States have to ensure adequate housing amid the pandemic

Upholding the right to housing is more urgent than ever as the pandemic has worsened housing crises across the world.

People line in a sidewalk filled with tents set up by the homeless, amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco,
People line in a sidewalk filled with tents set up by the homeless, amid an outbreak of the coronavirus in San Francisco, California, US on April 1, 2020 [File: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton]

When COVID-19 was understood as a global and deadly threat, there was a singular prescription promulgated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments around the world: stay home, wash your hands, and keep a physical distance from others. As former UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing and an advocate in the area of housing for decades, the implications of this guidance to me were clear – and almost hopeful.

If protecting against further spread required a home, a shelter to isolate in, access to sanitation, then, intentionally or not, the WHO was prescribing access to adequate housing. Housing was clearly a requirement for the world to stay safe and effectively address the pandemic. Access to adequate housing would reduce infection rates and ensure that healthcare systems would not be overwhelmed. In other words, home and hospitals have been put forward as equally necessary to preserving life.

With this unambiguous position adopted by governments, I was certain we would see the global housing crisis tackled with the urgency that is in fact warranted when a human right is violated en masse. This was not utopian opportunism, but rather a logical deduction based on the global “stay at home” prescription.

I anticipated that governments would move swiftly to eliminate homelessness, not because of a new regard for the dignity of people living in homelessness or recognition of their rights, but because in the face of a virus that spreads exponentially and that causes death, governments know that one person living in the street who is exposed to the virus could put an entire nation at risk.

I assumed that in keeping with human rights law, those living in informal settlements (or “slums”) would finally be provided with access to adequate water, sanitation, isolation facilities and other changes that would be necessary to meet the “wash your hands” requirement and address other hygiene-related matters. I also imagined that residents of informal settlements would finally be afforded some security, no longer threatened with forced eviction; after all, forced eviction results in homelessness which then increases the risk of the spread of the virus.

I was sure that governments would impose adequate protections for those living in rental accommodation and experiencing economic hardship so that no matter their financial position they could remain in their own homes and out of harm’s way for the duration of the pandemic.

I was certain that governments would take the necessary steps to ensure that the ongoing legacy of the 2008 global financial crisis – the invasion of residential real estate by institutional investors and the unaffordability of rental housing – would not be exacerbated or repeat itself.

And I assumed that what would begin as emergency measures would translate into the drafting of longer-term housing strategies aimed at fixing the causes and effects of the housing crisis, again not as a matter of human rights obligations, but on the understanding that pandemics are no longer one-off events, so we must prepare for the future.

I thought a renewed sense of urgency around viral outbreaks and public health would ignite bold determination to end homelessness and forced evictions, upgrade informal settlements, increase tenant protections against unaffordability and eviction, and regulate global institutional financial actors that have wreaked havoc on the housing sector since the global financial crisis.

Six months into this nightmare, not only has the housing crisis and its effects not been effectively tackled, they may have become more pronounced, while revitalised plans to address the housing crisis have been scant.

In Canada, still one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there has been a proliferation of homeless encampments – in part as a result of limitations on the numbers of spaces in shelters to ensure conformity with social distancing policies. People living in homelessness also fear COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters and other congregate settings they have been offered, preferring instead the space and safety of pitching a tent in the outdoors.

In India, one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, forced evictions of Indigenous communities, as well as thousands of people living in informal settlements without provision of alternative housing, have been reported in Gurugram, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi, in July alone.

In the United States, estimates indicate that approximately 40 percent of renter households are at risk of experiencing rental shortfalls, with 12 million potentially facing eviction within the next four months, particularly once moratoriums on evictions are lifted.

Meanwhile, private equity firms and other institutional investors are salivating at the once in a generation opportunity to do what they do best – make a profit – boasting access to trillions of “dry powder” for new acquisitions. Without any sign of government restraint, they are eyeing distressed residential real estate assets, including multifamily rental apartments, which can perform well, even in economic hard times.

This is not to say that governments have not responded at all with measures to address homelessness and protect residents of informal settlements and tenants. At the onset of the pandemic, the UK government swiftly provided 5,400 street homeless with hotel rooms and other accommodation and have promised the provision of 3,300 long-term housing units with social supports within 12 months. In fact, the use of hotel rooms as emergency accommodation for homeless people was instituted in a number of places, including the US state of California, France, and parts of Canada.

Spain, like many other countries, implemented a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic and is also providing microloans to low-income tenants or those who have suffered job loss to assist them in making rental payments. The loans can be repaid over the course of six years. 

Taking a longer-term view, the government of Costa Rica enshrined the human right to water and sanitation in their constitution in June, explicitly recognising the connection between human rights and the virus.

While such measures are not insignificant, a global scan indicates they are far too few. While governments may not be quick to embrace housing as a human right or admit there is a housing crisis that requires a new approach, the devastation wreaked by this pandemic has surely strengthened their resolve to be better protected against any future pandemic threats.

If that is the case, ensuring access to adequate, affordable and secure housing is both prevention and prescription. Maybe once governments commit to that, they will be bold enough to call those measures what they are: the implementation of the right to housing. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.