SHIFT: Housing as a human right

Key-note speaker, Paul Hunt, the Chief Commissioner at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, at the Shift Aotearoa conference in June 2019. Photo: Louise Thomas.

Shifting Aotearoa

Co-hosted by the Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities National Science Challenge, the Shift Aotearoa Conference in early June was a catalyst to provide a clearer picture to those in the government and the housing sector of what needs to happen to see all New Zealanders well-housed. One of the key-note speakers, Paul Hunt, the Chief Commissioner at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, outlined a human rights approach to housing and provided a way forward for action in the New Zealand context.

Housing as a human right

Paul Hunt, the Chief Commissioner at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission introduced the concept of housing as a human right, and said that we need to refresh human rights in New Zealand for our times and our place.

The right to a decent home is espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which New Zealand helped to draft.

In New Zealand, most rights are guaranteed in our laws, such as the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. “But some of the rights . . . are just about invisible in New Zealand. And amongst those invisible, neglected rights are social rights, such as the right to a decent home. These are neglected rights for neglected people.”

Human rights are often seen as a way of granting entitlements to individuals, rarely giving attention to the place of individuals within communities, “Usually, human rights give scant attention to life-enhancing communities, and, in my opinion, this is one reason why Te Tiriti o Waitangi [The Treaty of Waitangi] and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are so extremely important . . . They drag human rights beyond the classic narrow focus on the individual.”

Human rights – real-life implementation

Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur, referred to global human rights having taken a new direction in the last ten years. For years, international human rights focussed on “declaring” human rights – that is, drafting human rights treaties, conventions, and declarations. But, both Leilani and Paul say there has been a change in focus from declaring human rights to their real-life, practical, messy implementation.

“Implementation requires human rights to be integrated into laws, regulations, institutions, policies, plans, practices, and processes. And implementation does not depend upon lawyers going to court, it depends on policy makers, and researchers, and practitioners taking human rights seriously and thereby avoiding ever having to go to court,” says Paul.

Paul said it is unrealistic to expect any Minister of Housing or anyone in national or local government to adopt “the right to a decent home” as a human right unless we make it clear what this human right means.

“We knew there was a right to a decent home over quarter of a century ago. There it was in the Declaration of Universal Human Rights . . . but, very frankly, 25 years ago nobody knew what the hell it meant . . . It was law making by bumper sticker.”

He says that we now have a clearer picture of what the right to a decent home means, and that some of this clarity is provided by more recent human rights instruments that New Zealand has signed up to.

However, Paul says we are lacking in literature in the New Zealand arena.

“In some countries, governments have brought the right to a decent home into their national law, and governments have used it to shape housing policy. Crucially, there is evidence that human rights shaped policies improve the lives of individuals and communities. Most recently, Canada has passed a National Housing Strategy Act which explicitly affirms the right to adequate housing as a fundamental human right. The Act continues, and I quote very briefly, ‘the Minister must develop and maintain a National Housing Strategy taking into account key principles of a human rights-based approach to housing’.”

The right to a decent home in New Zealand

“But what about in Aotearoa? Where are the briefings? Where are the books? Where are the policies? Where are the cases on the right to a decent home? How many parliamentary debates mention the right to a decent home? How many parliamentary questions mention the right to a decent home?

“All credit to those who are already calling for the right to a decent home in Aotearoa, there are some . . . But . . . they are honourable exceptions to the rule. In respect to the right to a decent home, New Zealand must join the 20th Century . . . which is when the right to a decent home first emerged,” says Paul.

Human rights can provide a pathway forward. The right to a decent home requires a comprehensive, effective housing strategy that gives priority to those in most need.

The strategy should engage all levels of government.

Leilani wrote in a recent report, “strategies should address the legacy of colonisation and the systemic housing inequality and dispossession experienced by indigenous peoples.”

Paul continued that the right to a decent home requires that there must be meaningful participation in the design, the implementation, and accountability of the strategy. The right to a decent home is much more than having an affordable house over your head; it is about having a home where you can live in safety, peace, and dignity.

The right to a decent home – an example from Scotland

Paul says the right to a decent home can dignify and empower individuals and communities, giving an example from Scotland.

“The Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Edinburgh Tenants Federation have been helping residents use the right to a decent home as a way of challenging deplorable housing conditions. So, they focussed on one particular housing estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. For years, residents complained to the local council about vermin infestation, about mould, about dampness that was causing ill health, but little or nothing happened.

“With the help of the Scottish Human Right Commission, the residents had a change of strategy. They began to frame their complaints as failures of human rights. They took it into their own hands. They devised their own indicators. They identified a baseline. They met with the council. They developed an action plan for the council. And they measured progress, or lack of it, over time.

“Council officers were provided with human rights training . . . there were notable improvements to the housing . . . new kitchens, new bathrooms, new heating, new windows. But, in a way, even more important than that, residents reported increased skills and confidence. One of the tenants, a wonderful woman, said this, ‘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 I don’t have to be scared’.”

Establishing a working group – identifying what the right to a decent home means in NZ

Paul said that the New Zealand Human Rights Commission is preparing its forth-coming priorities and programme of action.

“New Zealand has signed up to the right to a decent home. These international declarations and intentions don’t tell us a hell of a lot about what this human right means, but they do tell us something.”

However, he says the literature is not specific to the unique context of Aotearoa. “And here is my suggestion – should the human rights commission through a working group, which of course is respectful of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, identify what the right to a decent home means in the specific, unique context of Aotearoa?”

Paul said such a working group would also draw from the values identified by the independent group on constitutional transformation, such as te kāinga, community, and belonging.

“The working group could not lower the standards set by New Zealand’s international human rights obligations. It would have to have respect to the contours and content set out by New Zealand’s international human rights obligations, but within those boundaries, the working group could prepare a short document which outlines the minimum essential requirements of the right to a decent home in Aotearoa.”

The Commission has the statutory power to published non-binding guidelines that could be used by national and local government, and by others in the housing sector, to shape housing law, policies, and programmes. “The guidelines could be used, too, by the Human Rights Commission, iwi, and civil society to hold government accountable for its obligations arising from the right to a decent home.”

Further information

What to read more about the Shift Conference? Try this article, Fixing a broken system, outlining the keynote address from the Associate Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Minister of Māori Development, and Minister of Local Government, the Hon Nanaia Mahuta.

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Date posted: 23 July 2019