Statement by Leilani Farha “A Step in the Rights Direction: Housing in the New Urban Context” at the 3rd European Forum on Housing


Berlin, Germany

November 18, 2015

Distinguished participants,

I am very pleased to help you launch the European
Housing Forum. I am the Special Rapporteur on the right to housing,
appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. Obviously my chief concern is
whether housing is being enjoyed as a human right and to what extent.

I am honoured to be included in your discussions as
I am deeply concerned by the pressures in Europe at this very particular point
in its socio-economic history and the impact of those pressures on housing.
From my vantage point what I see are unprecedented challenges coalescing at

  • The
    collapse of the real estate market that crippled many economies
  • The
    influx of thousands of refugees hoping to build a new life and establish
    security, with an estimated 750,000 refugees and migrants having arrived
    into Europe in the last year.
  • Issues
    associated with urbanization – with almost 75% of people in Europe living
    in cities, comparable to global trends
  • Rising rates
    of homelessness and housing precarity in many cities.
  • Social
    exclusion of migrants and refugees through the creation of ghettoes
    dislocated from city centres and the essentials offered by cities
    including employment opportunities.
  • Youth
    unemployment across the region that is at least double national averages –
    lending itself to young people having to remain at home for longer
    periods, putting increasing pressure on parental households.
  • Foreign
    investment in land and property making housing virtually unaffordable for
    those with few means.

What concerns me about each of these challenges and
their convergence is the pressure European states will be under to at times act
quickly, cut corners and engage in housing and related policy that deviates
from human rights standards and norms and that in fact contributes to ongoing
social exclusion and marginalization of particular groups that is extremely
costly –financially and socially – and that in the long run can have very
serious repercussions.

What is happening across Europe right now with
respect to housing now is incredibly complex. And when things are that complex
I think it is useful to go back to first principles. Sign posts that have stood
the test of time. I think as Europe moves forward to address these many and
competing issues, relying on human rights principles and standards will ensure
consistency across policy decisions and a clear way and basis upon which to
move forward.

Human Rights as a framework:

Let me remind you of what the right to adequate
housing looks like under international human rights law, and what it offers us
as, we set about addressing issues like housing affordability, sustainability
and liveability and the many complex issues I listed earlier.

Housing is a cornerstone right, indivisible from
and integral to all other rights. Narrow interpretations that focus on
housing as a commodity or housing that only provides a roof over one’s head
have been rejected under international human rights law. Rather, the right to
housing has long been understood as the right to live somewhere in peace,
security and dignity, without discrimination.

The central role housing can play in a society has
never been clearer than it is today, especially in Europe. Where and how people
live can have huge implications for how they view themselves in relation to
others in their community. Forced to the margins in terms of housing,
marginalization can become a central characteristic with far larger
implications moving well beyond housing.

Beyond walls and a roof, the right to adequate
housing under international human rights law requires that housing be
affordable, including the costs associate with housing like water and
sanitation, electricity, and heating.

International human rights law doesn’t provide a
prescription as to what percentage of income should be spent on housing costs.
But under IHRL the right to housing implies that affordability will not
only be answered through the development of social housing – which is all too
often how it characterized. It is equally about ensuring the rules of the
market conform with international human rights law. The right to adequate
housing places an onus on National and subnational governments to regulate
markets to ensure the right to adequate housing can be enjoyed by the most
marginalized. For example, progressive property tax systems, mixed income with
cross-subsidization to support affordable housing.

Before I turn to a more forward looking agenda, let
me remind you of the particular strengths of integrating a human rights
framework in into housing and related policy:

The rights to adequate housing and to
non-discrimination are themselves transformational. They
compel us to look at the systems and processes through which vulnerable groups
suffer disadvantage, and then beg the development of solutions that will
address those causes.

Unlike most frameworks, a human rights framework is
very clear about who is accountable for what. It clarifies roles
and responsibilities 
of governments as duty bearers. This can be particularly
important with respect to sub-national and local governments who increasingly
bear greater responsibility with regards to housing and human rights
implementation, but often find themselves challenged in terms of capacity,
knowledge and resources.

National and local governments are critical in
ensuring that access to adequate, affordable, well-located housing, near
essential services and facilities is viewed as a priority over market forces
acting with impunity.

At the same time, a human rights perspective
requires regulation and control of the actions or omissions of third
, such as real estate companies, investors, banks and others
involved in developments that may be the critical reason for evictions and
displacement, as well as for speculation and gentrification in cities.

The right to housing demands a
people-centred approach
. It takes as its starting point the capacities of
those who are homeless or living in inadequate housing to become both central agents
and prioritized stakeholders of housing policy and programmes. These groups
must be meaningfully consulted, have access to relevant information in a timely
fashion and be included in planning, design and implementation of public
policies. The right to housing – with its tentacles into a variety of areas –
economic/financial, health, education, employment – engenders new social,
economic and political relationships through which rights holders may be
empowered to define and claim their rights and effect social and political
change necessary for their realization.

