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The Right to Housing

Introduction
Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
National Protection and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources


Introduction

Everyone shares the right to a decent standard of living. Essential to the achievement of this standard and therefore to the fulfillment of human life beyond simple survival is access to adequate housing. Housing fulfills physical needs by providing security and shelter from weather and climate. It fulfills psychological needs by providing a sense of personal space and privacy. It fulfills social needs by providing a gathering area and communal space for the human family, the basic unit of society. In many societies, it also fulfills economic needs by functioning as a center for commercial production.

The human right to adequate housing is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to acquire and sustain a secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity. The right to housing is codified as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." (article 25(1))

Population growth, migration to urban areas, conflicting needs for existing land, and insufficient financial and natural resources have resulted in widespread homelessness and habitation in inadequate housing. In every country children, men and women sleep on sidewalks, under bridges, in cars, subway stations, and public parks, live in ghettos and slums, or "squat" in buildings other people have abandoned. The United Nations estimates that there are over 100 million homeless people and over 1 billion people worldwide inadequately housed.

These statistics are evidence for the difficulty governments have in guaranteeing access to housing for their citizens, but they also raise complicated questions about the extent of the obligations of governments to do so. The fact of shelter as a human need does not imply that governments must provide each one of their citizens with land, four walls and a roof. Controversy can therefore emerge over exactly what governments should do to help people exercise their rights and obtain housing. Government action is usually country-specific, and is dependent on a variety of economic, cultural, and social factors. In some cases, increasing access to education or to the labor market is the best way to ensure the right to housing, because the realizations of those rights mostly lead to greater access to housing. In other cases, it is necessary for governments to provide physical shelter directly to people. But regardless of past government action, in all countries there exist people who, because of personal issues such as physical or emotion incapacity, environmental issues such as natural disasters or famine, or social issues such as war or political instability, are unable to obtain housing for themselves. In those situations, governments are obligated to help make housing accessible. Governments are obligated to function as fair and stable systems through which their citizens can achieve the satisfaction of their rights, and to provide the means for the realization of the right to a decent standard of living which their citizens may utilize through their own free initiative.

 


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Rights at Stake

The right to housing is included in several international legally-binding documents. Among the most significant of these is the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (article 11.1), which determines that

"The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions."

In order to clarify the meaning and scope of the right to housing as expressed in the Covenant, in 1991 the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the body that monitors the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, issued its General Comment 4.

The right to adequate housing applies to everyone. The phrase "himself and his family" does not refer to any limitation in the right to housing to individuals, female-headed households, or other groups. Furthermore, individuals, as well as families, are entitled to adequate housing regardless of age, economic status, group or other affiliation or status, and enjoyment of this right must not be subject to any form of discrimination. (paragraph 6)

The right to housing should be interpreted in a broad and inclusive sense as the right to live in "security, peace and dignity" rather than a narrow or restrictive sense. The right to housing is inextricably linked to other fundamental human rights and should been seen as referring to not only housing by adequate housing (paragraph 7). The right to adequate housing must be viewed in conjunction with other human rights included in the two International Covenants and other international instruments (paragraph 9).

While the definition of "adequacy" with regard to housing is influenced by social, economic, cultural, climatic, ecological, and other factors, certain aspects of the right are applicable in any context. These are:

Legal security of tenure. Security of tenure means that all people in any living arrangement possess a degree of security against forced eviction, harassment, or other threats. States are obliged to confer this security legally.

Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure. To ensure the health, security, comfort, and nutrition of its occupants, an adequate house should have sustainable access to natural and common resources, safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services.

Affordability. Affordable housing is housing for which the associated financial costs are at a level that does not threaten other basic needs. States should take steps to ensure that housing costs are proportionate to overall income levels, establish subsidies for those unable to acquire affordable housing, and protect tenants against unreasonable rent levels or increases. In societies where housing is built chiefly out of natural materials, states should help ensure the availability of those materials.

Habitability. Habitable housing provides the occupants with adequate space, physical security, shelter from weather, and protection from threats to health like structural hazards and disease.

