Stewart Smyth looks at the future for the housing movement in Ireland – after an election result which was fuelled by the housing crisis.
One of the main drivers behind last month’s historic general election result, was concerns over housing. The RTE exit poll found housing and homelessness as the second most important issue, after health, for voters. These two issues were the highest priorities for 58 per cent of voters.
By securing the most votes, there is little doubt that Sinn Féin and their housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin, tapped into these concerns among voters. Ó Broin has been developing a deep and detailed understanding of the housing crisis in the Republic, which he set out in his book last year, Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer (he specifically excludes housing in NI from his purview).
Housing as a Right
For Ó Broin, and Sinn Féin, housing needs to be understood within a rights framework. The first proposal his book contains is a Right to Housing that would “enact legislation to hold a referendum asking the people to enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution”. He makes it clear that this is of primary importance: “Any serious attempt to fix our dysfunctional housing system must rest on providing a legal right to a home”.
In the midst of the general election a pressure group called Home for Good was formed compromising homeless organisations including Focus Ireland and Simon Community, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Echoing Ó Broin’s position, Home for Good is united around one issue: “Constitutional change is an essential underpinning for any successful programme to tackle our housing and homelessness crisis”.
It is worth noting that back in 2017, it was PBP/Solidarity TDs who introduced a private members bill which if passed would have led to a referendum on enshrining a right to housing in the Irish constitution. So all three – SF, Home for Good and socialist TDs – are united in advancing the demand for a right to housing, but there are important differences in the motivation supporting this right.
Socialists and Rights
Socialists are in favour of extending rights and are often to the fore of such campaigns, for example the right to free assembly and to join trade unions, to vote and more recent campaigns around equal marriage and abortion. We also understand the central importance of needing to defend previously won rights. For example, the right to free speech needs to be defended against fascists and neo-Nazis who seek to exploit it to spread hatred and racism, ultimately seeking to deny the rights of minorities and oppressed groups in society.
When it comes to housing as a constitutional right, the issue is a tactical one rather than a matter of principle.
Having a right in a constitution does not necessarily mean that it will be acted upon or deliver the hoped for outcome. For example, towards the end of his life, US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King recognised this, when he repeated on several occasions, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
Constitutional right to housing
If we look across the world, we see different relationships between the constitutional right to housing and the provision of social/public housing. Finland is the only EU country to achieve a substantial decrease in homelessness over the past two decades. The Finnish constitution does contain a right to housing but the reduction in homelessness is in the main due to the adoption of the Housing First policy – where a home is provided first and social services built around the individual or family to ensure that they maintain the tenancy. This stands in contrast to the traditional approach where securing a tenancy is seen as a reward once the individual or family has proved they are “worthy” of a permanent home.
In recent years housing campaigners in Berlin have scored a number of important victories, including freezing, restricting and lowering rents. While Germany as a whole does not have a constitutional right to housing, article 28 of the Berlin constitution, introduced in 1995, does contain the right to housing. This right was important in the housing campaigns over the past 5 years, however it did not stop the privatisation and financialisation of housing in the city in the last 20 years.
The two countries with the highest levels of social housing in the EU have different constitutional housing rights. The Netherlands has the highest level at 30 per cent, followed by Austria at 24 per cent. Yet the Austrian constitution does not contain a right to housing, this right is established in legislation instead.
Profits and stability
Closer to home, as Ó Broin sets out (quoting Welsh socialist Nye Bevan admiringly), the big council house building programmes on these islands in the middle of the last century were achieved without a right to housing in the Irish constitution or indeed any written constitution in the North or Britain. So how do socialists develop strategies to address the current housing crisis?
Here our understanding of how societal change comes about is central. It is the organising and campaigning from below, by tenants and workers, that is the crucial factor. In Britain it was the fear among the establishment after the two world wars that led to the increase in council house building. In 1919, with Britain in social turmoil a top civil servant said of that year’s Housing Bill, that “the money we are going to spend on housing is an insurance against Bolshevism and revolution”.
While under capitalism housing policy is developed with the aim of making as much profit as possible, this is curtailed by the need to keep social stability.
Last year, the Irish Marxist Review carried an article analysing the strategy and tactics of housing struggles in Ireland over the past century. The article highlighted the role played by organised labour in previous housing struggles. For example, at the end of the 1960s the Dublin Housing Action Committee’s (DHAC) newsletter, The Squatter, carried an extended report over its first two issues about a family squatting in a vacant cottage, connected to the Fiat car factory in Grand Canal Street, Dublin.
On the advice of DHAC, a desperate homeless family moved into the cottage, as it was anticipated they would get some housing respite while the local factory management sought a court injunction. However, management initiated a much more aggressive move, instructing a couple of employees to forcibly remove the family.
When word of these actions spread across the workplace, 120 workers downed tools and marched to the cottage to support the family. Faced with this opposition, management backed down and did not apply for the court injunction.
More recently, in the North, the public sector trade union NIPSA has been central to the campaign to keep the Housing Executive (NIHE) as a publicly accountable and funded body. The NIHE is the main outcome of the 1960s civil rights movement providing public housing across NI for the past nearly fifty years. It is recognised as a success story and a world leader in community building. Yet for the past decade it has been under threat of privatisation through transfer of its homes to private bodies, including housing associations.
A pilot scheme of small-scale transfers was announced in 2013. During 2017 and 2018, the first two ballots took place on estates in Ballyclare and Ballymena, and were overwhelmingly rejected by tenants (by 88 per cent in the latter case). Crucially, these ballots saw a coordinated campaign against the transfer led by housing activists and members of NIPSA.
Workers, campaigners and socialists united
The Irish general election highlighted the continued political priority among voters, including trade union members, for a change in housing policy. This is something that socialists can and need to build on. Not just through developing alliances with unions leaderships, such as the Raise the Roof initiative, but also within workplaces and union branches.
Our dysfunctional housing system is at the heart of many work-life balance issues. The lack of social housing in the appropriate places for workers requires long commutes, putting strain on public transport systems, reliance on long childcare hours and resultant stresses on family lives. These are all trade union issues.
The future for the housing movement in Ireland is through building on the success of the Raise the Roof initiative in 2018, with socialists understanding the need to raise concrete housing demands (such as an end to evictions into homelessness) both in local campaign groups and union branches, and crucially, from the bottom up. Only with a movement can we deliver the kind of pressure which would guarantee that if a constitutional right to housing is won, it is also delivered upon in practice – with homes.