housing as a human right

Traditional workers cottages near Cambridge that have been renovated. Image credit: Rob Noble.

Everyone needs a home to call their own. It’s a common need that people of all backgrounds share. A decent home is certainly something that every one of us wants and needs, but is it something we have a right to?

In the context of the UK’s housing crisis, and with international Human Rights Day on 10th December, it’s a topical question to ask: is housing a human right?

Some may be surprised to know that access to adequate housing is in fact a human right.

It's enshrined in Article 25 of the International Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and also in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, with the latter being binding under international law.

Other conventions, treaties and charters have also underlined the right of housing in regards to specific groups, such as women, migrants, disabled people or children. Several national constitutions around the world have also enshrined the right to housing.

The UK has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights meaning the state has a duty to respect, promote and fulfil the right to adequate housing (this does not mean the government is required to directly build houses for everyone).

However parliament has not incorporated that convention into national law, meaning that while public bodies and common law must comply with it, individuals cannot pose a court case against the government for failure to uphold the Convention. The Human Rights Act 1998 does incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (based on the Universal Declaration) into UK law, but the government is pushing ahead with their plan to repeal the Human Rights Act. And anyway, once we have exited the EU we will no longer be covered by the convention it’s based on.

So if the government does have a responsibility to take steps towards ensuring everyone has access to adequate housing, the glaring question is: what counts as adequate? Surely what one person finds adequate, another would abhor, and another would be delighted with? Isn’t housing too subjective and personal? Doesn’t such a vague word leave the right to housing open to abuse?

Actually, the definition of adequate housing is quite specific and also quite comprehensive – it covers far more than just the right to four walls and a roof.

A report by OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) states that to be considered adequate, housing must at least have:

  • Security of tenure: housing is not adequate if its occupants do not have a degree of tenure security which guarantees legal protection against forced evictions, harassment and other threats.
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure: housing is not adequate if its occupants do not have safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, energy for cooking, heating, lighting, food storage or refuse disposal.
  • Affordability: housing is not adequate if its cost threatens or compromises the occupants’ enjoyment of other human rights.
  • Habitability: housing is not adequate if it does not guarantee physical safety or provide adequate space, as well as protection against the cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, other threats to health and structural hazards.
  • Accessibility: housing is not adequate if the specific needs of disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not taken into account.
  • Location: housing is not adequate if it is cut off from employment opportunities, health-care services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities, or if located in polluted or dangerous areas.
  • Cultural adequacy: housing is not adequate if it does not respect and take into account the expression of cultural identity.
housing as a human right

Not all housing problems look like this unstable neighbourhood in Himalaya, India. Image credit: Ralf Kayser

Perhaps the least obvious component is that housing must be located within access of work opportunities, schools and other public services.

Compliance with this criteria requires the cooperation of urban planners as well as the construction industry.

Much of the UN’s work on the right to housing focuses on developing countries, but they also recognise that many in rich developed countries also lack appropriate housing – especially in ‘world cities’ such as London, Paris and Toronto, where demand far outstrips supply and high costs price out middle and lower income residents.

In 2015, a consortium of housing charities published a damning report into housing in the UK, classifying the situation as a “crisis” and stating that the UK government is in breach of international human rights law.

Their main concerns were:

  • Lack of affordable housing – Soaring prices mean home ownership is increasingly out of reach for young adults and tenants pay average of 50% of their income on rent
  • Poor quality in private rental sector – Almost 30% of these properties are unfit for habitation
  • Rising homelessness – Levels have rocketed by 85% since 2010

They also noted that it’s not only the poor that have their right to adequate housing ignored – the situation has become so severe that increasing numbers of middle-class families struggle to access secure and adequate housing as well.

The new Housing Act is not likely to improve the housing situation much, and many housing experts actually  expect it to damage affordability even more, without necessarily improving quality.

Koru director Mark Pellant thinks the Housing Act has prioritised home ownership far above any other consideration, that it is more political than practical in nature, and if affordability is the objective then ministers should “go back to the drawing board”.

From a design perspective, the criteria for adequate housing should obviously be taken as an absolute minimum, and it is.

Building Regulations for new build homes rightly require a far higher quality, and are highly detailed in the requirements that architects need to follow. Building Regs only apply to new builds or large-scale extensions.

The 30% of private rental accommodation which is below a decent minimum standard is made up of older properties which have not been upgraded or maintained. And in a rental market characterised by patchy regulation, low supply and high demand, landlords may not have an incentive for maintaining their properties.

One creative response to the housing crisis is One Planet Affordable Living, a action-research project by Bioregional and Transition by Design that aims to weave affordability and sustainability with a community-led approach to development.

They have published a report with insights from case studies and expert interviews, and they aim to produce a framework for progressive housing development in high-demand areas. One of the points in their report is that we don’t actually have a lack of houses, just a lack of houses that most people can afford. They note:

“At the broadest level, the home has shifted away from its social function as a place for living, to a financial asset to be traded for profit.”

There’s no one easy solution to the housing crisis. The fact that housing is a human right will not guarantee effective government action – but it does give homeowners, renters and civil society organisations a strong argument to campaign for action.

In the meantime, architects, developers and planners must work to create the highest number of good quality homes possible within the current policy framework – while advocating for progressive change in housing policy.

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