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Housing is a human right: But rights have to be fought for

One of the most popular and persistent calls in housing rallies has been: “housing is a human right.” Now at last there is support for that call, from no less a source than the United Nations. The UN letter on housing slams the Irish government and spells out in some detail the class interests that deny human rights and the mechanisms through which that class interest was asserted. Of even more interest however is the response to the report from both government and the housing campaigns.

The rapporteur, Leilana Farha, explains that the loss of housing rights is a consequence of the financialisation of housing and the investment of unprecedented amounts of global capital in a largely  unregulated market.

The decision to guarantee banks and bondholder and the austerity programme that followed meant that a social housing build of over 5000 in 2009 fell to under 500 in 2015. The Irish government sold off property through the National Asset Management Agency. In the firesale 93% of assets went to foreign investors, 90% going to  US private  equity funds.  In 2013 the law was modified to allow the establishment of Real Estate Investment trusts (REITs). All these investments benefited from extremely low lax rates. In 2016 one third of all properties sold went to investors.

The Irish government has been pouring petrol on the fire. The housing act of 2009 makes rental subsidies equivalent to direct provision of housing. This giant subsidy to landlords traps families in the private rental sector and encourages  mass hoarding of property in the expectation that profits can only go up.

The enormous increase in homelessness is directly linked to lack of regulation in the private rental sector. Limits on rent increases are easily got around.  Straightforward eviction requires little effort by the landlord.  Security of tenure is unknown.

The rapporteur concluded by warning the government that if does not establish housing as a human right and legally restrict financialisation it will be at odds with international human rights obligations.

So much for a damning report.  What of the government response?

Basically a shrug of the shoulders. The UN has no sanction other than disapproval. Similar reports on the US and UK went unremarked, as did endless past reports on British torture in Ireland.

But what of the trade unions and NGOs? Early expressions of shock and disapproval were also followed by silence.

The truth is that rights are not simply proclaimed. They have to be fought for. The constant refrain of “housing is a human right” up to now has translated as “someone should do something” The UN report tells us that hopelessness is a consequence of deliberate government policy. It can be a powerful tool, but not in the hands of a lobbying movement, only in the hands of a movement willing to tear down the robber barons who rule our state.

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