What is the right to housing and why does it matter? Lessons from around the world

Joining CUI host Mary W. Rowe for our  series about  what’s working, what’s not, and what’s next, as we (re)imagine the right to home – What is the right to housing and why does it matter? Lessons from around the world – are Shivani Chaudhry, Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network (India); Leilani Farha, Global Director, The Shift (Canada); Paula C. Marques, Councilor, Local Development and Housing, City of Lisbon (Portugal); Brennan Rigby, The Shift Aoetearoa Project Lead, Community Housing Aotearoa (New Zealand); and Michel Tremblay, Senior Vice-President, Policy and Innovation, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

One prescription for COVID, many inequalities and a path forward

Our international panelists confirmed that the primary prescription for the global pandemic was the same: “to stay safe, stay home”. COVID-19 has made absolutely clear the inextricability of adequate housing and life, health and safety – this is the basis of the Right to Home. COVID has exposed existing vulnerabilities and systemic inequalities faced by the many who cannot follow this simple guideline because of a lack of safe, adequate housing. Homelessness, domestic violence and the precarity of migrant workers existed before the pandemic but could a rights-based approach to housing finally provide lasting solutions?

Early COVID responses – a change in political will or response to necessity?

Governments across the globe have responded to the pandemic in vastly different ways, but each of our panelists spoke of some similar initial emergency responses implemented by governments to meet the immediate needs of those without a home. In New Delhi, some people experiencing homelessness were provided temporary shelter and meals, though many migrant workers remained stranded without employment, housing, or transportation. In Lisbon, rent collection was suspended for public housing and short-term rental activities (e.g., Airbnb) were halted. In the wake of COVID-19, early interventions such as these are interpreted by some as a demonstration of the missing political will that has allowed homelessness and housing crises to deepen around the world. Leilani Farha attributes these actions to a new awareness that adequate housing is a matter of life and death and is a necessity for all.

From emergency response to a secure housing future – what needs to change?

In addition to sparking an immediate emergency response for those without housing, the pandemic has invited a critical examination of housing policies and who holds decision-making power. Both land rights activist Shivani Chaudhry and Lisbon City Councillor Paula Marques revealed that the supply of social rental housing is clearly insufficient. But all panelists warn against falling back into the needs-based approach that focuses only on housing for the most vulnerable rather than an equity-based approach. A right to housing mentality is what is needed to protect today’s unhoused populations and future generations.

The need to get COVID recovery right

Panelists all expressed concern about approaches to post-COVID economic recovery and how it might impact housing and homelessness. For Shivani Chaudhry, a strong emphasis on infrastructure and development projects could contribute to displacement and homelessness. Michel Tremblay agreed that decisions on economic recovery will need to take into account the right to housing. There was consensus that strictly market-based approaches will not work. In addition to the creation of more affordable public housing, regulation of the housing market through rights compliance will be necessary.

Can a human rights-based approach to housing hold governments accountable?

The Canadian federal government’s National Housing Strategy (NHS) includes an acknowledgment of housing as a human right – a right legislated in the National Housing Strategy Act. In their consultations, the federal government heard that people across Canada agree that all have a right to the dignity of an adequate home – such a right, enshrined in law, provides a clear mandate. Shivani Chaudhry acknowledged the role of the central government in India to realizing this right, but maintains that they must cede control to local governments to take necessary action. Equally necessary is the adoption of a more participatory approach to policy-making, ensuring that those with lived experience of homelessness have a place at the decision-making table.