All New Zealanders have the human right to adequate housing. It might be “the best kept secret” in the country, but this right has been endorsed by our governments for 70 years, and it’s one of the key pillars for Greater Auckland’s “20/20 Vision on Housing” series.
An opinion piece by Paul Hunt of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) does a great job of setting the scene (first published in the NZ Herald Dec 2019, available here, the version below edited, hacked and slashed by me):
The best kept secret in New Zealand – a decent home is your right
Situated near Edinburgh, Leith has had major housing problems. Residents have complained of mould, poor heating, vermin infestation and substandard bathrooms and kitchens. Sounds familiar?
The Edinburgh Tenants’ Federation, and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, publicly called out the poor housing for what it was: a breach of the residents’ human right to a decent home.
This human right does not mean the authorities have a duty to give everyone a house with a back and front yard. That would be ridiculous. It means the government has a duty to do everything possible within its power to create an economic and social environment in which everyone can enjoy a warm, dry, decent, affordable and accessible home.
So, the Tenants’ Federation and Scottish Commission went into action. They listened to residents and explained to councillors what the human right to a decent home means. Plans were agreed and residents monitored progress. Councillors were held accountable for their human rights responsibilities. It was – and remains – a hard slog.
What happened? Improvements were made, including new kitchens, bathrooms, heating, windows, ventilation and asbestos removal.
But something else occurred. As Heather Ford, the treasurer of the residents’ association, put it, “Human rights pulls you together as a community and gives you the same goal. The fact that I know that I have a right to a wind-tight, water-tight, mould-free house means that I don’t have to be scared.”
In other words, not only did human rights help to improve material lives, they also empowered tenants and their communities.
The right to a decent home is rooted in the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New Zealanders helped to draft this iconic document and New Zealand governments of every political hue have affirmed it.
Years ago, I was asked to speak in Ireland about the human right to an effective, accessible health system for all. As I explained that Dublin had signed up to this human right, a woman shouted from the back of the hall, “That must be the best-kept secret in Ireland!”
She had a point – and the point applies to the right to a decent home in Aotearoa. New Zealand’s international housing-rights obligations are among the best-kept secrets in the country. This secrecy lets governments off the hook and disempowers individuals, communities, whānau and iwi.
The Human Rights Commission’s responsibilities include advising authorities on how they can implement these human rights, as well as holding government accountable if it falls short.
Human rights are not only about lawyers and courts. They are about listening to and empowering communities. They are about strengthening local and national policies.
Canada has recently passed a National Housing Strategy Act which affirms “the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right”. The Canadian minister is mandated to develop a strategy “taking into account key principles of a human-rights-based approach to housing”.
It is time for New Zealand to follow the example set by Canada. Our housing crisis is also a human rights crisis. The crisis encompasses homeownership, market renting, state housing and homelessness, as well as the punishing impact of substandard housing, especially on the disadvantaged, such as disabled people.
Of course, human rights cannot solve the crisis, but they have a contribution to make. Given the magnitude of the challenge it would be foolhardy not to use all the tools at our disposal.
The first step is to identify what the right to a decent home means in the unique context of Aotearoa.
This requires building on key human rights values, such as fairness, decency, equality, freedom, belonging and community. Honouring Te Ao Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Recognising New Zealand’s national and international human rights commitments beyond Te Tiriti. Benefiting from the huge literature on the right to a decent home and learning from the evidence to see what works.
Once it is clarified, the human right to a decent home in Aotearoa can empower individuals, communities, whānau and iwi; strengthen housing initiatives; and serve to hold government accountable.
There are some good stories above, even if you can’t do a convincing Irish, Canadian or Scottish accent (to be sure, maple syrup, laddie). Let’s see what we can take from this.
One: NZ’s government has a duty to “create an economic and social environment in which everyone can enjoy a warm, dry, decent, affordable and accessible home”.
Two: these rights shouldn’t be a “secret”, or “invisible” as the HRC have called them elsewhere; they need to be out in the open so that they can be applied.
Three: NZ’s “housing crisis is also a human rights crisis”.
Four: we can (and are obliged to) act on it, as other countries have done.
Five: we do need to define what exactly an adequate or decent home means in New Zealand. That work is now getting underway.
Six: it won’t be an overnight solution; it will be a progress and a “hard slog”. Organisations like the HRC will continue to monitor the situation long after the worst aspects are fixed.
So what is “the human right to (adequate) housing? The Human Rights Commission summed it up nicely in a two-page flyer in 2017:
“The human right to adequate housing… has been described by the most authoritative UN Treaty Body on economic and social rights as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.
It must be provided in a non-discriminatory way. Everyone… is entitled to the enjoyment of this right.
The Government is not required under its human rights obligations to build housing for anyone or to own houses. Its duty is to ensure that all people in New Zealand enjoy their human right to adequate housing.
Business – including… landlords – has a responsibility to respect the human right to adequate housing. If operations have a negative impact on the right to adequate housing business has a responsibility to remedy that negative impact”.
And drilling down further into what kind of housing is “adequate”, again lightly edited:
The human right to adequate housing does not simply mean a roof over people’s heads. The United Nations has defined seven standards that must be met:
►Security of tenure: Residents should be protected against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.
►Habitability: adequate space that protects residents from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, and other threats to health, structural hazards, and disease.
► Accessibility: Housing must be accessible to all, and disadvantaged and vulnerable groups – including the disabled – must be accorded full access to housing resources.
►Affordability: Housing costs should not compromise the attainment of other basic needs. For example, people should not have to choose between paying rent and buying food.
► Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure: Water and sanitation, power and other essential utilities.
►Location: Housing should not be built on polluted sites… [and] must be in a location which allows access to employment, health-care, schools, and other social facilities.
►Cultural Adequacy: Housing and housing policies must guarantee the expression of cultural identity and diversity.
HRC also wrote a more detailed report in 2010. This notes that most of the concern in NZ is around the habitability, accessibility, and affordability dimensions. We’ll be talking a lot about “affordability” this year, as well as “habitability” – which is essentially a “quality” measurement.
Auckland’s and New Zealand’s housing crisis hasn’t emerged overnight; it’s developed over many years. And perhaps the HRC hasn’t been as vocal on this as it should have been, but they are starting to get the issue in the spotlight. New Zealand is currently being visited by a UN representative on housing human rights, Leilani Farha; she’ll be making her report soon, with recommendations for improvement; and you can expect to hear more on the issue this year.
Lastly, a great piece on The Spinoff from a Kiwi living in Sweden, showing what housing can look like when it ticks the boxes above, and human rights are front and centre. This isn’t the only way to do it – as noted above, the government doesn’t necessarily have to either own or build housing, nor does rent need to be controlled – but it gives an international perspective, showing that other countries can take very different approaches to their housing infrastructure.