UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha on homelessness, human rights and why the lack of adequate housing is on the rise.
Despite an uneven global economic recovery since the 2008 financial crisis, adequate and affordable housing is increasingly out of reach to hundreds of millions of people, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha.
In her latest report on global housing need, Farha wrote that the world’s money markets have priced people out of cities, with speculators and investors treating housing as a “place to park capital”.
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Farha, who presented her findings before the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2017, said that “housing has lost its social function and is seen instead as a vehicle for wealth and asset growth. It has become a financial commodity, robbed of its connection to community, dignity and the idea of home.”
Leilani Farha spoke to Al Jazeera about the growing global housing crisis and the steep challenges ahead for the more than one billion people who do not have adequate housing.
about living in a place where you have peace, security and most importantly, dignity.”]
At an estimated global net worth of $163 trillion, the residential real estate market is equivalent to more than twice the world’s total economy and dwarfs the approximate seven-trillion-dollar-value of all the gold ever mined, Farha told Al Jazeera.
Housing is viewed as a way to “grow wealth and that has changed the way in which housing operates”, she said. “It means … you have investors, private equity firms, vulture funds, buying up housing. Who is their principle concern? It’s their investor and if they’re using housing to satisfy their investor interests, what do they have to do with that housing if it’s rental housing? It’s obvious, they have to increase the rents.”
The right to adequate housing is enshrined in Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which states that “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.”
Housing “has tentacles into every other human right, practically. Housing is not just about four walls and a roof [but] about living in a place where you have peace, security and most importantly, dignity. And once you start playing with the idea of dignity, you can imagine what that means. It means living in a place with proper sanitation and basic services … toilets, running water.”
Adequate housing is also about “security of tenure”, Farha explained. “You should not be fearful that you’re going to lose your home [at any time].”
Today, approximately 900 million people are living in “informal settlements” without the security of tenure – entire communities that have grown up in slum-like conditions. These communities are often razed by profit-driven developers and governments with little notice and no offer of substitute housing.
Forced eviction is “considered a gross violation of human rights … No community should be evicted unless there is absolutely no viable alternative.”
The incidence of homelessness is also rising. “If you look at North America, if you look at Europe, what are we seeing? Rising rates of homelessness in the richest countries in the world. That, to me, is where we get into extremely shameful territory, extremely shameful. Why is that? How is it acceptable that GDPs are increasing all the time … and homelessness is rising all the time?”
“I don’t think that homelessness has been viewed as the human rights issue that it is. I don’t think it’s been given the urgency of political will, of social policy that it deserves and so, I think that’s also part of the problem … Once people lose their housing and become homeless, they often are open to any of a number of social ills,” Farha said.
“People are always like, ‘Oh, the people who are homeless, they’re all crazy; they all have psychological problems’. Many, many people who hit the streets are completely of sound mind. It’s the trauma of being on the street that can trigger psycho-social disability … The trauma of living on the street is what often leads people to do things like drugs.”
Asked whether the United Nations 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which includes solving the problem of inadequate housing, can be achieved by its target date, Farha said that “we have to strive to reach that goal in 12 years. States have that obligation, they’ve made that commitment … I think that huge strides could be taken … [to] ensure accountability of governments to the people, that ensure equality, those sorts of things … If that was guiding housing policy, maybe we would inch towards that 2030 deadline and that commitment.”