Accessibility. Adequate housing must be accessible to those entitled to it. This includes all disadvantaged groups of society, who may have special housing needs that require extra consideration.

Location. The location of adequate housing, whether urban or rural, must permit access to employment opportunities, health care, schools, child care and other social facilities. To protect the right to health of the occupants, housing must also be separated from polluted sites or pollution sources.

Cultural adequacy. The way housing is built, the materials used, and the policies supporting these must facilitate cultural expression and housing diversity. The development and modernization of housing in general should maintain the cultural dimensions of housing while still ensuring modern technological facilities, among other things (paragraph 8).

The Commission on Human Settlements' Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000 (1998) provides another definition of adequacy:

"Adequate shelter means ... adequate privacy, adequate space, adequate security, adequate lighting and ventilation, adequate basic infrastructure and adequate location with regard to work and basic facilities - all at a reasonable cost."

The additional human rights referred to in the CESCR's General Comment 4 are rights without the enjoyment of which the fulfillment of the right to housing is threatened or impossible. They include:

- the principle of non-discrimination;
- the right to freedom of expression;
- the right to freedom of association (such as for tenants and other community-based groups);
- the right to freedom of residence (and the right to freedom of movement);
- the right to participate in public decision-making;
- the right to security of person (in the case of forced or arbitrary evictions or other forms of harassment);
- the right not to be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with one's privacy, family, home or correspondence.

In addition, the right to housing provides a foundation that increases the likelihood of the achievement of other human rights. For example:

 

- the right to family;
- the right to participate in government;
- the right to work;
- the right to rest and leisure;
- the right to food and water;
- the right to the highest attainable level of physical and mental health;
- the right to education;
- the right to participate in the cultural life of the community.


Key assistance agencies

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat)
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, was instituted in 1978 after a world summit in Vancouver, known as Habitat I, for the purpose of coordinating United Nations activities related to housing and human settlements. A second conference in 1996, Habitat II, produced the Habitat Agenda, which directs UN-Habitat's promotion of socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. In 2002 the UN General Assembly gthened the agency's mandate and elevated its status to a full-fledged program of the UN system. In this role UN-Habitat partners with governments, local authorities, and non-governmental organizations. The strategic vision of UN-Habitat has five main components: knowledge management and reporting; advocacy of norms for sustainable urbanization and urban poverty reduction; technical cooperation in linking these norms to urban poverty reduction activities in the field; innovative financing for urbanization and specific shelter needs of the urban poor; and strategic partnerships. UN-Habitat's achieves this vision through two major campaigns: the Global Campaign on Urban Governance and the Global Campaign for Secure Tenure. Under these campaigns, UN-Habitat operates or supports a wide range of programmes related to housing, from international programmes such as the Cities Alliance to local organizational capacity-building in specific countries.

Fundamental to the fulfillment of UN-Habitat's mandate is the monitoring of global conditions in the shelter sector and the assessment of progress in implementing the Habitat Agenda. Monitoring is accomplished though the agency's Statistics Programme, Urban Indicator Programme, and Best Practices Programme. Together, these programmes regularly document the housing situation at international, regional, national, and local levels. They are assisted in this process by Governments who submit reports every two years to the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements based on indicators developed by Habitat. Governments include information about the availability, quantity, quality, and affordability of housing in their countries, as well as action taken and progress made towards the fulfillment of the Habitat Agenda and other international agreements and commitments. Additionally, UN-Habitat tracks the advancement of the Millennium Declaration Goal No. 7, Target 11, to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020 taking into account the percentage of people with access to sanitation, the percentage of people with access to safe water, the percentage of people with secure tenure, and the percentage of people in permanent housing.

United Nations Housing Rights Programme (UNHRP)
Launched in 2001 as a joint initiative by UN-Habitat and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Housing Rights Programme works to help states to follow through on the commitments made in the Habitat Agenda to guarantee the realization of the right to adequate housing. The UNHRP has five focus areas, all of which aim to promote understanding and awareness of housing rights and build on the ongoing activities in the area of housing rights of its two founding United nations agencies. These focus areas are: 1) advocacy, outreach, and learning from partners; 2) support for United Nations human rights mechanisms on housing rights; 3) monitoring and evaluation of the progress of the realization of housing rights; 4) research and analysis on housing rights; and 5) capacity-building and technical cooperation.

