It has taken a deadly global pandemic to shake governments to the core and trigger an understanding that having a safe home might be central to human survival.
In my six years as the UN’s watchdog on housing and human rights, the concept of home has never been under this kind of global spotlight. But it is bitterly disappointing that billions of people living in deplorable housing conditions with no access to water or sanitation, being homeless, or constantly at threat of eviction did not merit this kind of attention before.
Nearly every government has adopted the World Health Organization’s suggested policy to beat back Covid-19: stay at home, wash your hands, practise physical distancing. These guidelines have become a global mantra, making housing the frontline defence against coronavirus.
As the pandemic makes its way through almost every community, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the “stay home” mantra is based on denial at worst, or misunderstanding at best, of how many people worldwide cannot comply. The global housing crisis that pre-dates the Covid-19 outbreak means that staying home is a privilege.
It’s impossible to stay home when you don’t have one – which is the case for at least 150 million people, or 2% of the world’s population, who live on the streets or in overcrowded shelters.
It’s equally difficult for the 1.6 billion people worldwide living in grossly inadequate housing to wash their hands and physical distance. Of these, 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to soap and water, many of them living in densely populated informal settlements. In Nigeria nearly 70% of urban populations live informally and 130 million people lack access to adequate sanitation.
In Dharavi, Mumbai, one of the largest informal settlements in the world, the population density is 277,000 people per square km; in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, it’s 300,000. By way of comparison, Manhattan’s density is 27,350 people per square km.
“Stay at home” orders also assume households have the financial means to do so. The unaffordability of housing has plagued renters the world over, with countless households living month to month. Rents have soared as institutional investors eat up more and more stock. Now, with unemployment skyrocketing and a deep, potentially lasting recession, many tenants are moving from the frying pan into the fire.
A few surprising policies have emerged. Governments in Berlin and Denmark have re-purposed youth hostels; the UK boasts having housed 90% of rough sleepers; and California – the hotbed of homelessness in North America – has acquired 15,000 hotel rooms for homeless people to shelter.
Governments in several African countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia, have committed to getting water and sanitation facilities to informal settlements; and a water company has ensured shared taps are in place in a settlement in Rio de Janeiro.
Perhaps most surprising of all are moratoriums on evictions as seen in Canada, the US and Spain, where suspension of utilities due to non-payment is also prohibited. Changes to mortgage payments through short-term deferrals – unthinkable six weeks ago – are part of many packages being adopted.
These developments could be signs of a better, post-pandemic world where governments view housing as a social good and a human right. Scratch the surface, however, and what you’ll find is very familiar.
For example, the trend to criminalise homeless people continues. In a number of cities in France and elsewhere, homeless people are being ticketed for being on the streets in violation of lockdown and physical distancing rules, though they have nowhere to go. In other areas, governments continue to exhibit indifference to the wellbeing of homeless people, reinterpreting the “stay home/physical distance” policy to mean living in overcrowded shelters, mega-tents or convention centres.
Critics say the approach to informal settlements in the global south has largely been “firefighting”, suggesting there is no long-term plan to address overcrowding and the lack of basic services.
Reports are also emerging that removing tenants from property is still commonplace, with landlords in the US, for example, flouting the moratorium on eviction. It has also come to light that under most mortgage deferral schemes, including in New Zealand, interest will continue to accrue and is added to the principal loan to be paid back post-pandemic, which means simply a deferral of debt owed, and a likely longer-term mortgage. Meanwhile private equity firms are chomping at the bit, waiting for residential real estate to come on the market so they can make money.
Policies that ensure access to adequate housing for everyone remain a blind spot. In other words, governments are failing to do what they are obliged to, pandemic or not, under international human rights law: implement the right to housing.
Here’s a to-do list:
Ensure access to emergency and long-term housing for people who are homeless, including through securing hotel and hostel rooms and other vacant units.
Cease all forced evictions and evictions into homelessness.
Regularlise informal settlements and ensure they have access to water and sanitation.
Regulate housing costs so they are commensurate with household income.
Prohibit speculative investment in housing that contributes to unaffordability and eviction.
As the world waits for a viable vaccine to eliminate the virus, now is a good time to start on housing rights for all.
Leilani Farha is the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing