The right to adequate housing

Source: Social Urban Forum
From March 23 to 26, parallel to the World Urban Forum, social movements from around the globe meet at the Social Urban Forum to debate and propose a perspective of another city: a democratic and egalitarian city, committed to social and environmental justice. Read the proposed draft of the Rio de Janeiro Declaration. [see more]
At first glance, it might seem unusual to address housing as a basic human right. Insecure and inadequate shelter, however, threatens physical and mental health and the overall quality of life. In other words, human dignity. This idea is mirrored in relevant international legislation, such as the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

What are the elements that constitute the human right to housing? The Habitat International Coalition, a network of NGOs working on this issue, developed a monitoring tool kit that has identified 14 constituent elements of the human right to housing, derived from international treaty obligations and other commonly accepted norms.

These elements are: security of tenure; public goods and services; environmental goods and services (water, considered an essential prerequisite to the right to housing); affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; cultural appropriateness; freedom from dispossession; information, capacity and capacity-building; participation and self-expression; resettlement; safe environment; security and privacy.

There is, however, a huge gap between words and facts. According to UN figures, one billion urban inhabitants live in inadequate housing, mostly in slums and squatter settlements in developing countries. As many civil society organizations and experts have pointed out, there is one big culprit: corporate globalisation and its negative effects on the life of the poor. As Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on the subject, puts it, “the deepening inequalities of income and opportunities between and within nations has lead to an increase in the number or people without adequate and secure housing. The human rights of people and communities to housing, water and sanitation (…) continue to erode as the process of privatisation deepens and accelerates”.

A heated debate is currently underway within the spheres of the United Nations. Conferences, declarations and follow-ups have turned into battlegrounds where NGOs denounce regressions with respect to accomplished goals.

The first UN conference on the issue, known as Habitat I, was held in Vancouver in 1976. Equity, social justice, solidarity, human dignity, free choice and free movement were the main principles articulated in this conference. It recommended that Governments and international organisations make “every effort to take urgent action”. Not only did problems persist, however, they multiplied in size and scope.

Twenty years later, in 1996, Istanbul hosted the second Habitat conference. The Habitat Agenda, the main document adopted by UN member states, represented an unprecedented breakthrough and a step forward. It recognized adequate housing as a fundamental human right. The whole process emphasized the importance of civic participation, thus breaking away from the previous approach to the Vancouver goals. It allowed for both meaningful and efficient NGO involvement in the drafting process.

In the Istanbul+5 conference, held in New York in 2001, the UN reviewed the implementation of the Habitat Agenda. According to the attending NGOs, this review entailed backtracking from Habitat II in terms of meaningful NGO and local authority participation. HIC issued a statement endorsed by 30 NGOs from 20 countries, where it condemned the absence of any reference to the right to adequate housing in the conference’s final declaration. It stated that “this regressive post-Istanbul trend has been championed by very few states”.

There is another arena in which housing rights are being internationally discussed: the Millennium Development Goals. In the year 2000, UN member states agreed to work towards achieving eight development goals detailed out in 18 specific and measurable development targets. Goal 7 Target 11 calls for a significant improvement in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers to be attained by the year 2020. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and UN Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteurs are encouraging NGOs to take part in the monitoring stage currently carried out by UN-HABITAT. They are also focusing on adopting a human rights perspective (that includes economic, social and cultural rights) in the whole process.

The World Bank has participated in this initiative through its programme “Cities Alliances” (launched together with UN-HABITAT). According to its promoters, “it was created to foster new tools, practical approaches and knowledge sharing to promote local economic development and a direct attack on urban poverty. Its activities support the implementation of the Habitat Agenda”.

When addressing housing as a human right, it is impossible to adopt a gender neutral approach. Women, either by law or by action, are excluded from or discriminated against in virtually every aspect of housing. It is necessary to take positive action to ensure their right to inheritance and the ownership of land and other property, credit, natural resources and appropriate technology, as well as to guarantee their right to security of tenure and to enter into contracts.

Another vulnerable group are Palestinians living in the occupied territories. There, demolishing houses has become a powerful and systematic means of domination. The isolated Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip, as local NGOs point out, are examples of the collective punishment inflicted by Israel on Palestinian civilians. In this regard, it is important to point out that there has been a regression. Even though their right to housing has been internationally recognised, it is being systematically violated.

What is civil society’s response to this critical global situation? Many NGOs are actively working to find alternative solutions. Their focus is both on meaningful community participation and face-to-face exchanges of experience. There is an increasing number of poor community groups mobilizing and visiting each other. This methodology of sharing and learning has proved particularly successful in breaking community isolation.

The Best Practices database, a joint product of UN-HABITAT and The Together Foundation, has collected and organized many of these experiences, demonstrating “the practical ways in which public, private and civil society sectors are working together to improve governance, eradicate poverty, provide access to shelter, land and basic services, protect the environment and support economic development”.
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Tuesday, March 30 2010
Social urban forum calls for social justice in the city
(Source: Social Urban Forum)
Friday, April 17 2009
Reclaiming the right to the city
(Source: New Left Review)

UN key web sites

UNFPA’s State of World Population 2007

Cities Alliance - Cities without slums

UN Habitat - United Nations Human Settlements Programme

UN-Habitat Millennium Development Goals

Special rapporteur: reports and statements

Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

Basic principles and guidelines on development-based evictions and displacement (HIC)

Reports and statements

Of mice and women (Indian Express)

Women and adequate housing

Statement by Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, on the International Women’s Day

Brazil: at least 6.5 million people live in favelas (Social Watch)

Millennium Development Goals

Land Rights Network (PWESCR) on the Millennium +5 Summit (Choike)

