Right to housing

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"Right to housing" / Housing as a human right describes how the concept of people having a 'right to adequate housing' has developed in national and international law.

In international law / UN treaty 

from Naznin [2018]:

"Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. It 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 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.{{Cquote|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."

The right to housing constitutes an integral component of human dignity vis-à-vis an adequate standard of life and living. It is crucial to the realization of other rights including the right to life, the right to privacy, the right to health and the right to development. Hence, the right to housing is recognized as a fundamental human right.

2. Components of the Right to Housing

Housing today means more than a roof over one’s head. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, treaty adopted by the UN in 1966 which came in force 1976.) contemplates housing as adequate housing that requires living a standard life with dignity, peace and security and enables a person to utilize and expand his capabilities. In order to meet this standard, as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in General Comment No. 4 postulates, the contents of adequacy must include the presence of legal security of tenure, availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural adequacy. Following discussion provides a brief analysis of these components:

  • Legal security of tenure: Irrespective of the nature of tenure, all persons are entitled to a secure tenure to ensure legal protection from forced evictions, harassment or other threats.
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure: An adequate housing facility must ensure health, security, comfort and nutrition. Hence,everyone should have sustainable access to natural and common resources, pure drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation, washing facilities, storage space, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services.
  • Affordability: Personal or household costs associated with housing should not exceed the income level and threaten or compromise the enjoyment of other basic needs.
  • Habitability: Adequate housing must provide the inhabitants with sufficient space and protect them from adverse weather conditions as well as other threats to health, structural hazards and disease vectors.
  • Accessibility: Adequacy implies accessibility. Hence laws and policies on housing should address the special needs of vulnerable and marginalized groups such as children, elderly people, physically disabled, victims of natural disasters.
  • Location: Adequate housing must ensure access to employment opportunities, medical services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities. Besides, households should situate within a reasonable distance from polluted zones to avoid any risk of health hazards.
  • Cultural adequacy: The construction materials, design and construction of households should have a proper balance with the cultural identity and lifestyle of the residents.
graphic from Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, San Francisco, 2018

in US policy & advocacy

FDR's 1944 State of the Union address

from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's1944 State of the Union address to Congress: 

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not free men. . . . ' These economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis ofsecurity and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are: the right to a useful and remunerative job ...the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation . . . the right to adequate medical care...the right to a good education [and] along with several other enumerated rights] the right of every family to a decent home. All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being." 

Preamble to the 1949 Housing Act 

"Congress in its preamble to the 1949 Housing Act promulgated the National Housing Goal of “the implementation as soon as feasible of a decent home and a suitable
living environment for every American family.' That goal wasreiterated in the 1968 Housing Act and, in slightly different versions, in the 1974 and 1990 Housing Acts." [Hartman 1998]. 

1968 Housing and Urban Development Act 

"The 1968 Housing Act took the brave step of setting forth a 10-year numerical target: 26 million units, 6 million of which were to be for low- and moderate-income households, and year-by-year progress reports were mandated. But it failed by a considerable margin, and never again was Congress foolish enough to risk such embarrassment."  [Hartman 1998]. 

"There remains no entitlement to any of the direct government housing programs: public housing,14 Section 8, Section 202 and so on. Something approaching a Right to Housing exists in other government programs, albeit hidden and largely unexplored in the literature. The temporary housing assistance offered under the disaster aid programs of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) is in effect an entitlement, although not that much money is involved and much of it is reimbursed by insurance proceeds. Federal aid for foster care—in effect a houser of last resort for children from troubled families—may also be legitimately described as an entitlement; almost 80 percent of the federal government’s $4.7 billion child welfare expenditures go to foster care (Russakoff 1998). Finally, and perhaps most important, the significant portion of the Medicaid (an entitlement) expenditure set aside fornursing home care constitutes a quasi-Right to Housing based on age. (Redfoot 1993)."  [Hartman 1998]. 

[from Bratt & Hartmann 2006:]
"In 1989, the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies assembled a Working Group on Housing (including Chester Hartman and Michael Stone, Emily Achtenberg, Peter Dreier, Peter Marcuse Florence Roisman) that crafted a detailed housing program, put forward in The Right to Housing: A Blueprint for Housing the Nation.
   "That document provided an analysis of the failures of the private market and of government programs similar to what is put forward in this book. And it included a detailed program for preserving affordable rental housing; promoting affordable homeownership; protecting the stock of government-assisted housing; and producing/financing new affordable housing.  First-year program costs—estimated for each element of the program,with administrative costs added—at that time ranged from $29 billion to $88 billion, depending on how rapidly and fully specific program elements were introduced; by way of comparison, at the same time, the highly regressive income tax system for housing provided at least $54 billion in tax breaks for high-income households. The thrust of the various elements was to move substantial portions of the existing housing stock, as well as new additions, into the nonprofit sector(public as well as private)—“decommodifying housing” was the catchword. Annual costswould steadily decrease as this fundamental shift in the nation’s housing stock progressed.

"Congressman Ron Dellums of California introduced the program in the 101st Congress as H.R. 1122 (A Bill to Provide an Affordable, Secure and Decent Home and Suitable Living Environment for Every American Family). Needless to say, it did not pass. At the end of a hearing on the Bill, Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas, then Chair of the Banking, Finance & Urban Affairs Committee and Chair of the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Development,remarked, “What your group haspresentedisinevitably going tohappen. . . . It is imaginative, it is seminal, it is creative.” We agree and hope this book will hasten that day."


Maryland's Social Housing Act of 2019

Carter, Dennis. "Here’s What a ‘Housing as a Human Right’ Bill Looks Like." Rewire News, Feb 20, 2019, 5:23pm. 
About Maryland's Social Housing Act of 2019, created by state delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery), that would create a social housing program to ensure everyone in the state of 6 million people has access to housing. It would create a $2.5 billion trust fund from which the state could create and maintain housing units. The legislation is first of its kind, Stewart said.

“Call it the ‘public option for housing,'” he said.

A social housing system, commonplace throughout Europe, would differ from traditional public housing programs in the United States because it would be open to everyone, varying in price according to a person’s income."


Ellickson, Robert C. [1992] "The Untenable Case for an Unconditional Right to Shelter."  15 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Policy 17 1992.  Available as Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 459: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/459.

"As homelessness has become a prominent domestic issue, numerous advocates have called for constitutional recognition of an individual's unconditional right to enjoy a minimum level of shelter. I argue here that these advocates have failed to deal with the fundamental fact that a society must maintain incentives to work. Both theory and data indicate that an unconditional shelter right, presumably coupled with ironclad rights to enjoy other material benefits, would be counterproductive, even for the poor. My stance is grounded on policy considerations, not on a preference for constitutional minimalism. Indeed, after criticizing the proposed right to shelter, I will identify and praise two momentous, but little-heralded, original endowments that our current constitutional scheme guarantees to each citizen.
"My remarks will touch on three overarching issues in the design of a constitution's bill of rights. First, should a bill of rights protect only "negative liberties," that is, rights against government intrusions, or should it also affirm specified "positive liberties," such as entitlements to a minimum level of material welfare? Second, should a constitution's bill of rights be complemented with a "bill of duties" that specifies each citizen's civic responsibilities? Finally, what rights in a federal system are appropriately placed only in a state constitution's bill of rights?"