Markets alone cannot ensure housing for all, says UN expert Raquel Rolnik


Markets alone cannot ensure housing for all, says UN expert

The following statement was issued today in New York by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik:

The belief that markets will provide adequate housing for all has failed. The current crisis is a stark reminder of this reality. A home is not a commodity – four walls and a roof. It is a place to live in security, peace and dignity, and a right for every human being.

In the United States alone, the millions of homeowners and renters affected by foreclosures means a sharp increase in the numbers of the homeless. With the continuing housing and financial crisis spreading to many countries, things are only going to get worse. Millions more may face eviction because they cannot pay their mortgages.

Most analysts blame the crisis on a shortage of liquidity or a failure of regulation. Yet the subprime mortgage crisis reflects fundamental flaws in our approach to housing and the inability of market mechanisms to provide adequate and affordable housing for all. Excessive focus on homeownership as the one and single solution to ensure access to housing is part of the problem.

Homelessness does not affect only those marginalized by society or the very poor. Increasingly, it threatens also those who work but cannot afford market prices and are forced to live in inadequate housing. Homelessness, or living in inadequate housing conditions, can cause not only material deprivation but also the loss of enjoyment of a wide range of other human rights, whether civil and political or economic, social and cultural. The increase in foreclosures and homelessness also limits the ability of cities and communities to fund social programs, and spreads urban blight.

The current crisis should force us to think of a better system, one that provides more housing options and avoids relying on a single solution. Those countries that have not done so already should legally recognize the right to adequate housing for all; some so-called “developing” countries are more advanced in that regard than many wealthier ones. Housing legislation and policies should be defined with the contribution of all relevant stakeholders, not only by finance departments or the construction industry. Increasing public assistance for housing and ensuring it is available to all those in need is the way to prevent the current threat to our cities and communities.

We need to think out of the box. Homeownership may be the preferred option for many. But adequate housing for all is a public goal whose achievement requires a wide variety of arrangements, from tax advantages to buy a home to better legal protection for tenants and rent control areas; from direct subsidies to the poor to publicly owned housing and a range of tenure arrangements. Markets, even with appropriate regulation, cannot provide adequate housing for all: in any case an active public sector is needed.

Ms. Raquel Rolnik was appointed in May 2008 as Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. Her mandate involves reporting annually to the Human Rights Council on the status of the realization of the right to adequate housing throughout the world, and identifying practical solutions and good practices towards this end. An architect and urban planner, Ms. Rolnik has extensive experience in the area of housing and urban policies.

For further information on the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, please consult the website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


Press Conference

At a Headquarters press conference, newly-appointed Special Rapporteur on adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik stressed today that, while everyone was actively discussing the link between the current global financial crisis and the credit crunch, “nobody is talking about the impact of the financial crisis on the right to adequate housing”.

In fact, she continued, the sub-prime crisis had revealed fundamental flaws in a widespread approach to housing — that homeownership was the single solution to ensuring housing. “What is the lesson we can take out from this?” she posed to the assembled correspondents. In her opinion, the belief that markets would provide adequate housing for all had failed. For 20 years all over the world, there was faith that the problem of housing could be solved with credit. The belief had been that if credit was available, then everyone could own a home and be happy.

But in some regions, especially in developing countries, many people did not have the means to own and pay for a house. Assuming credit could resolve that, that approach dismantled essential housing policies, among others, public housing construction, subsidized houses rentals, and rent protection. With the shrinking of those methods to ensure housing for lower-income people, she said, there was no other alternative than to look for credit in order to own one’s home.

Sub-prime lending had been marketed to those who needed it the most and who were also the most vulnerable — the poor, she said. The millions of families who were victims of foreclosure, not just here in the United States, but around the world, faced homelessness if they had no family or friends who could offer them shelter.

She went on to introduce the concept that a home was not a commodity but a right for every human being. “It is not four walls and a roof. Home is a place to live in security, peace and dignity and it is a right for every human being.” To view housing as a right and not as a commodity would mean to provide policies to make that right accessible.