Millennium Development Goals

Guide to monitoring target 11: improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers

The Millennium Development Goals and economic, social and cultural rights

Focus on urban slums and the seventh Millennium Development Goal

The debate: NGO demands at the UN

Istanbul+5: UN General Assembly review of the Habitat agenda (NGLS)

Back to the future (HIC)

Touching a nerve. A critical observation of Instanbul +5 (Shack/Slum Dwellers’ International)

First preparatory committee session for Istanbul+5 (NGLS)

Second preparatory committee session for Istanbul+5 (NGLS)

World Urban Forum 3

Assessing the World Urban Forum 2006 (Housing and Land Rights Network)

Thirty years of Habitat I: no more neoliberal model of cities (International Alliance of Inhabitants)

Human Settlements Caucus Statement (NGO Committee on Human Settlements)

On housing

Violations of housing rights escalating around the world (HIC, Housing and Land Rights Network)

Map of Housing and Land Rights Alerts 2004-2006 (HIC)

Financing urban shelter: Global report on human settlements 2005 (UN-HABITAT)

Brazil: at least 6.5 million people live in favelas (Social Watch)

Insights on housing (ID21)

Forced evictions

Africa: forced evictions reach crisis levels (Amnesty International/ COHRE)

UN report on Zimbabwe massive evictions (UN-HABITAT)

NGO statement on Zimbabwe evictions (COHRE)

Forced evictions (COHRE)

Forced evictions reach crisis levels leaving millions homeless worldwide (COHRE)

Special Rapporteur on housing focuses on forced evictions (UNHCHR)

The case of Palestine

The UN Special Rapporteur Report on Palestinian Occupied Territories (HIC Europe)

UN-HABITAT to set up special programme in occupied Palestinian territories (UN-HABITAT)

A report by the World Bank (World Bank)

NGO parallel report (HIC)

Israel wins the world's worst housing rights violators award (ICAHD)

The Israeli aggression against Palestinian civilians and their property (Al-Mezan)

Israel and the Occupied Territories: destruction of homes and land by Israeli army (Amnesty International)

Israeli’s punitive house demolition policy: collective punishment in violation of international law (Al-Hac)

The separation wall in Palestine violates housing rights (Electronic Intifada)

Other issues related to housing

Special rapporteur’s statement at the World Conference against Racism (Durban, 2001)

Progressive realization of the rights of all children by creating child-friendly cities (HIC)

Foreign occupation, self-determination and sustainable development (HIC)

Racism and housing and land use (HIC)

Regularisation and titles for Afro-descendant communities (Choike)

Addressing Apartheid's legacy of homelessness

Poverty, children and shelter (Homeless International)


Global Campaign for Secure Tenure (UN-HABITAT)

Global Campaign on Urban Governance (UN-HABITAT)

Global Campaign to Rebuild Palestinian Homes (ICAHD)

Global campaign in defense of place and livelihood (HIC)

UN programmes, resolutions and declarations

Vancouver Declaration on Human Settlements

Habitat Agenda

Declaration on Cities and Other Human Settlements

Resolution A/56/206

UNCHR Resolution on women and adequate housing (ESCR-Net)

General Assembly resolutions on human settlements

Housing as a human right

Legal sources on the right to adequate housing under international human rights law (UNHCHR)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Monitoring the human right to adequate housing (HIC)

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

NGO joint appeal to African Ministers on urban housing (Amnesty International)

Human Rights groups demand urgent adoption of measures to address homelessness in Delhi (Housing and Land Rights Network)

The debate: housing and privatization

Privatising human rights - the impact of globalisation on access to adequate housing, water and sanitation (Social Watch)

How market forces shape urban spaces (InfoChange India)

NGOs and civil society

Asia Coalition for Housing Rights

ENDA on urban development

The South African Homeless Peoples’ Federation

Shack/Slum Dwellers’ International (SDI)


Habitat International Coalition

Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions

Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE)

The right to the city

Social urban forum calls for social justice in the city (Social Urban Forum)

Reclaiming the right to the city (New Left Review)

The right to the city: a lecture (HIC)

From unsustainable to inclusive cities (UNRISD)

World Charter of the Rights of the City

Gender and housing

UN-HABITAT resolution on women’s role and rights in human settlements development and slum upgrading

Bridging The Divide: Women’s Right To Adequate Housing (UNHCHR)

Women and housing rights: resource guide (COHRE)

Articles on gender and habitat (Development, habitat and gender)

Women and shelter network

Women and housing rights in India (HIC)

India: women’s role in city agenda setting (Asha)

Women, slums and urbanisation: examining the causes and consequences (COHRE)

Statement by Miloon Kothari, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, on the International Women’s Day

UNCHR Resolution on women and adequate housing (ESCR-Net)

Of mice and women (Indian Express)

Women and adequate housing (U,N,)

International initiative in the area of gender and economic, social and cultural rights (HLRN)

Arab regional consultation on the “Women’s right to adequate housing and land” (HIC)

Women’s land rights in Southern and Eastern Africa

Equal access to property remains one of the most disputed issues with regard to gender equality

Lack of sanitation causes distress and death

The case of Colombia

Defending the housing rights of displaced persons in Colombia (COHRE)

Successful experiences

Face to face (Shack/Slum Dwellers’ International)

Community participation in the management of the urban environment Rufisque (Senegal) (Enda)

The liberating power of self-reliance (The South African Alliance)

Good news from Asia and Africa (ACHR)

Face to face: breaking the isolation (ACHR)

Best practices database

Social housing financing policies in Santiago de Chile (Habitat International Coalition)

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