Having a place to live is a prerequisite for living a life in dignity: a place to sleep and relax, and to enjoy privacy. We can all imagine how disturbing a life without an adequate place to live would be. Housing issues, however, are not always understood and treated as human rights issues. That is, at least, in political discourse and more generally where economic rationales take centre stage. Lawmakers and policymakers may be concerned with housing and aiming to address shortcomings in the housing market. Approaching these issues from a human rights perspective, however, does not come naturally.
In its 2017 annual report, the Dutch Human Rights Institute (College voor de Rechten van de Mens) dedicates special attention to the issue of housing. Even though the housing market in the Netherlands is picking up, this does not mean there is sufficient housing available that is affordable and adequate. This is especially the case for vulnerable women and young adults required to leave youth care facilities, but also for those out of work or for disabled persons. The findings in the annual report are in line with the Human Rights Institute’s response, only a couple of days earlier, to the Ministry of the Interior’s 2018 report on the state of housing (Staat van de volkshuisvesting). According to the Institute, the issues the Ministry refers to are insufficiently linked to the human rights involved, in the sense that affordability and the position of vulnerable minorities, amongst others, are not sufficiently prioritized.
‘Becoming a human rights champion’ when dealing with housing policies, may sound like a complex task to those involved, both at the (local) policy and implementation levels. The quantity and apparent vagueness of relevant rights norms may hamper active engagement and connecting human rights to actual housing issues. However, a closer look at the relevant norms and the way in which these have been explained, signals that there are several focal points that are clear enough to guide authorities’ activities in the field of housing – without necessarily banishing all other concerns. Besides the requirements of availability, affordability, and adequateness (see the report of the Dutch Human Rights Institute), in its General Comment No. 4 on the right to adequate housing (Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has clarified that there must be ‘legal security of tenure’, i.e., legal protection against forced eviction, and that housing must have certain facilities (energy, sanitation) and be habitable, accessible and culturally adequate. Priority must be given to those social groups living in unfavourable conditions and in case of eviction, appropriate procedural safeguards must in place. For example, those affected should be consulted and given adequate and reasonable notice. In the end, moreover, evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the state party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available.’ (General Comment No.7 on forced evictions).
Clearly, human rights protection in the field of housing translates into clear safeguards to be introduced and viewpoints to be taken into account.
Who does not remember the Grenfell Tower tragedy, just over a year ago? In the recent inquiries, it was stated that ‘more than anything the Grenfell Tower disaster was a profound breach of the universal human right to an adequate home’. Had this right been enforceable, risks might have been identified and rectified before. There is moreover an obvious link between the right to housing and non-discrimination in the context of this tragedy. Article 1 of the UK Equality Act contains what is known as the ‘socio-economic duty’ (‘An authority to which this section applies must, when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.’). Arguably, if this duty had been actually binding, ‘it would have required the Kensington and Chelsea Council to consider whether its policies in relation to council tax, social housing, homelessness and disaster planning were adequate to address the enormous inequalities in the borough’.
An example from the Netherlands is municipalities’ ‘extinction policy’ when it comes to caravan sites, meaning that as soon as a caravan spot becomes available, it will no longer be used for that purpose. This makes it extremely difficult for (young) Roma, Sinti and other travellers to find housing meeting their cultural needs and wishes. Extinction policies may conflict with rights to (culturally) adequate housing, as for example recognized by the European Court of Human Rights. Now that this potential conflict is recognized as such, extinction policies are discouraged on the basis of a state level policy frame that aims to provide human rights-friendly guidelines for municipalities struggling with this issue.
These are but a few examples of where housing policy and human rights (should) meet. Even though the issue deserves much more and in-depth attention, a few concluding points can nevertheless be drawn from the above. First, the link between human rights and housing policy is obvious, yet requires a more central position amidst other considerations. Second, institutions like the Dutch Human Rights Institute are doing an indispensable job in emphasizing this link and providing tools to those involved. Third, housing and human rights, as shown by the examples in this blog post, is an issue that is frequently dealt with by local governments. Hence local authorities are and should be the ones addressed foremost when aiming for more human rights compliance in the field of housing. And finally, ensuring that fundamental housing rights are binding, is but a first step in aiding vulnerable individuals and groups. Such rights need to be relied upon in courts yet preferably be taken seriously at the policy making and implementation stage, so that adjudication remains a last resort.