Housing is in a global crisis. Adequate and affordable housing is a rare good – in the Western world, and in even more urgent ways in developing countries. What are the reasons that particularly cities all over the world are becoming increasingly unlivable and unaffordable? Do citizens and societies have to bear the evictions, the displacement and inaccessibility that come with the financialization of the housing market? Or is there a chance to reverse this trend? We had the opportunity to talk to Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, about the global housing crisis and possible ways out.
topos: In what sense is housing one of the most urgent global issues nowadays?
LEILANI FARHA: The way I feel the urgency is that everywhere I go housing and its affordability or one’s ability to access decent housing are a huge problem. Whether I’m sitting in a café in New York and speak with a person serving there or whether I’m at a market somewhere in Africa: when I start talking about housing, for most ordinary people it is a stress. It’s not just in my line of work. Ask your Uber driver, ask the person working in a hotel, ask the waiter in a restaurant, ask a man on the street somewhere in Africa running a small business… It’s the nature of housing that makes it such an important issue. Housing is the link between one’s dignity and one’s ability to survive in our world, i.e. to have employment, to have good health and to be safe and secure. So much springs from housing.
topos: So, housing is an issue that challenges people across the board, except for a minority of privileged people – it affects ordinary residents in the vast majority of cities in the world, and especially the poor, the homeless and refugees…
FARHA: That’s right. And I think there is something interesting I’m currently
learning about housing: it is a deeply private thing. When people suffer because their housing situation is deficient, they are embarrassed. When I meet parents with children, they are so embarrassed that they cannot provide decent housing for their children. There are few situations where people feel their dignity at stake in the same way as when someone steps forward and says: I live on the pavement. And this injustice is unacceptable.
topos: In your opinion housing is so essential to every person that it should be regarded as a human right… That is what you are fighting for, correct?
FARHA: It’s not just my claim. Housing as a human right exists in international human rights law, and governments around the world have signed and ratified it. It means simply the right to live somewhere in peace and with security and dignity. Of course, there is a bigger definition that is more specific than that as well. It includes that you should have security of tenure, that you shouldn’t be afraid of being evicted. Clearly, housing should be affordable. And affordability has to be defined based on household income and resources, not based on what the market can bear. In so many cities now you see that governments claim they’re creating “affordable” housing but then they use the market as the measure.
topos: What does this mean?
FARHA: Politicians and governments say: “This is affordable because it is only 80 per cent of the market rent or of what the market could bear”. But this may be far from realistically affordable.. If people’s income is lower than that, they are not able to afford 80 per cent of the market rent obviously.
The whole interview can be found in topos 108.