International Union of Tenants (IUT)
The International Union of Tenants is an NGO that seeks to represent, safeguard, and promote the interests of tenants. Founded in 1926 in Zurich (Switzerland), IUT now has 48 member organizations in 42 countries, 30 of which are in Europe. IUT's priorities include the realization of the right to housing in a safe residential environment for affordable and fair rent; cooperation between tenants and the realization of their rights to participate and organize; the elimination of discrimination with regard to housing; and the spread of secure tenure. It furthers these objectives through its consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, partnerships with UN agencies, the European Union, and NGOs, and information dissemination through its website, the Global Tenant.

Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE)
The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions is an international NGO that works to promote and protect the right to housing through its programme areas involving housing rights training, research and publications, monitoring, preventing and documenting forced evictions, fact-finding missions, housing and property restitution, women's housing rights, and active participation and advocacy within the United Nations and regional human rights bodies. On a national and local level, COHRE assists other NGOs and government agencies in their own capacity-building, giving particular focus to the satisfaction of the housing rights of traditionally disadvantaged groups. COHRE maintains regional programs in the Asia and Pacific region, in Africa and in the Americas.



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International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is "signed" by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

The binding treaties can be used to force governments to respect the treaty provisions that are relevant for the human right to adequate food and water. The non-binding instruments, such as declarations and resolutions, can be used in relevant situations to embarrass governments by negative public exposure; governments who care about their international image may consequently adapt their policies.

The following are the international treaties, declarations and commitments that address the human right to adequate food and water:


UNITED NATIONS

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (article 1, 2, 25)
The Universal Declaration asserts the fundamental equality and dignity of each human being in its first article. Its second article, known as the principle of non-discrimination, means in the context of the right to housing that every individual and group in society has the same entitlement to housing, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, etc. This article especially supports the equality with regard to housing of traditionally disadvantaged groups, such as racial minorities and women. Additionally, in article 25(1), the Universal Declaration also states the right of each person to an adequate standard of living. This standard includes the right to housing.

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (article 2,3, 11)
The International Covenant compels all contracting states to takes steps towards the full realization of the listed economic, social, and cultural rights. It also affirms the equal right of men and women to enjoy these rights, specifically stating the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing.

The United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has elaborated on the rights contained in the International Covenant in documents known as General Comments. In general, the content of the general comments reflects a movement toward an interpretation of the right to housing with a broader and deeper reach. The most significant General Comments are::

General Comment No. 4 (1991)
This General Comment expands on the provisions of article 11(1), and includes a holistic conception of the right to housing and more specific standards for the definition of adequacy.

General Comment 7 (1997)
This General Comment addresses the issue of forced evictions; it defines the term, provides clarification of the terms of the Covenant for determining the circumstances under which forced evictions are permissible, and spells out the types of protection required to ensure respect for the relevant provisions of the Covenant.

The right to housing is also cross-referenced in other General Comments by the Committee. For example:

General Comment 5 (1994) (paragraphs 15, 22 and 33)
Addressing the rights of persons with disabilities, this General Comment refers to the effects of disability-based discrimination on housing (paragraph 15). It is necessary to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to adequate food, accessible housing and other basic material needs (paragraph 22), as well as support services to assist those people in increasing their independence in daily life and exercising their rights (paragraph 33).

General Comment 6 (1995) (paragraph 33)
This General Comment on the economic, social and cultural rights of older persons recalls the International Plan on Ageing's emphasis on the psychological and social importance of housing for the elderly in addition to its physical significance as shelter (paragraph 33).

