Globalization as a Humanitarian Challenge 6: »The Human Right to Housing, Rarely Mentioned, Often Violated«

  • The human right to housing is among our most basic and essential rights, yet it is all too often an unrealized right as millions lack access to adequate facilities to make a home for themselves. - Joe Hoover


From a human rights perspective, adequate housing is more than just four walls and a roof. Adequacy is defined by certain freedoms, such as the right to choose where one wishes to live, protection against forced eviction or destruction and equal and non-discriminatory access. In order to qualify as adequate, housing must be affordable, provide sanitation infrastructure and access to drinking water and be close to economic and social opportunities such as workplaces, hospitals or schools. The human right to housing is thus intertwined with other human rights and often also a prerequisite for further human rights such as the right to work, privacy or education. Thus, the loss of housing and the associated lack of an official address make a regular employment almost impossible. Without proof of residence many sufferers are unable to vote and are excluded from social services or health care. Access to education is also denied to many children in slums due to their lack of official status.The exclusion of the human right to adequate housing affects people in all regions of the world - and certain groups are particularly vulnerable: women, children, disabled people, people on the move, the homeless and slum dwellers.

In their claim to housing, women experience discrimination not only because of their gender, but also because they are denied the right to land in many parts of the world. For many women worldwide, domestic violence and the fear of homelessness are becoming a vicious circle. In order not to end up on the streets, women often remain in abusive relationships.

Especially for children, perhaps the saddest represented by millions of street children, lack of housing means exclusion - exclusion from education, exclusion from childhood and play and exclusion from development opportunities and security. For young and old, ‘homelessness implies belonging nowhere rather than simply having nowhere to sleep’, says Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council on the human right to adequate housing.

Excluded from economic and social opportunities are also mostly slum dwellers, refugees, displaced people and migrants. With the trend towards urbanization, precarious urban living conditions are increasing, especially in developing countries. In urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 72% of the population live in slums, in South Asia its 59%. Slum dwellers are seldom able to rely on regular housing and are confronted with arbitrary forced eviction. Exposed to a range of human rights violations, refugees often live in overcrowded shelters or camps with poor sanitation and polluted drinking water. Without official status, they are denied the right to choose their own living space.

Slum formation in growing urban areas, people on the move, street children, homeless men and women - the housing situation could not be worse for a billion affected in 2018. And the situation is also worsening in the supposedly rich industrialized countries. Apart from Finland, all European countries are in a severe housing crisis. Europeans spend a large part of their income on the rental price. In many European cities, nurses or firefighters can’t afford living near their workplace and more and more people become homeless.

It is essential to fight against this commodification of the human right to adequate housing through the real estate market and for better living conditions of slum dwellers, migrants, refugees, street children or homeless people. In 2015, the global community committed itself to this fight by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030, all people should have access to adequate, affordable and safe housing. With this, the states have committed themselves to no longer place the interests of the less, the real estate sector, above the needs of many.

  • To meet this ambitious commitment, governments will have to design housing strategies based on human rights. In light of the global scale and depth of homelessness and inadequate housing, and the roots of these problems in the failure of governments to regulate the financialisation of housing, it is no longer reasonable for governments to treat these realities as mere policy or programme failures. (...) This also means housing strategies must go well beyond the provision of housing. Strategies must have structural change as their ambition. They must aim to transform societies where economic policies and housing systems create and sustain inequality and exclusion, into societies in which housing is a means to ensure security and inclusion. - Leilani Farha

But as long as governments fail to live up to their obligations, it is up to mankind to demand the human right to housing, whether through critical media contributions or through those affected themselves.
In Chicago, alumni Fellow of the Centre, Joe Hoover has observed how people claim their human right to housing by preventing forced eviction and occupying empty houses. In a talk with the Centre he stated:

  • Even where governments are sympathetic to the right to housing and international organisations are able to apply pressure, substantive change requires political mobilisation, especially from those most affected by the lack of adequate housing. Protest, political organising, and community empowerment are vital to realising the human right to housing. - Joe Hoover