently fails in its duty. This provides the additional layer of protection that the courts offer if a government decides to do nothing. For example, courts in Argentina, which has enshrined a right to housing, have ruled that a public refuge for the homeless did not satisfy the right to housing and ordered the council to re-house them.

The public are ahead of the politicians on this issue. The Convention on the Constitution held in 2014 voted to afford greater constitutional protection to Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) rights. Specifically, 84% of Convention members voted to insert a right to housing into the Constitution. While there is also a strong argument for inserting other ESC rights into the Constitution, the overriding importance of housing and the difficulties of getting governments to legislate for ESC rights suggest that there are strong grounds for focusing, for now, on the right to housing.

In remembering the 1916 Proclamation, many schools asked their pupils to draw up a proclamation appropriate for 2016. Most pupils included in their proclamation the requirement that “every child should have a home.”

Governments do not like to be told how to spend our money, or to be constrained in the policies they choose to adopt. They like to maintain control to the largest extent possible. It is very clear that successive governments have consciously avoided taking steps towards giving constitutional recognition to social and economic rights, including the right to housing.

In September 2017, a Private Members’ Bill to insert the Right to Housing in the Constitution was debated by the Dáil. TDs from across the political spectrum stated their support for the concept of the right to housing. However, the Bill was rejected as a result of the votes of several TDs. Specifically, they said:

  • “I believe it needs further consideration.” – Minister Eoghan Murphy.
  • “This may transfer too much power into the hands of the courts rather than the democratically-elected representatives.” – Deputy Barry Cowan
  • “I support … the proposal to have the relevant Oireachtas committee examine this matter” – Deputy Marc MacSharry

Housing is recognised as a fundamental human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966), and in later UN Human Rights treaties that elaborate on economic and social rights as they apply to specific groups or particular situations. The right to housing is also recognised in the Revised European Social Charter of the Council of Europe (1999), which Ireland ratified, but explicitly opted out of complying with Article 31 which deals with the right to housing.

Despite the fact that Ireland has ratified some of these treaties, nowhere does Rebuilding Ireland, the Government’s strategy on Housing and Homelessness even mention in passing that housing is a fundamental human right.

Ireland is also a signatory to the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’), adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, by which states are expected to “ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing” by 2030 (Target 11.1). Despite this, Rebuilding Ireland makes no reference to Target 11.1 of the Goals and the promise that Ireland has made to achieve it.

Around the world, 81 countries have included the right to housing in their constitutions and many others have recognised it in their legislation, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Argentina, Columbia, Uruguay, Brazil, India, Switzerland and South Africa.

The right to private property is in our Constitution and governments regularly refer to it when policies are proposed that might contravene that right. The refusal to insert a right to housing in the same Constitution clearly indicates where the Government’s priorities lie.

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