Is equality about money or rights?

In this piece which appeared originally in the Sunday Business Post on the 8th of May 2016, Karl Deeter questions the conventional wisdom of calls for a right to housing (or housing equality) being about ‘rights’ and that it is perhaps more about money and governance.

The script after this text in italics is the text of the article that was published.

When we hear people talk about inequality or social issues like housing, is it about money and process or is it about rights? This may seem obvious at first, but when you start to look into it, often it’s not so simple.

It’s obvious that a person with no place to call home isn’t equal to those who have such a place (be it rented or owned) and civil society generally accepts that this implies a certain level of duty on the rest of us.

Usually the state helps to equalise this situation by making the provision of a place to call home possible, be it social housing or emergency accommodation. This would lead to the assumption that housing should be an equality and rights concern first and foremost.

It naturally leads to the contemplation of a ‘right to housing’ which some people say needs to go into the Irish constitution.

At first pass, it sounds like a legal concern, one based on rights. But, it’s really about money and a state sector that stops development while simultaneously projecting itself as the solution to the problem it is the genesis of.

It’s a strange duality of existence that this logic has evolved, but duality is everywhere; spotting it is the hard part. With housing ‘rights’, the starting position is that the constitution is already clear: article 41 is about the importance of the family in society with rights that are inviolable and superior to all positive law. Article 41.2 states: “The state, therefore, guarantees to protect the family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the nation and the state.”

There are obvious implied rights within this, they being that people won’t be left to starve or live on the street. Not every right must be enshrined in the constitution. Indeed many, such as the right to privacy, are not specifically defined within the constitution.

The UN universal declaration of human rights article 25 states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing.” Note the specific mention of housing.

More appropriate is the European Social Charter (to which Ireland has prescribed) where part one article 31 is only six words long and says that “everyone has the right to housing”.

The point here is that making housing a constitutional right won’t change anything or make the claim of a person here to the right to shelter any more or less meaningful.

Which brings us to the actual issues, that of money and of a governance that cannot prescribe the necessary medicine due to its own ineptitude and vested interest.

Provision of housing is expensive. Because we live in a world with constrained resources and where costs have to be considered, it means we cannot simply issue a decree that we will have thousands of homes and they will magically appear.

There is a skills shortage, which means that even if we had a magic money tree, the bottleneck would still occur on the labour front among available, skilled workers in the short term.

The second and larger issue is one of governance. Even with funding available, we see scandalous ineptitude, like the development of 22 homes in Poppintree in Dublin where “rapid” housing has been not only as “un-rapid” as a traditional build, but more than 200 per cent more expensive than initially billed and with costs that are 50 per cent in excess of existing property prices in the locality.

This has occurred in an environment where money was not the problem. The real problem here is our inability to tax land – something suggested since the Kenny report in the 1970s, something that the commission for taxation called for, which the last programme for government supported and which has not been followed through.

Instead, we’ll have an anaemic half-arsed ‘site tax’ under the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act that won’t apply to half of the sites in Dublin. Last week, this paper reported how Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín had determined that there were 521 idle acres and 130,000 unused square footage in buildings all owned by the state.

The biggest blockage to progress isn’t a lack of investment by the state, private individuals or various funds. It’s the mechanism whereby we facilitate dereliction, we don’t tax all land, and we allow lengthy delays and accept bureaucratic underperformance as a norm. And those tasked with overseeing the mess don’t ever lose a job or suffer the negative consequences of their decisions.

This is coupled with a society in which we never name the offenders and therefore tacitly and explicitly underwrite their lack of performance.

Meanwhile third-party property rights which allow an unconnected party to a planning application to object first then also appeal, stymie anything that might get going in the short term. When viewed in that light, the issue of housing isn’t about the ‘rights’, which are well established, and often it isn’t about the money, which is globally fluid.

The problem is all of us. We accept second best, and while we say ‘somebody ought to do something’, we won’t countenance the things that would make “something” happen, such as comprehensive land tax or letting high-rise development commence.

There was a line in the old MTV ads years ago that said “if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”. That saying is particularly apt when it comes to the Irish housing crisis.

Karl Deeter is the compliance manager at mortgagebrokers.ie. Follow him on Twitter: @karldeeter

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