General Comment 14 (2000) (paragraphs 11 and 43)
This General Comment concerns the right to the highest standard of health and emphasizes the interdependence of this right and other human rights. The right to health includes not only sufficient and timely health care, but also underlying determinants of health, such as access to safe and potable water, adequate sanitation, an adequate supply of safe food, nutrition and housing, and healthy occupational and environmental conditions (paragraph 11). It follows that state obligations relating to the right to health include ensuring access to basic shelter, housing and sanitation and an adequate supply of drinking water (paragraph 43).

The following documents also contribute to international and regional standards for the right to housing:

International Labour Organization Convention No. 97 on Migration for Employment (1949) (article 6iii)
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a United Nations specialized agency that articulates international labour standards in the form of binding Conventions and non-binding Recommendations. This convention guarantees the equal treatment of lawful immigrants to a member state and that state’s own nationals with regard to accommodation. In total, some 37 ILO conventions and recommendations mention in one respect or another, the subject of housing.

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) (article 21)
This convention requires ratifying states to accord refugees treatment as favourable as possible, and not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, with regard to housing.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) (article 5e)
This convention compels States to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all forms and ensure the right of everyone to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to housing.

Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (1975) (article 9)
This declaration asserts the right of disabled persons to live with their families or with foster parents, subjected to no unnecessary differential treatment or living conditions.

ILO Recommendation No. 162 concerning Older Workers (1980) (section II, paragraph 5(g))
This recommendation states that older workers must enjoy equality of opportunity and treatment with other workers without age discrimination, including access to housing, social services and health institutions, particularly when this access is related to occupational activity or employment.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) (article 14)
This convention guarantees the right of rural women to adequate living conditions, particularly housing.

Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) (article 8.1)
This declaration urged states to undertake necessary measures at the national level for the realization of the right to development and ensure equality of opportunity with regard to access to social resources and other needs, including housing.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) (article 27)
This convention requires governments to take appropriate measures to assist parents and others responsible for the child to implement the right to an adequate standard of living, particularly with regard to housing

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990) (article 43)
The right of migrant workers to access to housing, including social housing systems, and to protection against exploitation with respect to rents is guaranteed in this convention.

United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994) (article 22)
Though not yet adopted, this declaration mentions housing rights three times. Indigenous peoples have the right to special measures for improvement of their economic and social conditions, including in the area of housing. Indigenous peoples also have the right to determine, plan and administer housing and other programmes affecting them. Similarly, indigenous peoples also have the right to autonomy in matters relating to their own internal and local affairs, including housing, as well as ways and means for financing those affairs.

Governments has made international commitments specific to the right to housing, yet which are non-binding:

ILO Recommendation No. 115 on Worker’s Housing (1961)
This recommendation is the longest international legal text concerning housing, and states that national housing policy should aim to ensure that adequate housing is available for all workers and their families, with a degree of priority given to those with most urgent needs.

Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements (1976) (section I (8))
This declaration was the outcome of the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I), which concerned the organization of human settlements and the national and international actions needed to accommodate the population growth in both urban and rural communities. The Conference established the concept of human settlements as consisting of several elements that had been previously considered separately from one another - housing, building, planning and the relationship of these and such other activities as environmental change and national and international development. The declaration describes the obligations of governments with regard to housing, especially those relating to the creation of socially and racially integrated communities.

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) (articles 49, 60(n), 94, and 255(k))
This comprehensive declaration on the advancement of the rights of women includes a description of poverty as a particular barrier to the realization of human rights, mentioning specifically homelessness and inadequate housing (article 49). In its strategic objectives, the platform includes actions to be taken by governments to ensure access to housing (article 60(n)), and good health (article 94), as well as actions to be taken by non-governmental organizations and the private sector (article 255(k)).

Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and Programme of Action (1995) (articles 19, 34(c), 34(e), 35(b), 39(h), 59(b))
This outcome of the World Summit for Social Development includes ten commitments made by the signing states expressing their goals of eradicating poverty and promoting social development. The right to housing is addressed specifically in the Programme of Action. Chapter 2: Eradication of Poverty articulates a basis for action against poverty (article 19) and suggests ways to address urban poverty, mentioning housing programs in articles 34(c) and (e). Articles in this chapter also describe actions governments should take to raise public awareness about housing needs (article 35(b)) and highlight the need to improve the social condition of single parents by providing housing and child care support (article 39(h)). In Chapter 3 of the Programme of Action, which concerns the reduction of unemployment, improvements in housing are cited as measures conducive to improving the employability of disadvantaged groups (article 59(b)).

