Would a statutory right to housing make a difference to homelessness?

Thirty-four thousand people in New Zealand are homeless, or severely housing deprived: they crowd in to friends’ homes, stay in campgrounds, boarding houses, garages or cars, and live on the street.1[i] The Child Poverty Action Group is currently calling for the government to address homeless through instituting “a statutory right to be housed”.

This is not the first time New Zealand advocacy groups have lobbied for this right. Partly inspired by a successful UK campaign to achieve homelessness legislation in 19772, in the 1980s New Zealand groups under the banner “Shelter For All” campaigned for a statutory obligation on the Government to ensure everyone was housed. Legislation on homelessness was introduced but not passed under Labour in 1990, although changes were made to the points system for allocating state housing. A similar Member’s Bill failed to win support under National the following year.3,4

But does a statutory obligation to house people in settled accommodation make a difference? In England about 185,000 adults experience homelessness every year, despite their rights.5 [iii] There are no such statutory obligations on government to provide accommodation in other Western European countries, and some of these have fewer homeless people relative to population. [ii] [iv] 6 7 Clearly, there are many other factors that influence levels of homelessness.

A recent comparative study of the experience of single homeless men in Scotland, where there is a statutory right to housing, and Ireland, where (like New Zealand), there is no such right, sheds light on the difference that the right makes. The study found that in Scotland, council staff was focussed on securing accommodation for people. In Ireland, the policy aim of helping homeless people into accommodation was balanced against a number of other factors, including whether people were ‘ready’ for a home, the number of formerly homeless people in the communities where they might be housed, and the response of local residents. Scottish homeless men saw themselves as having rights and were driven to push for settled accommodation. In contrast, Irish homeless men felt a strong sense of culpability for being homeless. The author concluded that Scotland’s legal rights were highly empowering for homeless men and made a difference to social outcomes.8,9

Whether legal rights do make a difference to whether people get housed might depend somewhat on context. Though there are statutory rights to a home in the different countries of the UK, which people can access this right depends on the country. You can only access a home if you can show that you are not an illegal immigrant, that you have a connection to the area covered by the council, and that you can prove that it’s not your fault that you became homeless. In England and Wales, there’s an additional obligation to show that you’re in “priority need” and are especially vulnerable – Scotland abolished this requirement in 2012.10 In England and Wales, since 2011, the council has the option of fulfilling its requirement by placing someone in a private, rather than social tenancy, which is often an insecure option – most people end up homeless when their private tenancy ends.5 This is increasingly likely as, though the UK has a far greater proportion of its housing stock in social housing than New Zealand, demand far exceeds supply in most regions.11

The UK experience suggest that the right to housing can be empowering, but the details of the legislation – and other factors, such as the social housing stock – can make a big difference to who is housed and the form that housing takes.

[i] This number is based on Census 2006; it’s probable that the number has increased since then.

[ii] The UK is unusual in having such a law. Some countries include a right to housing in their constitution, but homeless people have no means to enforce this right. Other countries are obliged to provide emergency accommodation, but not settled accommodation.6 7

[iii] The authors of this report adopt a “wide definition” of homelessness as severe housing deprivation, as described in the first paragraph.

[iv] Note that it is difficult to compare homelessness statistics between countries, due to different ways that homelessness is defined and data is gathered.6

  1. Amore, K., Viggers, H., Baker, M. & Howden-Chapman, P. Severe housing deprivation: The problem and its measurement. Off. Stat. Res. Ser. 6, (2013). at <http://www.statisphere.govt.nz/further-resources-and-info/official-statistics-research/series/2013/severe-housing-deprivation.aspx&gt;
  2. Shelter. Homelessness. (Shelter, 2007). at <https://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/66379/Homelessness_factsheet.pdf&gt;
  3. Campbell, S. Restructuring New Zealand housing policy 1990-1998: An institutional analysis (Unpublished Master’s thesis). University of Canterbury. (1999).
  4. Ferguson, G. Building the New Zealand dream. (Dunmore Press, 1994).
  5. Fitzpatrick, S., Pawson, H., Bramely, G., Wilcox, S. & Watts, B. The homelessness monitor: England 2015. (Crisis, 2015). at <http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/HomelessnessMonitorEngland2015_ExecSummary_FINAL.pdf&gt;
  6. Fitzpatrick, S. & Stephens, M. An International Review of Homelessness and Social Housing Policy. (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2007). at <https://www.york.ac.uk/media/chp/documents/2007/intreviewhomelessness.pdf&gt;
  7. Fitzpatrick, S., Bengtsson, B. & Watts, B. Rights to Housing: Reviewing the Terrain and Exploring a Way Forward. Housing, Theory Soc. 31, 447–463 (2014).
  8. Watts, B. Homelessness, empowerment and self-reliance in Scotland and Ireland: the impact of legal rights to housing for homeless people. J. Soc. Policy 43, 1–18 (2014).
  9. Watts, B. Having a legal right to settled accommodation empowers homeless people in Scotland. LSE Br. Polit. Policy Blog (2014). at <http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/legal-rights-empower-homeless-people-in-scotland/&gt;
  10. Crisis. Statutory homelessness. (2015). at <http://www.crisis.org.uk/pages/statutory-homelessness.html&gt;
  11. Shelter. Why we need more social housing. (2015). at <http://england.shelter.org.uk/campaigns/why_we_campaign/Improving_social_housing/Why_we_need_more_social_housing&gt;

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