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Housing as a universal human right

When Leilani Farha, the former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, spoke at the Labour Housing Group (LHG) Connected 2020 Fringe meeting, she argued that housing should be a universal human right. Is this achievable and if so how do we organise to achieve it? And will it bring an end to homelessness?

Her organisation, The Shift, set up in 2016, and the Municipalist Declaration of Local Governments for the Right to Housing and the Right to the City which was signed by 11 city managers across the world in 2018, plan to reclaim and realise the fundamental human right to housing:

THE SHIFT recognizes housing as a human right, not a commodity or an extractive industry. The Shift restores the understanding of housing as home, challenging the ways financial actors undermine the right to housing. Using a human rights framework, The Shift provokes action to end homelessness, unaffordability, and evictions globally.

In the film Leilani exposes the role that private equity firms play within the private rental market in city after city, and country after country, pushing up rents so that ordinary people are priced out of their own communities, alongside the mass replacement of homes where people had lived with buildings bought as an investment opportunity and now kept empty.

We are getting used to seeing the centres of our British cities hollowed out by investors buying up properties which they don’t intend to live in, but as the film illustrates, the scale of it is staggering. Two London examples are the multi-million pound unoccupied houses left empty in Belgravia, resulting in almost entirely traffic-free streets; and the replacement of council flats in one estate in Southwark – which previously had over 3000 residents – by homes that are left empty because they are simply seen as assets, mainly with foreign owners. The presenters talked about these as “dead zones”.

Other cities around the world are experiencing this form of social cleansing. In Toronto, tenants took part in a rent strike because so few repairs were being done by the new owners of their blocks, at the same time as rents were increasing by vastly more than average family incomes[1]. Tenants called the rent increases “eviction by any other name” and experienced harassment and threats for being involved in the protest.

In Kreuzberg in Germany, rent increases were seen to be forcing out both tenants and small businesses, to be replaced by corporate businesses and multi-national food companies. Footage shot in Milan, New York, Valparaiso (Chile), and Barcelona showed the threats (and violence) to families resisting being forced to leave the areas and communities they lived in.  The trend is even affecting Sweden, with its strong social democratic tradition.

We learnt tenants in many cities around the world now have the same property owner as their landlord, a private equity company called Blackstone which is now the largest property owner in the world. Their typical way of working appears to be the same across many countries: buy up blocks of flats, use plans to renovate them to force rent rises by far greater amounts than the cost of the renovations, and replace as speedily as possible the tenants who cannot afford the new rents. Blackstone also makes sure that they are pretty inaccessible to tenants, an office open just a few hours a week, as in a Swedish example.

The film describes companies buying up huge swathes of homes in inner cities as “vultures”, and “monsters than no-one can see”. What makes this all the more distasteful is the fact that private equity firms use investment from our pension funds. So our own pensions are involved here, without our knowledge or permission. Also, a chilling example was given from Italy of how Mafia money is laundered through housing investment.

Fortunately, some people can see what is happening, and are trying to stop dirty money from destroying our cities and shoving people out of the way.

41 cities included London, Manchester and Birmingham, inspired by Leilani’s campaigning work, have set up the Cities for Adequate Housing Group and signed the Municipalist Declaration of Local Governments for the Right to Housing and the Right to the City. Together and individually, they are working to combat the destruction of their cities. Several mayors talked about how they are buying back empty properties, surely what needs to be done in London, whilst others are bringing in laws aimed at stopping companies from buying up large tracts of land or property. Control of the growth of Airbnb is also part of the story, given that this sector also serves to drive ordinary people out of their cities.

Working to create an entitlement to housing as a human right is clearly the only way forward. Whilst we are waiting for a Labour government, we must urge as many cities as possible to join in. As the Cities for Adequate Housing Group says: “local governments cannot stay on the side-lines and need to take a central role.” In order to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for housing[2], we all need to sign up to a worldwide commitment for the right to housing.

If we want the next generation to be able to live in the cities we currently occupy and love, something has to change. And we need urgently to explain to them what is happening so that they can help us make those changes.

Labour Housing Group Executive has agreed that we will work, with the Front Bench team, towards establishing the Right to Housing as a human right in the UK. This will be a fitting campaign for 2021, to celebrate our 40th year of existence.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

She believes that housing is a critical issue across the country and that Labour has great housing policies – but many people, including many members, do not yet know how Labour intends to solve the current housing crisis when next in power.

Sheila wants to see Labour in the forefront of people’s minds when they consider what needs to change. She has worked all her life in housing – in the areas of homelessness, supported housing and housing need. Sheila was a city councillor in Newcastle and is now retired.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Andy Bates</span></strong>
Andy Bates

Andy is a long-standing member of the Labour Party.  He is a member of the  Old Southwark and Bermondsey CLP.

Andy is on the executive of the London Labour Housing Group. For LHG Executive Committee, he is promoting and co-ordinating LHG members going out to speak to CLPs and branches about housing issues.


[1] Over 30 years, rents in Toronto have gone up by 425% compared to 133% for average incomes.

[2] SDG11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030

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