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Statements Special Procedures

Statement by the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, during the Interactive Dialogue at the Human Rights Council

01 March 2017

1 March 2017

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Representatives from civil society organizations and networks, UN entities and agencies and participants,

I am honoured to address the Human Rights Council in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context.

On this occasion, I present for your consideration a thematic report on the financialization of housing and its implications for the right to adequate housing; as well as two country reports based on my visits to India and Portugal in April and December of last year. I would also like to briefly reference the New Urban Agenda, the outcome document of the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III, which took place in October 2016 and the importance of its implementation.

Distinguished delegates, in recent years the housing sector has been transformed by global financial actors and unprecedented amounts of excess capital. It is no longer as we once knew it. Housing has been financialized: valued as a commodity rather than a human dwelling, it is now a means to secure and accumulate wealth rather than a place to live in dignity, to raise a family and thrive within a community. Housing has become security for financial instruments – traded and sold on global markets. It has lost its currency as a universal human right.

The pace and extent to which financial corporations and funds are taking over housing and real estate and causing homelessness, displacement and unaffordability is staggering.

Global real estate represents nearly 60 per cent of the value of all global assets or $USD 217 trillion – with residential real estate comprising $USD 163 trillion or 75 per cent. This represents more than twice the world’s total GDP.

Banks, pension and hedge funds, private equity firms and other kinds of financial intermediaries seek out housing in “hedge cities” as a safe haven to park excess capital. They often benefit from tax shelters and use a lack of transparency to provide cover for anonymous investors and capital gained through corruption.

This influx of capital has increased housing prices in many cities to levels that most residents cannot afford – in some cities by more than 50% in a 5-year period. Housing prices are no longer commensurate with household income levels, and instead are driven by demand for housing assets among global investors. When housing prices skyrocket, low and sometimes even middle-income residents are forced out of their communities by high rent or mortgage costs. When housing prices plummet, residents face mortgage foreclosure and homelessness. In the U.S., in the 5 years following the financial crisis, over 13 million foreclosures resulted in more than 9 million households being evicted. In Spain, more than half a million foreclosures resulted in over 300,000 evictions. Evictions of this scale surely should give rise to international outrage about violations of the right to housing. Instead, because they were caused by the failure of relatively affluent states to regulate financial markets and prevent predatory lending, they largely escaped human rights accountability. State responses have favoured the interests of financial institutions over the needs of those who have lost their homes.

In developing economies, even informal settlements are subject to speculative investment. Residents are displaced and often rendered homeless to make way for luxury housing that often stands vacant.

My report identifies a threefold assault on human rights caused by the financialization of housing.

Financialization undermines democratic governance and community accountability. International financial institutions and other creditors often require that states be held accountable to global finance rather than to human rights. Governments are more likely to respond to what credit agencies demand than to what human rights require. In financialized housing markets, those making decisions about housing — its use, its cost, where it will be built or whether it will be demolished — often do so from remote board rooms. Real estate billionaires increasingly assume central roles in government and policy making.

Financialization of housing exacerbates inequality and social exclusion. It creates more wealth for the wealthy and deprives the poor of housing and communities. It encourages gentrification and displaces the most marginalized, including indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, women and migrants.

Financialization detaches housing from its connection to communities and to the human dignity and security that are at the core of all human rights. When housing is bought and sold as a speculative commodity, it becomes dehumanized. The needs of existing residents or the kinds of housing they need is of little concern to global financial investors. When housing is bought up by nameless corporate entities or a multi-billion dollar fund it is difficult to find anyone to hold accountable for human rights.

Establishing Human Rights Accountability

Financial markets and global housing investments are not, in fact, beyond the control of states and international organizations.

I have been somewhat heartened to learn that some States and local governments have begun to develop policy responses to the financialization of housing to at least curb its excesses. A number of States have instituted restrictions on foreign purchasers of residential real estate and others have imposed taxes on vacant homes. Taxes on luxury properties have also been applied with revenues used to subsidize housing for low-income households. A number of jurisdictions have introduced a property speculation tax and others have been successful at requiring developers to include a proportion of affordable units. Some local and regional governments have affirmed the social function of housing, facilitating temporary expropriation of vacant housing and prohibiting foreclosures and evictions that would result in homelessness.

While these and similar measures can mitigate the effects of the financialization of housing, a more fundamental shift is required in order for States to uphold their international human rights obligations. States must change their relationship with the financial sector to insist that markets serve the social function of housing.

The obligations of States in relation to the financial sector have often been ignored or interpreted too narrowly. The assumption, bolstered by neo-liberalism, that States should simply allow markets to work according to their own rules, subject only to the requirement that private actors “do no harm” and avoid explicit violations of human rights, is simply not sufficient to meet States’ obligation to fulfil the right to adequate housing “by all appropriate means, including legislative measures.”

