The Irish Constitution states that each citizen has the right to private property:
‘1° The State acknowledges that man, in virtue of his rational being, has the natural right, antecedent to positive law, to the private ownership of external goods.
2° The State accordingly guarantees to pass no law attempting to abolish the right of private ownership or the general right to transfer, bequeath, and inherit property.’
This right to private property is an essential element to the continued working success of the capitalist economy. Private property promotes efficiency by giving the owner an incentive to increase its value. The more valuable the property is, the more trading power its owner has. The owners of private property have the right to transfer ownership as they see fit. This naturally creates trade between those with different resources and different wants. People try to get the most value out of their stock, so competitive bids are accepted to receive the highest exchange value. Owners of a similar kind of resource compete with each other for exchange value. This system of competition creates a chain of supply and demand. Property can be bought, sold, and passed on through generations.
There is a certain connection between squatting, the right to private property and the right to housing. Cork squatter Alex KH states, ‘in our constitution the right to private property is there, but the right to housing isn’t. And this keeps coming up, the question of should the right to housing be in the constitution? And how would that then overlap with the right to private properties?’
As the right to owning private property allows for a competitive market regarding goods and production, it can have a negative impact on how the housing market works, which is (erroneously) treated essentially the same as exchangeable consumer goods. The capitalist economy has turned housing into a commodity, rather than a human right. The crash of the housing market is merely a branch of the crash of capitalism, and the recent downturn in economies is an indicator that this type of economic market may not be the most reliable. Just as properties can be bought or sold, they can be left vacant for decades by developers and landowners. At the same time, we know there are approximately 9,000 homeless people in Ireland, which has increased since 2014 when there was approximately 3,000.
In September 2017, a vote was held in the Dáil on whether to pass a bill that would provide for a referendum on the insertion of the right-to-housing into the Irish Constitution. The bill was defeated 73 to 37, despite having been recommended by the Constitutional Convention in 2014. Currently, there are 81 countries worldwide that have the right-to-housing written in to their constitutions. By inserting the right-to-housing in the constitution, homelessness would be a failure of the state, rather than the individual.
Cork City has the second highest number of vacant housing units in the country with almost 4,300 properties lying idle. The figures from the 2016 Census reveal that the Cork County District has 15,645 empty dwellings with 4,292 vacant units in the city. The city has a vacancy rate of 7.7% and almost 1,180 properties have not been lived in for five years or more. Over 5,850 units have been idle in the county for five years or more with a vacancy rate of 9% – a total 15,645 properties.
According to Cork Simon Community, there are fifteen vacant homes in Cork City for every adult living in emergency accommodation. Despite vacant properties being available and the statistics from the census showing that 1,180 homes have not been occupied in five years of more, the population that own these homes are not making their houses available.
Squatting can be viewed as an act of both survival and defiance in the face of Ireland’s ongoing homelessness problem. Though living as a squatter can be unpredictable at the best of times, in contrast to sleeping on the streets during the winter months, it’s an option that should hold some amount of validity today. Squatting saw a resurgence with the housing crisis in London in the 1970s, saving countless people from sleeping exposed to the outdoors. Rather that vilifying those who are merely trying to live, squatters should be allowed to take the action necessary that can save them from an unfortunate death.
In 2013, in the UK, a homeless man named Daniel Gauntlett was arrested after squatting in an abandoned, boarded-up cottage. After being charged and then subsequently released from his detainment, he had no other choice than to sleep outside of the cottage that he was formerly squatting in. Armed with only a feeble tent and few possessions, he sadly passed away due to hypothermia during one cold winter night. This event occurred following the introduction of anti-squatting legislation in England in 2012. Such an unfortunate story highlights the everlasting struggle of the homeless and the real consequences of social and political priorities today. It also demonstrates how the right to private property continually trumps the right to basic shelter and housing need.