By Leilani Farha
We are at a critical moment. Globally, housing conditions have never been this fraught. Most governments, national and local alike, insist on privileging the interests of a few over the needs of the many.
As a result, homelessness and its accompanying death toll are on the rise, while the number of vacant homes owned by corporate and high net worth investors continues to grow. Affluent countries stand as some of the worst examples. Last year, on an average night in the US, more than 550,000 people slept rough. One county in Silicon Valley saw a 164% increase in deaths of homeless people between 2011 and 2015, rising from 50 to 135. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, the first nine months of 2017 saw 70 homeless deaths, the highest figure on record.
Meanwhile, investor homes sit empty: London reported 20,000 empty homes in 2016 and data from Australia indicates a whopping 1m vacant homes. In most cities, unregulated real estate speculation and commodification is making housing unaffordable even for the middle class, with those providing essential services, like nurses and firefighters, unable to live in the cities where they work.
With no other options, more than 1 billion people worldwide have resorted to living in informal settlements, encampments or on the streets without secure tenure or basic services.
Most disturbing of all is that these realities seem to be accepted as a fixed feature of our global socioeconomic order.
But before concluding that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, let’s recall that just two years ago, the world’s governments recognised these conditions as unsustainable and responded.
In committing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are “unequivocally anchored in human rights”, world governments undertook to ensure access to adequate, secure and affordable housing for all by 2030. By necessity, the SDGs catapult housing to centre stage.
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.
Homelessness and inadequate housing are violations of human rights – and demand the appropriate response.
Rights-based housing strategies are not one-size fits all, but there are some key requirements that can be shaped to fit national and local contexts. As a starting point, housing strategies must guarantee that no one is left behind, which, among other things, means they must commit to ending homelessness by 2030.
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.
There are fundamental shifts that rights-based strategies must effect in order to be successful.
Strategies must transform how governments, at all levels, interact with those who are homeless and inadequately housed. Instead of viewing them as needy beneficiaries, objectsof charity, or, worse, as criminals, they must instead recognise that people who are homeless also have rights – and are active citizens who should be involved in decisions affecting their lives. This would ensure that strategies respond to people’s own experiences.
Strategies must also transform the relationship between governments and the financial sector. Because most governments rely extensively on the private sectorto meet housing needs, strategies must ensure that human rights implementation is the overriding goal of all investment in housing and residential real estate, and that the primacy of housing’s social function is never a subsidiary or neglected obligation.
One wonders if this is possible when the commitment to the human rights imperative is being challenged by governments themselves – and when, for instance, the UN commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, says he cannot continue in his job because the current geopolitical context is a threat to his integrity and independence. And the biggest assault on human rights is coming from Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon whose fortunes have been made from the rampant commodification of housing.
This does not bode well for the future of the right to housing or that of the people living in conditions that challenge human dignity and life itself.
But as we head into a new year, our choice is to either be complacent and allow our cities to become the playgrounds of the rich while the rest of us are priced out of our homes; or to recognise the urgent need for action, and declare 2018 the year of the right to housing, and every year thereafter, until governments are held accountable, cities become inclusive, and our housing accessible, secure, and affordable.
I choose the latter.
Published on The Guardian on January 2, 2018