Is Housing a Human Right?

Last updated: November 18, 2010 – 9:24 AM

I recently attended a symposium “Bring Human Rights to Legal Services.”  The bulk of the discussions between Legal Aid attorneys and housing advocates were around how to bring a human rights framework to our work of supporting people living in poverty.  The symposium ended up raising more questions than answers.  To begin with, is housing a human right?  And if so, what does that mean?   MTO’s Hotline hears from hundreds of tenants every year who are getting evicted because they cannot afford to pay the rent.  They may have lost their job, had unforeseen medical expenses or because of the severe shortage of affordable housing, they end up taking a place they cannot afford and eventually are unable to pay the rent.  If housing is a human right, then what should happen to people who are denied that right?  The question can get more complex; what about the renter who tries to scam the system and live rent free for months, or the drug dealer who brings violence into our neighborhoods?  How would a right to housing affect them?  Are there responsibilities that come with rights and what are those responsibilities?

The right to housing also raises a more central question: just what is housing?  For example due to the earthquake in Haiti, many people are living in tents.  Would a tent be considered housing?  What about having heat in the winter?  Should there be some sort of guarantee that housing is heated in the winter? What about air conditioning in the summer if you are a senior citizen with a heart condition?  Is a homeless shelter considered housing?

What about the rights of landlords?  Should they have to absorb the cost if their tenant cannot afford the rent?  Let’s look at the bed bug crisis.  It can cost thousands of dollars to safely exterminate the pests.  Who should bear the cost?  These are just of few of the questions that come to mind.  MTO would like to hear from you.  Is housing a human right and what does that mean?

– John Bartlett

All 4 Comments

  1. Having just returned from France in late October of 2010, and having discussed this very topic with John Bartlett after my return, I am happy that John posted it here, but I would have hoped he would have indicated that a long-term member of the Board of Directors of MTO, namely Paul Bernstein, discussed this topic with him and had several affirmative recommendations.

  2. John Bartlett,

    You are missing the forest for the tress if you believe that grifters living rent-free for a few months are the people most responsible for scamming the system. The economically unequal and geographically uneven nature of private real estate markets, the actions of rentiers (bankers, real estate developers, landlords), and government policy (which systemically promotes the interests of rentiers over tenants) cause for more human suffering and economic inefficiency than the individual squatter. Similarly, if you think making drug dealers homeless will curb the drug problem, you are hallucinating. The drug economy thrives exactly because of the lack of living wage jobs and affordable housing. You are getting cause and effect exactly backwards. The biggest obstacles to providing adequate and affordable housing to all are not the subsistence strategies of some poor people. Rather, it is the institutional power of place rentiers and growth machine government that drive housing in the interests of bankers and landlords and against the interests of tenants.

    It is strange to read this from someone in your position. If I did not see your position in the MTO on this website I would have thought your post was that of a Glenn Beck style reactionary playing the role of the concern troll, pretending to be for tenant rights but in reality opposed to them. Cut the pseudo critical posturing and pick a team.

    1. I believe that you have misinterpreted the intent and content of the article. To begin with I firmly believe that housing is a human right and agree with many of the points that you brought up. The article was not meant to discuss or analyze the merits of whether housing should be a human right or why it may not be recognized as a right by many in this country. The article was meant to start an important discussion as to what it would mean if housing were a human right. Following on that thought, I believe that with rights come responsibilities. Is it fair to think that a drug dealer should be able to bring the crime and violence associated with dealing into a residential apartment building without any consequences? MTO receives numerous calls from tenants who do not feel safe in their unit, are afraid to venture outside after dark or to allow their children to do so. This is a problem and it forces families to uproot themselves and leave their homes. The question was raised in an effort to examine the community’s right to housing and how that interacts with individual’s right to housing. It was not meant to be a proposed solution to the drug problem or as a way to punish users. Certainly a decent, stable and affordable home is a key to anyone trying to overcome a drug addiction. I think this was the whole point of the article to raise question what would it mean if housing were a human right.
      The Metropolitan Tenants Organization does take sides. We are an advocate for renters. Though we do so out of the community perspective that safe, decent and affordable housing are a benefit to the community and not from an individualistic, I can do whatever I want, outlook that pervades so much of this society.

  3. according to the universal declaration of human rights:
    “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (article 25(1))

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