Habitat Agenda and Plan of Action (1996)
This document is an outcome of the second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), a “City Summit” whose stated purpose was to address the themes of adequate shelter for all and sustainable human settlements in an urbanizing world. The global action plan reconfirms the legal status of the human right to adequate housing and in this context sets out over 100 commitments and 600 recommendations for cooperation and unified action toward the realization of the right to housing.

Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements (1996)
This declaration expresses the commitments of governments at the Habitat II conference to the objectives, principles, and recommendations of the Habitat Agenda.

Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements in the New Millennium (2001)
This declaration, adopted at a special session of the General Assembly, reviewed the Istanbul Declaration on Human Settlements and the Habitat Agenda set out in 1996, and prescribed new initiatives for meeting the commitments of those documents. In the spirit of the United Nations Millennium Declaration, it also endorsed the specific Millennium Declaration target of making a significant improvement in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

The position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing was established in 2000 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 2000/9 and mandated to report on the status of the realization of housing rights, promote cooperation among and assistance to governments, UN agencies, and international and national NGOs, apply a gender perspective, identify possible types and sources of funding for housing activities, and facilitate the inclusion of housing issues in relevant UN missions and national offices. In addition to briefing the sessions of various United Nations agencies and bodies on specific issues and regions, the Special Rapporteur reports annually to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on progress made, emerging issues and challenges, and recommendation for future activities. Appointed in 2000 for a term of three years, the first and current Special Rapporteur is Miloon Kothari of India.


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AFRICAN UNION (FORMERLY ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY, OAU)

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2000) (article 16)
This treaty explicitly describes women’s right to equal access to housing and acceptable living conditions.


COUNCIL OF EUROPE

European Social Charter (1961) (Part I: article 31; Part II: articles 15(3), 16, 19(4)(b), 23, 30, 31)
Part I of the Charter lists its policy aims of promoting the conditions conducive to human rights, including the right to housing (article 31). Part II lists the obligations the states agree to be bound by. Article 31 compels states to promote access to housing of an adequate standard, to prevent and reduce homelessness with a view to its gradual elimination, and to make the price of housing accessible to those without adequate resources. The obligations of states concerning the realization of the right to housing are also referenced in related articles concerning other rights. According to article 15(3), states must ensure the right of persons with disabilities to independence, social integration and community participation by enabling access to housing. States must promote the satisfaction of the right of the family to social, legal and economic protection through the provision of family housing (article 16). They must guarantee this and other rights to migrant workers and their families, who are entitled to comparable treatment with respect to accommodation (article 19(4)(b)), and to the elderly (article 23). Additionally, states are obliged to offer particular housing assistance to persons who live or risk living in situations of poverty or social exclusion (article 30).

European Convention on Establishment (1965) (article 2)
Under this convention, each contracting state guarantees to nationals of the other contracting states the facilitation of prolonged or permanent residence in its territory.

European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers (1977) (articles 6(1), 13)
Contracting states are obliged to provide appropriate information to prospective migrant workers on, among other things, their residence, housing, and living conditions. Once employed, migrant workers are entitled to access to housing equivalent to the access enjoyed by the nationals of the state in which they are working, and national authorities must undertake inspections to ensure this condition (article 13). Before migrant workers set out to return home, their states of origin shall communicate to the receiving state information on the conditions of their resettlement and steps to be taken to facilitate the finding of accommodation.


ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN STATES (OAS)

Charter of the Organization of American States (1948) (article 34k)
The Organization of American States is a multilateral political organization made up of independent countries from North, Central, and South America. Its Charter expresses the agreement of the member states on basic goals for equality of opportunity, elimination of extreme poverty, equitable distribution of wealth and income and the full participation of their peoples in decisions relating to their own development. Among the conditions for the achievement of these goals is adequate housing for all sectors of the population.