The State must regulate, direct and engage with private market and financial actors, to ensure that the rules under which they operate and their actions are consistent with the realization of the right to adequate housing for all sectors of society. States are obliged to ensure that private investors respond to the needs of residents for secure, affordable housing and do not cater only to the wealthy.

What I am suggesting is a significant change – a shift in paradigm away from prioritizing financial interests and the commodification of housing in order to retrieve what housing means in terms of human dignity and security, as a lived experience, as a HUMAN right.

Concretely what might this look like? What are the opportunities to make such a shift?

The Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda provide an important opportunity for States to engage financial regulatory bodies and actors in the goal of adequate housing for all by 2030 as a human rights obligation. Indeed, meeting that goal will require such engagement.

Trade and investment treaties must recognize the paramountcy of human rights and ensure that States are fully empowered to regulate and direct private investment so as to ensure the realization of the right to housing.

Courts, tribunals and national and local human rights institutions must explicitly recognize and apply the paramountcy of human rights and interpret and apply domestic laws and policies related to housing and housing finance consistently with the right to adequate housing.

States should review all domestic laws and policies related to foreclosure, indebtedness as well as urban planning and housing development, to ensure that no eviction is permitted when there are reasonable alternatives, and that housing is built for people who need it to live in, not for purposes of speculation and the accumulation of wealth.

Emerging work in the area of business and human rights has yet to be rigorously applied to the largest sphere of global business - the sphere of housing and real estate. Financial institutions and housing investors should be encouraged to adopt guidelines that recognize the important role that they must play in the realization of the right to housing. If the New Urban Agenda and target in 11.1 of the SDG’s of adequate housing for all by 2030 is to mean anything, we must insist that human rights obligations be recalibrated to address the immense challenges of the financialization of housing and redirect the vast resources available toward the realization of the right to adequate housing.

Mr President,

Allow me to now briefly outline my country visit reports. I’d like to start by expressing my deep gratitude to the Governments of India and of Portugal, at the national and subnational levels. In both countries I was warmly welcomed, provided with exemplary support and information, and I had the privilege of engaging in substantive and constructive discussions with officials, without constraint. I was also inspired by civil society, and by the testimonies and stories shared by residents who so generously invited me into their homes. I learned so much on both visits.

It was an honour to visit India in April 2016. There is no doubt that a mission to India is not an easy undertaking: it is a vast country with much regional diversity, of which I saw just a tiny portion. It also has a complex socio-political federalist system. And so, my comments must be understood in this light.

Soon to be the most populated country in the world with 1.3 billion people, and with its economy growing at a healthy pace, India is at a critical juncture for the protection of the right to adequate housing. Now is an opportune time to put in place long-term plans to address the country’s accelerated urbanization and population growth, and to ensure human dignity and rights for millions of people. India can and must tackle inequality, poverty and housing exclusion with the same conviction it places in its democratic values.

The challenges are daunting: over 58.6 million households do not have access to adequate housing in urban and rural India, and there is an extensive need for repair of dilapidated housing stock and the provision of essential services such as electricity, water, sanitation and waste management. If the critical situation of those who are landless, homeless, inadequately housed and displaced is to be taken as a serious human rights priority, there must be a vigorous effort on the part of all levels of government to put the right to adequate housing at the centre of the agenda.

India is generally on the right track in this regard with several national programmes in place. For example, national government has introduced an ambitious Housing for All Scheme the aim of which is to build approximately 20 million houses in urban areas, potentially housing 100 million people by 2022. The goal is to address the housing needs of many of the urban poor, including those living in recognized informal settlements. One of the most progressive elements of the programme is that it is based on the recognition that, as far as possible, “slum rehabilitation” should occur in situ. Of course with such an ambitious project comes some concerns such as, the viability of homeownership as the central model, the size of the units, and barriers to accessing the scheme for some.

I also raised particular concern regarding the practice of forced eviction, a gross violation of human rights, which occur commonly and sometimes with violence and without ensuring due process or alternative accommodation and compensation.

I am also concerned by the situation of homelessness, a gross violation of the right to adequate housing. All homeless people, most of whom are “pavement dwellers”, live in indigent conditions, enduring extreme weather and exposure to violence, serious and recurrent health conditions, life threatening situations and hazards, and discrimination. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation has also established the National Urban Livelihoods Mission, with the aim of providing shelter for the urban homeless. However, even those who access shelters live in the harshest of conditions. Though there is much work still to be done, the Supreme Court has provided detailed guidelines for states about the number of shelters that must be constructed and the services that must be provided.

On the issue of access to justice, I would like to commend India’s Supreme Court for its decisions that have affirmed the right to housing through the Constitutional provision of the right to life. While the courts have taken divergent decisions about the right to housing and have recently sanctioned demolitions, the Supreme Court and several High Courts have issued progressive judgments in keeping with the right to adequate housing under international human rights law. Unfortunately, access to justice for right to housing claims remains elusive for many. Most people who are inadequately housed or homeless have relatively little legal knowledge or information, particularly about human rights relating to housing and have limited access to legal aid. In addition, a substantial backlog of pending cases within the judicial system has rendered access to justice for the poor a continuing challenge.