Looking Forward

Many European countries are not only aware of their
international human rights obligations, but are also leaders in promoting
rights, particularly the right to housing. A number of states have laws
respecting the right to housing, have human rights in constitutions, and have
created national housing and homeless strategies grounded in human
rights. And, as you are no doubt aware, the European Union has a number
of mechanisms that help interpret human rights obligations, protect the right
to housing and other human rights, as well as offer access to justice for
rights violations.

What concerns me is that Europe continues to both
improve its own record regarding the implementation of the right to housing,
while also being a leader on the world stage.

The international community has an opportunity on
the horizon to grapple with the many housing and related issues facing Europe
right now and that I referenced at the beginning of my speech. And they
have an opportunity to reaffirm and embrace the ever-evolving human rights
framework, to ensure that no matter the phenomenon – whether it be the mortgage
crisis or the refugee crisis – our responses secure rights for the most disadvantaged.

The opportunity I am referring to in particular is
the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, also known as
Habitat III, which will be held in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016. Habitat III
will be the first global summit of the twenty-first century with housing and
urban challenges in the spotlight. It will also be the first global summit
following the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (now referred to as
2030 Agenda). While the SDGs took the first step in demonstrating international
commitment to addressing housing and urban challenges, Habitat III will be
crucial in defining concrete frameworks and approaches to achieve these goals
and targets.

And it is important that we see the connections
between the SDGs and Habitat III.

As some of you will know, the SDGs did not contain
a specific Goal on housing nor any reference to the right to housing, though
they do include references to other relevant rights like an adequate standard
of living and equality. Despite this absence in the Goals, there is a target
that is essential to our work on housing.

Under Goal 11, target 11.1 aims to provide access
for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services by 2030.
This is an incredibly ambitious goal, especially in light of the fact that over
1 billion people are living in inadequate housing and/or are homeless. In other
words, the SDGs commit states to ending homelessness and ensuring adequate
housing for everyone in 15 years. Ambitious. Doable, especially in the context
of Europe.

So far, in the lead up to Habitat III there have
been scant references to the right to housing, despite the strong inclusion of
a rights framework in the Habitat Agenda from 20 years ago. That being said,
Habitat III is the right place at the right time to concretize, and elaborate
upon target 11.1 of the SDGs.

The transformative capacity of human rights to
address structural causes of disadvantage and ensure the most vulnerable are
not rendered more vulnerable, makes it essential to use a human rights
framework to move forward on urban agenda if we want to address the main issues
currently facing cities and States.

If the goal of housing policy is to ensure adequate
housing for all, to offer safe and secure spaces where families can grow, communities
flourish and people live in dignity, then we must look at human rights and
ensure they are at the foundation of current, and future, policy-making.

An Urban Rights Agenda

In my view, the challenge of Habitat III is to base
the outcome document – the new urban agenda – in an updated and more dynamic
understanding of the right to adequate housing. Habitat III is the right space
at the right time to embrace and articulate a new human rights framework for
cities. I am calling for the adoption of an urban rights agenda and
within this the right to adequate housing and associated obligations of all
relevant actors must be clearly articulated and firmly rooted.

Habitat III presents an opportunity to unify
diverse aspects of fiscal and housing policy under a human rights framework.
Bridging affordability, sustainability and liveability and charting a common
path for States to follow, what I am calling an “Urban Rights
Agenda”, allowing 
rights holders to be empowered to define and claim
their rights and effect social and political change necessary for their

An Urban Rights Agenda understands that housing
is more than a commodity
. Unless the primacy of human rights over market
forces and private profit is entrenched, urban development that reduces inequalities
and is based on inclusion and sustainability will be unachievable.

But perhaps most importantly, an Urban
Rights Agenda it will require a shift in priorities, and in the allocation of
and the recognition of all members of society as legitimate
participants in the decision-making process, including those who are

In my work, I have found that there is tremendous
capacity for creativity and innovation at the local level, which makes local
governments ripe for the adoption of a different approach to the challenges
they are facing.

I think as we move forward we need to face housing
related challenges with a new boldness and commitment to ensuring the
well-being of the most disadvantaged as the goal.

At Habitat III, I would like to see States commit
to ensuring the incorporation of the right to adequate housing and other human
rights as paramount elements of all urban law, policy and programmes, including
fiscal policy, resource allocation and land management. I would like states to
make real commitments to ensuring security of tenure for all households,
including all residents of informal settlements.

I would like States to expressly commit to the
elimination of homelessness by 2030 –with its direct links to affordability issues
as one of the most egregious systemic violations of the right to adequate
housing in cities.

And I would like States to be required to develop a
national housing strategy in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders that
outlines an action-plan to meet each of these commitments progressively using
all available resources.

We need to believe that the so-called impossible is
indeed possible. Otherwise, we will settle for less than we can achieve.

Thank you.