United Nations: Homelessness and the right to adequate housing

Kanaga Raja

Geneva, 30 Mar (Kanaga Raja) -- Homelessness is perhaps the most visible and most severe symptom of the lack of respect for the right to adequate housing, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari.

The rights expert made this comment in a report (E/CN.4/2005/48) that he presented Tuesday to the 61st session of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Commission is currently holding its 61st session on 14 March to 22 April.

While the majority of the world's population lives in some form of dwelling, roughly one half of the world's population does not enjoy the full spectrum of entitlements necessary for housing to be considered adequate, the rights expert said, adding that UN estimates indicate that approximately 100 million people worldwide are without a place to live and over 1 billion are inadequately housed.

The causes of homelessness are diverse and multi-faceted, the report said, including a lack of affordable housing, speculation in housing and land for investment purposes, privatization of civic services, and unplanned urban migration. Added to this is destruction and displacement caused by conflicts or natural disasters.

The Special Rapporteur noted with concern that urban "gentrification" processes accompanied by rising property values and rental rates are pushing low-income families into precarious situations, including homelessness. The rights expert also said that the lack of legal provisions to enable communities to inhabit or own land and to make productive use of the natural resources found there should also be noted as creating an obstacle to the full realization of the right to adequate housing.

To address this issue of homelessness, the rights expert called for the introduction of public housing schemes for the poor, giving priority to land and agrarian reform, promulgation of laws that protect women's right to adequate housing, creation of shelters in urban centers, and integrated rural development to address involuntary migration to cities.

In addition, a combination of a humanitarian and a human rights approach is needed to confront both the immediate and long-term needs of people and communities to move from a state of homelessness and landlessness to a position of having access to a livelihood and a secure place to live.

Increasing and continuing homelessness is the ultimate symptom of the lack of respect for the right to adequate housing, the report said, adding that there are today an estimated 20-40 million homeless people in urban centers worldwide.

With respect to the right to adequate housing, General Comment No. 4 (adopted in 1991) of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that in order for housing to be adequate, it must provide more than just four walls and a roof over one's head; it must, at a minimum, include the following elements: security of tenure, affordability, adequacy, accessibility, proximity to services, availability of infrastructure and cultural adequacy. The rights expert referred to homelessness as the lack of even the most basic shelter.

The report also highlighted several international legally binding instruments that recognized the right to adequate housing including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, amongst others.

The right to adequate housing has also been recognized at the regional level, such as the European Social Charter, the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and through the jurisprudence of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.

While the underlying reasons for homelessness are many and complex, poverty is a common denominator in the experience of the homeless, whether in urban or rural areas, the report said.

While global economic integration is creating new wealth, the number of homeless or precariously sheltered persons continues to grow. For the homeless and the poor, the benefits of globalization have been insignificant at best, the rights expert said. In Peru, for example, reforms sponsored by the IMF's structural adjustment program in 1990 drove up rates of inflation and contributed to a significant decline in the real minimum wage. It is estimated that the population of street-dwelling poor rose to 5 million.

Even where developing countries have successfully attracted a large increase in private capital flows, the rapid growth of cities typically outpaces the provision of adequate housing, resulting in an increased number of the poor living in squatter settlements with no security or civic services.  

Moreover, the report said, increasing trends towards privatization of housing services and markets typically result in land speculation and the commodification of housing, land and water. The application of user fees for goods such as water, sanitation and electricity, and the repeal of land ceiling and rent control legislation further exacerbate the problem, resulting in increased marginalization of the poor.

More than 100 million people in the world's poorest countries are projected to be living below the basic subsistence level of a dollar a day by 2015, caught in a poverty trap that is associated with economic globalization's dark side, the rights expert said, adding that the current form of globalization is tightening rather than loosening the international poverty trap. It is important to note that this also applies to high-income industrialized countries, where a growing number of households are living below the poverty line due to increasing unemployment, and in many cases, a simultaneous decrease of social welfare and social security as a result of reduced public investments, the report said.

Conflict situations can also cause homelessness. Demolition of homes and destruction of property, including land and crops, is not always merely an indirect result of conflict but that housing and land have increasingly become strategic targets, the rights expert said, raising concerns, for example, on the demolition of Palestinian houses and other buildings and the confiscation of Palestinian land becoming a common and widespread measure used by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The report also highlighted the homelessness and displacement of people in Darfur, Sudan and the prevailing humanitarian crisis among Colombia's nearly 300,000 internally displaced people.

The Special Rapporteur noted that inequality in global land ownership plays a central role as a barrier to tackling homelessness. Of all the private land in the world, nearly three quarters is estimated to be controlled by just 2.5% of all landowners. An average of 71.6% of rural households in Africa, Latin America, and Western and East Asia (excluding China) are landless or near landless.

Landlessness gives rise to a host of inter-related problems that range from inadequate housing, lack of livelihood options, poor health, hunger and food security, to acute poverty. Many governments and donor agencies fail to understand the important role that landlessness often plays in poverty and marginalization, the report said, adding that lack of housing and property rights and the systematic denial of tenure security, security of the home and of the person for the majority of the world's population fuels acute global humanitarian crises.

Severe inequality in landholdings, like the latifundia model in Latin America, apart from being socially and ecologically destructive, greatly aggravates the housing crisis, the report said, noting that growing concentration of land with corporate enterprises and the accompanying industrialization of agriculture tend to displace the poor to marginal areas for farming, and threaten social and ecological sustainability.

The priority given to land and agrarian reform has been declining in most countries, the rights expert said, adding that the lack of political will to address these issues has given rise to well-organized movements of landless peasants and rural workers who are bringing land reform to national and international policy debates. These movements are putting forth sustainable alternatives and are growing rapidly around the world from Brazil and Bolivia to Honduras, Nicaragua and South Africa.

In a separate report on women and adequate housing (E/CN.4/2005/43) to the Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur highlighted several critical factors affecting women's right to adequate housing and land including lack of secure tenure, lack of information about women's human rights, lack of access to affordable social services as a result of privatization, lack of access to credit and housing subsidies, bureaucratic barriers preventing access to housing programmes, rising poverty and unemployment and discriminatory cultural and traditional practices.

The rights expert called for the implementation of innovative government housing policies and programmes and stressed the importance of integrating women's human rights into poverty reduction strategies, anti-poverty policies and rural development and land reform programmes.

(c) south-north development monitor SUNS [Email Edition] twentyfifth year  5770 thursday 31 march 2005.