Right to housing - what does it mean?

Let’s consider what ‘right to housing’ might mean. The UN Committee for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (the Committee) has said that it is not only the right to have shelter over one’s head. Rather, it is the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity. (General Comment No. 4: The right to adequate housing, para 7.)

How did they build that argument? It is based on the interdependency of rights standards(eg, without shelter and food, there can be no life and no dignity) and the fundamental principle of the inherent dignity of the human person on which human rights are based.

In its General Comment No. 4, the Committee has interpreted the right to housing to be the right to adequate housing, incorporating the following attributes.

 

Regardless of whether people are tenants, owners, boarders, in emergency or informal housing, they should have security of housing tenure that protects them against forced evictions or harassment (para 8(a)). The Committee has produced another General Comment specifically on the question of forced evictions, whether because of conflict and violence, or in the name of development. It links the right to housing to the right to be free from unlawful or arbitrary interference with one’s home (ICCPR, Article 17(1)) and narrows the circumstances in which people can be properly removed from their homes.

Only following due consultation; proper procedures such as adequate notice and information; provision for alternative accommodation; provision for legal remedies and adequate compensation can a person be removed whether by an Australian government, or a third party (like a developer). It is the responsibility of all levels of government to ensure third parties do not breach a person’s right to adequate housing. (General Comment No. 7, The right to adequate housing: forced evictions, paras 13-16.)

Availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure

Adequate housing must contain facilities essential for health, security, comfort and nutrition. People should be able to have:

  • sustainable access to safe drinking water
  • energy for cooking
  • heating and lighting
  • sanitation and washing facilities
  • means to store food
  • refuse disposal
  • site drainage and
  • emergency services (para. 8(b)).

Affordability

The cost of housing should not threaten or compromise a person’s ability to satisfy other basic needs. Australian governments should make housing subsidies and forms of housing finance available, and to protect tenants against unreasonable levels or rent, or increases in rent (para. 8(c)).

Habitability

To be ‘adequate’, housing should provide inhabitants with adequate space and protect them from weather, structural hazards, means of transmitting diseases (eg, stagnant water; insects; vermin), and other threats (eg, natural disaster) (para. 8(d)).

Accessibility

Policies and procedures must be developed that are designed to ensure that people most in need (eg, people with disabilities; terminally and chronically ill; victims of natural disasters; the homeless) are prioritised and given appropriate housing (eg, no steps for a person who uses a wheelchair) (para. 8(e)).

Location

Adequate housing is within reasonable distance to employment, health services, education, child care and other social facilities. It is not in disaster-prone, polluted or dangerous zones (para. 8(f)).

Cultural adequacy

We should pay attention to the materials, design and construction of housing to ensure cultural identity and diversity is expressed – that is, it is important to guard against ‘one size fits all’ housing solutions (para. 8(g)).