Realising the right to housing

Last night I spoke at the Wellington launch of CPAG‘s paper on housing, written by Alan Johnson. I focused on the right to housing, especially as it applies to the private rental market, which is where most children in poverty live:

CPAG’s paper on child poverty and housing brings together all the facts on child poverty and housing, making it clear that there are too many people who are being denied their basic rights to housing.

Our governments have ratified the right to adequate housing, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Under these, the State has an obligation to actively facilitate the full realisation of housing rights.

There are three aspects of what I think constitutes adequate housing: the right to affordable housing, the right to quality housing, and the right to secure occupancy.

The right to affordable housing means being able to pay rent without denying yourself of other necessities of life. Over a quarter of New Zealanders currently pay more than a third of their income in housing costs. Rents have risen, but the Accommodation Supplement hasn’t. This means that the amount people have available to pay for their housing has effectively dropped.

Not having enough money to pay for housing has huge implications. It means that you can’t afford to move out of your sister’s garage or lounge, and so you crowd in together in a house that’s too small, and you increase the risk that your children will be exposed to infectious disease. It means that you can’t afford to heat your cold and damp home, or that you can’t afford to move out of that home, despite the fact that it’s making your children sick. Or it means you just don’t have enough money to pay for food and bills, medical costs, or to save for a rainy day.

So CPAG’s sixth recommendation, to urgently review the Accommodation Supplement, is welcome. This would immediately alleviate the pressure on low-income families: a long term solution, however, requires a national housing plan, as is also recommended. In addition, clearly, it requires a lot more social housing than New Zealand currently has: we need to stop talking, and start building.

The right to quality housing means that everyone lives in a warm, safe, dry home. The rents – including the accommodation supplement – of many low-income households go to landlords who rent out houses that contravene that right. Almost half of rental houses are in substandard condition. That’s why CPAG’s fourth recommendation, on ensuring that rental properties meet a warrant of fitness within five years, is very welcome.

For the past century, governments have said that the market will sort out issues of quality, and that we tenants are sufficiently protected by the courts, through which we can complain. It doesn’t work. There are not enough good houses out there for renters to choose better ones. And most tenants won’t complain, even when they live in substandard conditions, because the risk of damaging the relationship with the landlord, and getting their notice is too great. Bring on the WOF, and subsidies to ensure that the costs of compliance aren’t passed on to tenants.

Finally, the right to adequate housing is the right to secure occupancy. Everyone needs not just a house, but a home, regardless of whether they want or can afford to buy one. We need to adjust our laws so that a tenant, if they want to, can make a home, and establish relationships with their neighbours, their local school, a doctor. They can settle in, for 6 months, for a year, for many years, and feel at home, relieved from the anxiety of the threat of upheaval when the landlord arbitrarily gives a 90 or 45 day notice.

Thank you, to CPAG for an excellent report which clearly sets out the issues and what can be done to address them. Our challenge is to ensure government listens.

CPAG’s report will be available from their website tomorrow. 

7 thoughts on “Realising the right to housing

  1. I’m based in the UK but see so many of the issues you describe mirrored over here. This blog is informative and socially aware and thought-provoking. I absolutely agree with the need to raise more awareness of the effect of insecure or otherwise poor housing on tenants and see the need to bring about more equity in this area for families with children in particular as being of profound importance.

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