Of the several recommendations I have outlined in my report, I wish to underscore the following five:

  1. I encourage India to put in place an overarching national housing law based in human rights that addresses growing inequalities and offers a long-term road map.
  2. The Government at national and subnational levels must address homelessness as a human rights priority with a view to eliminating it by 2030, in keeping with target 11.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals and in keeping with the New Urban Agenda.
  3. A national moratorium on forced evictions and demolitions of homes should be put in place. When evictions are required as a result of valid health and safety risks, governments must strictly adhere to international human rights norms.
  4. All existing informal settlements must be legally recognized and in situ upgrading and rehabilitation with secure tenure for all inhabitants, based on meaningful participation should be prioritized.
  5. In line with the thematic report that I have presented today, it is essential to curb rising prices due to speculation in real estate markets, particularly in metropolitan cities.

Distinguished delegates,

My most recent mission took place in December 2016, to Portugal. It was a joint visit with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation, Léo Heller, and as such it provided us an opportunity to contribute to a vision of indivisibility of rights that we both share. Mr. Heller will be presenting his report before you at the 36th session, in September.

The Portuguese Constitution under Article 65 establishes a strong foundation upon which to base the implementation of the right to adequate housing. Despite this Constitutional provision, as well as a number of housing laws and programmes, the financial crisis and the measures that have been implemented to address the crisis, especially the austerity measures, have created difficult housing conditions for many.

Austerity measures resulted in an increase in poverty levels, lower social protection benefits, higher rates of homelessness and unaffordable housing, utilities and other public services. The measures required the liberalization of the housing sector including the private rental regime. While this has had some positive impacts, it has also made it easier for tenants to be evicted or relocated.

Portugal also has in place several programmes and policies aimed, in part, at mitigating the effects of austerity measures. These include measures to reduce housing shortages, and rehabilitate rental properties. It has also put in place a number of rehabilitation and resettlement programmes (PER) for people living in non-conventional dwellings, and has a national housing strategy in place.

Portugal is one of the most unequal countries in Europe. While there are positive signs of economic recovery, residents still face serious long terms challenges which are directly linked to housing exclusion, lack of affordability, insufficient social housing or subsidies for housing and growth in homelessness.

I was particularly concerned with the housing conditions experienced by the Roma (ciganos) and people of African Descent, many of whom continue to live in informal settlements, without access to basic services including electricity, amidst garbage, and without secure tenure. These are conditions that directly threaten a dignified life, which is at the centre of the human right to housing. I was also concerned to learn of evictions and demolitions. It is important to recognize that regardless of the economic conditions in the country, every effort must be made to ensure that the right to adequate housing is legally protected and implemented especially for those in vulnerable situations.

Lastly, I had some concern about the impact of touristification, particularly in the city centers of Lisbon and Porto, and its impact on affordability and availability of housing. The Golden Visa scheme which encourages foreign investment in residential real estate has brought into the country over 2 billion dollars, but has put pressure on housing costs in Lisbon and elsewhere.

Of the several recommendations that I have shared with the Government of Portugal, I would like to stress the following:

  1. Adopt a National Housing Framework Law formulated in consultation with all relevant stakeholders and based in international human rights principles, with a focus on those experiencing the worst housing disadvantage such as Roma, people of African descent, women fleeing violence, persons with disabilities, children, youth, and all those who are poor or ‘new poor’.
  2. Commit to ending homelessness as a priority, in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals, target 11.1, to ensure adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services for all, and the New Urban Agenda.
  3. Housing conditions in all informal settlements must be assessed and addressed on an urgent and priority basis including for Roma communities and communities of people of African Descent, and in keeping with Portugal’s National Housing Strategy goals.
  4. Demolitions and evictions that result in homelessness must not take place. Adequate housing plans for these communities must be developed and implemented in consultation with the affected populations and should include key human rights principles such as: security of tenure, in situ relocation, access to basic services including water, sanitation and electricity, affordability and dignified living conditions.

Mr President,
Distinguished delegates

In closing, let me add that I was honoured to be the first Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing to take part in a Habitat Conference which took place in Quito, Ecuador in October of 2016.

The New Urban Agenda – the output document from Habitat III – combined with the SDGs, especially target 11.1, form a solid basis for solving many of the most acute housing problems globally. If States take these two documents and the commitments therein seriously, every government will develop a national housing strategy based in human rights, every government will commit to ending homelessness by 2030; and all States will shift back to a vision of housing as a human right rather than a commodity.

Before I end, let me also say, that I very much looking forward to my next confirmed visit, this time to Chile at the end of April.

Thank you for your attention and I look forward to our constructive dialogue.