Adequate housing is a human right because it is central to dignity, autonomy and wellbeing. It means more than just having a roof over one’s head – it also means having a home, and a foundation for pursuing goals. A home gives people identity, purpose and ties to place that support inclusion, community and participation. In this way, it also provides a “bedrock” for the realization of other human rights. As Jeremy Waldron explained in a landmark essay on human freedom, “everything that is done has to be done somewhere” (p296), and to lack a place of one’s own is to be “comprehensively unfree” (p303). The realization of the right to adequate housing is thus vital and valuable for every human being.
The Foundation of the Right to Housing
The right to adequate housing is part of the Economic Social and Cultural (ESC) right to an adequate standard of living. It was first articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25(1)) in 1948. This right was then expanded upon in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11(1)) in 1966:
“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. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right…”
CESCR General Comment No. 4 (1991) provides a substantive understanding of the entitlements and obligations associated with the right and defines the minimum criteria for “adequate” housing, outlined in Table 1. It provides an international standard for assessing housing policy.
|Right to Housing Component||Content|
|(a) Legal security of tenure||Legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.|
|(b) Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure||Reliable provision of (access to) necessary resources and services, including: safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services.|
|(c) Affordability||Recognition that housing costs must be commensurate with income; provision of subsidies and support for those in need; protection against rent changes.|
|(d) Habitability||Provision of housing suitable to environment, adequate protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind etc., also structural hazards and disease vectors|
|(e) Accessibility||Accommodations to ensure equal access by all groups including those historically disadvantaged (mobility impaired, sick, etc.)|
|(f) Location||Housing located so as to ensure access to employment options, health-care services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities; also distance from potential health hazards|
|(g) Cultural adequacy||Offering a diversity of housing types, with built forms that enable expression of cultural identity; inclusive of modern technologies.|
Common Breaches of the Right to Housing
Successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Adequate Housing have identified homelessness as a severe breach of the right to housing. This status stems from the many negative consequences that follow from being deprived of housing, including poor health, discrimination and social exclusion. The right to housing provide a powerful – and international – vocabulary for making this ‘private’ suffering visible. It also provides a foundation for making the elimination of homelessness “a cross-cutting human rights priority in socioeconomic policy, planning and development” (Farha, 2015, para 5).
Forced evictions, and evictions that are likely to result in homelessness, are also common breaches of the right to housing. To underline the seriousness of the issue, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released General Comment 7, which focuses solely on forced evictions – “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 permission of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection” (Para 3). However, the right to housing does not prohibit evictions “in the case of persistent non-payment of rent or of damage to rented property without any reasonable cause” (Para 11), provided due process is followed.
Obligations Imposed by the Right to Housing
As an ESC right, the right to housing requires governments to take actions to realize the right progressively and to the maximum of their available resources, on the basis of non-discrimination. It obliges the state to ensure adequate housing through legislative, administrative and budgetary measures. To fulfil the right to housing, a National Housing Strategy is “almost invariably required” – a step Canada finally took in 2017 with the launch of A Place to Call Home. One of the benefits of a National Housing Strategy is that it sets a framework for legislation “that imposes clear-cut and strong obligations on the responsible actors (both in the public and private sector) that engages them to support this fundamental right” (Moons & Hubeau, 2016, p661).
Heffernan et al. (2015) elaborated on the state’s duty to fulfill the right to housing in Canada, stating federal and provincial governments should take “deliberate actions to amend laws, policies and programs in the areas of: (a) affordable housing; (b) income support to ensure affordability of housing; and (c) physically accessible housing for persons with disabilities and housing with supports for community living for persons with disabilities” (p23).
The right to adequate housing is a fundamental international human right that has been recognized for over 70 years. Its breach has serious consequences, and homelessness is its most severe violation. It imposes duties on states to respect, protect, and fulfil the right by taking immediate actions to prevent discrimination in housing, and to commit the maximum available resources to ensure progressive realization of its other components. A National Housing Strategy grounded in human rights offers a critical path forward.