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