 

ORGANIZATION FOR SECURITY AND COOPERATION IN EUROPE (OSCE)

Helsinki Final Act (1975)
In this treaty governments agree to cooperate to ensure that migrant workers enjoy satisfactory living conditions, especially housing conditions.


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National Protection and Service Agencies

Although most states do not stipulate a clear right to housing, most do have legislation and national programs related to housing. In fact, UN-Habitat reports that 75% of the world’s countries have constitutions or national laws that promote the full and progressive realization of the right to adequate housing. Legal protections of the right to housing at the national level often involve arbitrary eviction, safety and health regulations, or equal protection and non-discrimination issues. In the United States, for example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended by the Fair Housing Act of 1988; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, Section 109, Title I of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, as amended; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended, all address housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is charged with carrying out programmes to institute this legislation. The activities of its Office of Fair housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) involve the fulfillment of the right to access to housing in practice, but are not framed in a rights-based context by the U.S. Government.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires States to submit reports to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights every five years detailing the measures they have taken to promote the realization of the right to housing of their citizens. Through these reports the Committee is able to monitor the progress of the right to housing. This monitoring function is impeded, however, by the fact that few States systematically collect the housing statistics and indicators necessary for a full appraisal, including the number of homeless persons, the number of inadequately housed persons, the number of persons arbitrarily evicted in the previous five-year period, legislation affecting the right to housing and land use, and measures taken to ensure that international assistance for housing is used to satisfy the needs of the most disadvantaged groups. In some cases, the State does not have the capacity to obtain this information; in others, the State chooses to devote its resources to other issues.

States, specialized UN agencies, and NGOs may raise specific issues related to the right to housing in several United Nations forums, and States may raise concerns about housing rights situation in another State if they feel the State is not fulfilling its legal obligations and commitments. To date, violations of housing rights have generally been limited to the context of forced evictions carried out or tolerated by the State. In the future, however, a general decline in housing conditions as a direct result of legislative and policy decisions by States parties to international conventions and in the absence of appropriate compensation will be considered a violation of those conventions. States committing these violations would therefore be subject to disciplinary or retributive measure by the United Nations. While the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights outlines no formal mechanisms by which individuals can submit complaints alleging the non-compliance of their Governments with their housing rights commitments, individuals may work with NGOs at the annual sessions of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to draw attention to the actions and legislation of States parties to the Covenant. In addition, individuals asserting certain types of housing violations could arguably utilize the complaint mechanisms of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Economic and Social Council resolution 1503 procedure and the enforcement mechanisms of the International Labour Organization.

Individuals who wish to promote and protect their right to housing through their own Governments achieve varying degrees of success depending on their country of residence. International and regional treaties that specifically address the right to housing are widely ratified, but few states specify this right in their own constitutions and laws. Only since the 1990’s has a rights-based perspective of access to adequate housing become widely articulated. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) is a notable illustration of this new perspective, as it explicitly guarantees the right to adequate housing and compels the state to take reasonable steps to achieve its progressive realization. It also prohibits the practice of forced eviction.

In many countries housing policy is oriented around securing the affordability of housing, which is an issue for both potential homeowners and renters. According to UN-Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities (2001), households in cities of developing countries need an average of 12.5 times their annual income to buy a house. The highest rents exist in the Middle East, where a household spends an average of 45% of its monthly income on rent. The creation of affordable housing generally involves Governments subsidizing the cost of building new housing, stabilizing rent, or offering loans or credit at a low-interest rate. Eligibility for public or subsidized housing is usually determined by a low income, and demand is especially high in urban areas.

Citizens who feel the satisfaction of their right to housing is in jeopardy may pursue a variety of legal and non-legal strategies to assert their rights. Legal strategies include legal appeals to prevent planned evictions or demolitions through court-ordered injunctions, legal procedures to obtain compensation following an illegal eviction, complaints against illegal actions carried out by landlords in relation to rent levels, maintenance, or discrimination, allegations of discrimination in the allocation or availability of housing, complaints about unhealthy or inadequate housing and class action suits related to significantly increased levels of homelessness. Non-legal strategies include research, education, monitoring, mobilization, participation in neighborhood networks, negotiation, constituency-building, intersectoral collaboration, development of model national housing plans, and budget analysis.

