Right to Housing

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) includes housing in its definition of the right to a “standard of living adequate for the heath and well-being of himself and of his family.” This right is reiterated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966):

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. (Article 11.1)

While the understanding of “adequate housing” is influenced by social, economic, cultural, climatic, ecological factors, certain principles apply everywhere:

  • Legal security of tenure: Everyone in any living arrangement has a degree of security against forced eviction, harassment, or other threats.
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure: Adequate house should have sustainable access to natural and common resources, safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services.
  • Affordability: the costs of housing are at a level that does not threaten other basic needs.
  • Habitability: Provides the occupants with adequate space, physical security, shelter from weather, and protection from threats to health.
  • Accessibility: Adequate housing must be accessible, including those who may have special housing needs.
  • Location: Must permit access to employment opportunities, health care, schools, child care and other social facilities.
  • Cultural adequacy: Design, materials, and the policies supporting these must facilitate cultural expression and housing diversity.

Discrimination in Housing

Some groups or individuals have a particularly hard time exercising their right to adequate housing. These include women, children, refugees, migrants, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and slum dwellers.

By the end of 2008 more than half the world’s people were living in cities, at least one billion of them living in slums or informal settlements. And more people continue to be forced into slums by natural disasters and changing economic situations. Slum communities are characterized by inadequate housing, lack of basic services, and overcrowding. In some countries, people living in slums also experience high levels of violence and lack of police protection.

There is a “housing crisis” in the USA: the lack of decent and affordable housing. Cities and towns have grown rapidly without ensuring that the process of development safeguards fundamental human rights. Public housing has been demolished and previously affordable housing has become prohibitively expensive. Whole communities – mostly poor and working class, but increasingly the “middle class” as well – are continually being displaced from neighborhoods that are being  “developed,” increasing homelessness and degrading their quality of life.

Government Obligations to Protect the Right to Housing

State obligations fall into three categories, namely the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill.

  • The obligation to respect: to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing. For example, forced evictions and demolishing homes; denying housing, land and property restitution to particular groups.
  • The obligation to protect: to prevent third parties (e.g., landlords, property developers, landowners and corporations) from interfering with the right to adequate housing. For example, prevent discriminatory inheritance practices affecting women’s access to housing; ensure that landlords do not discriminate against particular groups; prevent forced evictions.
  • The obligation to fulfill: to adopt appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial, promotional and other measures to fully realize the right to adequate housing. States must also, progressively and to the extent allowed by their available resources, prevent and address homelessness; provide the physical infrastructure required for housing to be considered adequate and ensure. 

Related Human Rights Instruments