Housing as a Human Right

Each year on the 10th of December the UN and global community celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  Human Rights Day commemorates the milestone document that proclaimed the inalienable rights of each individual on this planet to live a life free from persecution, discrimination, torture and war. In this article we explore the precedence of housing as a human right and the implications that has for social housing providers in the UK.

Housing is mentioned once in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 25: as the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family” and states the right to the security of that home in the event of sickness, unemployment, old age or another “lack of livelihood” beyond the person’s control. Undeniably, as an international document, the standards for ‘adequate living’ vary widely from country to country.  However, the lowest expectations that are considered adequate in some of the poorest parts of the planet shouldn’t be accepted as a benchmarking threshold for richest.

There are not many countries that have ratified housing as a human right. In Europe some examples of nations that explicitly refer to adequate housing as a right in their constitutions include; Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and Poland. The UK has an unwritten, morphing constitution that does not contain a ‘right to housing’. Calls to introduce such a measure are regularly brought to parliament and in recent years pressure from politicians and the public have grown louder in the controversy surrounding rising homelessness numbers and the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

The provision of housing as a socio-economic right would be controversial in our country – the cost to taxpayers would be high and the social housing stock has yet to be replenished following years of the ‘Right To Buy’ policy. According to the Oxford Law Faculty, enshrining the provision of housing as a human right in the UK could lead to outcry in certain corners of society, politics and the media. This hasn’t always been the case though for Britons; from 1945 to the late 1970s, the ‘post-war consensus’ saw 300,000 new homes being built for the British public per annum.

So, what does the right to housing actually mean?

The most common misunderstanding in regard to the right to adequate housing is the belief that this would compel the state to provide housing for the entire population. That anyone in need of a home would be entitled to demand one. Most governments globally are involved in part in home building across their nation, however it is not the duty of governments to build the entire housing stock. To understand the right to adequate housing is to envision it less as the physical object of a house or flat, but as an ideological construct; “It should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace, and dignity.” As far as governments and housing providers are concerned, adequacy of housing can be measured by the following factors: habitability, affordability, accessibility, legal security of tenure, location, availability of resources and cultural adequacy.

Which human rights are most important to consider in the delivery of social housing?

The most important piece of legislation for organisations to comply to in the UK is the Human Rights Act of 1998. As mentioned above, the right to a physical home is not a ratified one in Great Britain, but there are provisions that impact social housing providers. According to the Equality and Human Rights commission, the most important to consider are the following:

Article 6: The Right to a Fair Trial

In circumstances where there are contractual disputes, both the resident and the provider should have a forum for a fair and public hearing. This right is pertinent in review or appeal proceedings that impact a resident’s right to a secure tenancy.

Article 8: Right to Respect for Private Life and the Home

The definition of a private life can be difficult to underpin – but for housing this should include the right to live your life the way that you choose. The right to a home is not, as mentioned above the right to housing but instead the right of an individual to conduct their home lives without interference. Legally, the right to respect for a family life includes the right of a family to live together. Additionally, the personal information or data of a resident should be kept private and protected.

Article 14: Prohibition of Discrimination

In housing, discriminatory laws are those which exclude residents from certain rights or access to services based on an identifying feature such as their race, gender, sexual orientation or marital status. For example, a housing provider should offer the same tenancy security to a co-habiting couple as they would a married one.  Discriminatory practice from a housing provider could also include limiting resident participation in decision-making; or failing to take action against perpetrators of antisocial behaviour that could be discriminatory.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25 “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family”

If a resident with accessibility issues was in need of an aid or adaptation there is no human right that compels a housing provider to carry out these adaptations. However, it may be worth considering that respect for a person’s private life should include their ability to enjoy it and navigate it safely and functionally.

If an organisation is unsure whether their policies are compliant with the Human Rights Act, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has built a checklist just for social housing providers that can be found here.

In the coming years, Britain’s approach to human rights and to the provision of housing is likely to change. The ever-pressing issue of the housing crisis, the wake of Brexit, and the looming election results are all set to have a profound impact on what our government is responsible for and it remains to be seen if we will continue to benchmark our human rights standards against International and European ones. The human right to housing is primarily the right to a safe and secure home free from discrimination or violence and thus forms the baseline of what a housing provider should and can achieve.