She also noted that in the current climate, “homelessness isn’t just a matter of poverty or disability. It is a matter of affordability”. Housing development and urban planning all over the world had increased rents and the price of land, thus making housing less affordable. That forced working people to spend half their income on rent or a mortgage and not have enough money to ensure health care, food, education and other needs.

She recalled housing policies of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, which had ensured housing options for the many diverse citizens around the world. “We need to think outside the box”, she stated, offering the idea that the present crisis provided an opportunity to “retake the issue of housing policy”, and reinvest money, energy, urban policy measures, as well as new legislation, in order to ensure everybody a place to live.

Distressingly, even as housing was not viewed as a human right in the United States, often even when prospective buyers had money, racism prevented many Americans from adequate housing. Noting that the troubling issue went beyond the shores of the United States, she decried the worldwide discrimination — on the basis of race, religion, beliefs, or being an indigenous person — kept people from owning a home. “The right to non-discrimination is fundamental and at the core of the definition to the right to adequate housing”, she declared.

The first step to changing a country’s perception of that right was to advocate adequate housing as a constitutional right, she said, noting that Brazil had integrated that right into its Constitution in 2000, and Ecuador had recently done the same. “But wonderful laws and legislation only work with enforcement and people’s ability to exercise their rights”, she added.

One correspondent asked about disaster reconstruction, giving the example of people in Myanmar who, following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, were reportedly refusing to return to living on the waterfront, which was now being developed possibly into a port. Ms. Rolnik spoke of her desire to have that specific issue as one of the elements of her mandate. Because of war or natural disaster, which is increasing due to climate change, the massive displacement illuminated the question of reconstruction and the rights of the people.

Even with the gaps in this issue, the participation of the community and the people was crucial in deciding on the next steps. She also pointed out that when a rapporteur received any complaint from a community along those lines, he or she contacted the respective Government to investigate and to participate in solutions. She added that, in the cases such as those of Myanmar or the Palestinian occupied territories, she would collaborate with the relevant rapporteur on the human rights situations in those regions.

Another question was asked about the mass evictions of Roma people in some regions, which was clearly based on discrimination. Ms. Rolnik remarked that such evictions were taking place in several European cities. The mass evictions brought her to her original point of having many different approaches and solutions to the issue of housing.

As for the Roma, she said that asking any people to live some way they never had was an impediment to the appropriate housing they needed. Having housing policies based on a nuclear family ignored the fact that many people lived in extended families which required different physical configurations and space. When developing housing policy the real needs of different communities and their unique social network needed to be reflected in the essential design.

Asked about her view on the financial bailouts and whether she thought such deals would help the homeowners or just corporations, she said she felt such measures were insufficient, especially for those most in need of assistance. The bailouts would work for the middle class because they would basically refinance mortgages. However, they would not work for those who did not have any money. They would need another strategy. More space and money needed to be redirected to public housing and alternative housing, which should also take into account of economic policies aimed at redistributing wealth.

Looking more broadly at the current housing crisis, she said that there were developing countries with no money and lagging economies. For this type of situation, the discussion would become about the distribution of wealth from the international community. A second group of countries, including Brazil and India, had very large populations, economies and resources. However, those resources were concentrated in a few hands and this created divided cities where some sections were modern and well-developed, while others were run-down — communities of self-built slums.

In that example, the poor built their own neighbourhoods. However, if urban planning had been implemented, “everybody in the city would have a small piece of good land”. She used as an example, New York City, with some of the most expensive real estate in the world, where several mechanisms of urban planning allowed for space and quotas for people with less income, among them, rent control and subsidized housing.

She concluded with her third and last example of Europe and in the United States, where housing policy was connected to welfare structures. Now, she observed, policy was being reversed and for the first time in almost a century, slums, mostly inhabited by immigrants, were spreading at the edge of cities like Madrid and in other areas of Europe. The first step needed was the recognition that a housing problem existed. From there, policies were needed to ensure if a person didn’t have money, they were still entitled to housing with dignity.

To listen to Raquel Rolnik’s statement, just clik here