Opinion: our legal, political and moral right to private property is overly simplistic and fails to stand up to scrutiny

Perhaps it's a lingering aftermath of 800 years of British oppression and colonialism, but Ireland has a profoundly unhealthy understanding of private property. There is a unanimously held and rarely challenged assumption that absolute sovereignty follows once property is privately acquired. In Ireland, we think of private property as our private fiefdom. To have legal ownership is to enjoy full, boundless supremacy. Any interference by third parties, including the state, is perceived as the essence of social injustice.

This understanding of our legal, political and moral right to private property is overly simplistic and it fails to stand up to scrutiny. The way we relate to our private property has multiple dimensions. The legal side of being a property owner has to be seen within the social context of our relationship with other members of society who may not enjoy the luxury of being home-owners. 

In the recent debate on housing and homelessness, this simplistic view of private property is never contested or opposed. The scale and diversity of the housing problem we now face, with inadequate and unfair access to rented accommodation, evictions and poor living conditions, is not dissimilar to what it was 40 years ago. The roots of Ireland’s permanent housing crisis run deep and what is now required is a radical rethink of some fundamental political and philosophical standpoints.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, a report on the repossession of a house in Strokestown and a discussion on the issues surrounding repossessions

We should start with our relationship to private property. Perhaps Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not entirely wrong. In his 1754 essay Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau argued that private property was the source of much injustice and inequality. "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society", he wrote. "From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch". Abolishing private property is too radical a solution, but limiting its supremacy is possible, and necessary for the sake of democracy. 

As we enter a new year, and the housing crisis shown no signs of abating, we are told by people in government that if people cannot afford to buy their own homes, the obvious solution is to build more houses. It is not as simple as that. Suggesting a market solution to a market failure defies logic. The unregulated market cannot solve the housing crisis because it was the market itself that brought about the crisis. This crisis is the symptom of a much bigger malady. It is the basic assumption of private property as a supreme and unlimited right that is the root of the housing problem.

We need to rethink what it means to be a property owner within the housing sector. The goal of a just society is to ensure that all citizens are fully co-operating members of society on a footing of equality. This is the idea of a Property-Owning Democracy. In Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond, Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson remind us that democracy cannot function properly as long as a small minority in society has vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Eoin O'Malley, Associate Professor in Political Science at Dublin City University, and Ruth Coppinger, Irish Solidarity-People Before Profit TD for Dublin West, discuss if we should hold a referendum to insert a right to housing into the Constitution

This is precisely what we have in Ireland today; an unregulated free market which gives too much power to wealthy individuals and financial institutions. As we know only too well, banks in Ireland have a strong vested interest in promoting an unregulated property market. 

The only way to break the boom-bust cycle of the housing market is to regulate the market by putting limits on what people can do with their private property. The housing crisis is not just an issue of insufficient supply in the housing market: it is also a crisis of inadequate alternatives, starting from the rental housing sector. Ireland has one of the most unregulated private rented sectors in Europe. Having ownership right over a property should not give landlords an absolute right to be despotic over the terms and conditions of the private rented sector. Much tighter regulation can and ought to be introduced in order to make rents a viable, safe, and cheaper alternative to getting on the property ladder.

The only way to break the boom-bust cycle of the housing market is to regulate the market by putting limits on what people can do with their private property

Aideen Hayden, chair of the housing charity Threshold, makes a strong argument for the introduction of proper rent registers which would allow tenants in rent pressure zones to compare the prices at which rental properties in their area have been let in the past. This would be a start. Ireland must also consider aligning itself with many other European jurisdictions, where the sale of a property is not considered a valid reason for terminating a tenancy: 32 percent of all calls to Threshold in 2017 were from renters who had been told by their landlords that their tenancies were coming to an end, up 18 percent compared to 2016.

The recommendation to curtail the freedom of home owners to do whatever they wish with their private property will be met with shock and horror by many, especially from those who currently raking-in huge profits at the expense of less fortunate fellow citizens. Perhaps they should be reminded that Ireland’s housing crisis is not a minor inconvenience or an embarrassment, but a crisis in our democratic ethos.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