Most states have programs designed to address the immediate issues of homelessness, although these programs are usually operated on a local level. Homeless shelters and temporary housing provide shelter for those in need as well as other services such as counseling, job training, and advocacy to help people move towards a position from which they can obtain and maintain their own housing. Most governments also have plans and programs for aid to victims of natural disasters who have lost their homes.

 


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Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

For advocates

Learning, Reflecting and Acting for a Human Rights Future: A Training Manual for the Education of the Human Right to Housing in Urban Communities (by Teresita V. Barramed and Lea L. Espallardo, Quezon City, 1996)
The purpose of this text is to help readers understand the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights through study of the human right to food and nutrition. The text can be used for self-directed learning, in a training or classroom.

The Right to Adequate Housing (in: Circle of Rights. Economic, Social & Cultural Rights Activism A Training Resource, International Human Rights Internship Program/Forum-Asia).
The purpose of this module is to clarify the content and scope of the right to housing. The module presents international, regional and national standards guaranteeing the right to housing; enumerates the state’s obligations; elaborates on the guarantees provided under article 11 of the ICESCR as contained in General Comments 4 and 7 by the CESCR; and considers strategies for ensuring the enjoyment of the right to housing.

For facilitators/teachers

Our Homes, Our Lives, Ourselves: A Fun Book to Help Young People Get the Issues Right Concerning Women in Human Settlements Development (United Nations Centre for Human Settlement).
A booklet intended to help teenagers get an idea what it is like to be a woman. They do this by reading, thinking and investigating the role of women in various ways. The booklet includes a board game ('The Game of Life') and sections on finance, land, information, networking, environment.


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Other Resources

Courses and training opportunities

Organisations advocating for and educating about housing rights

World Habitat Day (first Monday of October)


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Housing Rights are Human Rights

Key terms

Adequate housing - housing that conforms to basic standards with regard to security of tenure, availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location, and cultural adequacy.

Affordable housing - housing for which the associated financial costs are at a level that does not threaten other basic needs and represents a reasonable proportion of an individual’s overall income

Forced eviction - the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection

Homeless - a description of a person or family lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nightly residence or a person or family whose primary nightly residence is a shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodation

Household - a person or groups of persons occupying a single dwelling

Housing discrimination - acts or policies that do not provide for or inhibit equal access to housing. Not selling or renting to a person or not lending financial support to purchase housing on the basis of race, render, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. are forms of housing discrimination.

Human settlement - the entirety of a human community, whether city, town or village, and the social, material, organizational, spiritual and cultural elements that sustain it. The fabric of a human settlement consists of physical elements and services to which these elements provide the material support.

Migrant worker - someone who undertakes work for pay in a state where he or she is not a national. Documented migrant workers are entitled to the same rights as the nationals of the state in which they are working with regard to housing.

Public housing/social housing - housing financed, constructed, or allocated by the state, usually for persons with low income. Sometimes known as affordable housing, public housing is generally kept at affordable rent levels or financed with low-interest loans or credit.

Squatter - a person residing in a dwelling or on land without legally owning it. For example, persons who live in unused or abandoned buildings are squatters.

Tenant - a person possessing the right to occupy land or housing but who does not own it. Generally, a tenant rents the land or housing from its owner.

Historical dates

1944 - The ILO's Philadelphia Declaration concerning its founding aims and purposes includes the obligation to advance programmes that provide housing.

1948 - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to adequate housing.

1976 - First United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I)

1978 - United Nations Human Settlements Programme established

1987 - International Year of Shelter for the Homeless

1996 - Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II)

2000 - First UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing appointed

This guide was developed by Caroline Buddenhagen.

Copyright © Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), 2003. All rights reserved.

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