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Everyone needs a place to call home

17 March 2014

The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, presented her final thematic report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Rolnik ended her six-year mandate by recommending a set of 10 Guiding Principles for States and other actors on the security of housing tenure for the urban poor.

“Security of tenure is the cornerstone of the right to adequate housing and its absence is one of the most acute vulnerabilities faced by the urban poor around the world,” she told the Council.

Rolnik added that tenure insecurity led to a range of human rights violations affecting not only the right to adequate housing but several other related rights, including the right to education, freedom of assembly, health or social security.

The expert explained that millions of people, largely the urban poor, lived under the threat of eviction and lack of access to services because of tenure insecurity, or left in an ambiguous situation where their tenure status became the basis for discrimination or was used to their detriment by public and private actors.

“It is evident that the poorest bear the brunt of tenure insecurity. This is often the case in self-made, unplanned and subserviced urban settlements, including for tenants within these settlements,” Rolnik said. “But it is equally the case for unprotected tenants elsewhere and for people facing foreclosures with no affordable housing alternatives in their horizon.”

Rolnik listed among these the most marginalized, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, minorities and women who often also suffer compounded discrimination.

The Rapporteur’s Guiding Principles are a new tool that can help engage national and local governments, as well as development agencies and private businesses, on the right to adequate housing. She noted that the plight of the urban poor presented a pressing challenge to tenure security, especially in increasingly urbanized settings.

“The rapid pace of urbanization around the world is unquestionable. There is no turning back to the rural past of humanity. Already in 2007, more than half of the world population lived in cities, a figure that is expected to rise to 60 per cent by 2030, fifteen years from now,” she said.

For the past two years, Rolnik analysed policies and practices from several countries addressing security of tenure that enabled her to devise the tools proposed in the Guiding Principles that could be applied according to countries’ specific contexts.

In Uruguay, for instance, housing cooperatives were established by groups of people who formed legal entities to develop and maintain housing projects for the collective benefit of members. Uruguay has had legislative regulation of cooperatives since 1968 and approximately 600 cooperatives currently house some 20,000 families.

Where settlements pose risks to environmental resources, like coastlines, parks, lakes, rivers and wetlands, Rolnik suggested that States consult the populations concerned and ensured their genuine participation to explore options to protect both the environment and the tenure security and livelihoods of inhabitants. Participatory land readjustment and incremental upgrading of settlements along water bodies, including improved sanitation and waste disposal services, can address both concerns, for example.

The local government of Surabaya in Indonesia has taken successive measures in this direction, via the Settlement and Urban Infrastructure Strategies programme, established in 2010. It improved the conditions of infrastructure such as pavements, drainage and waste-management in the Bozem Morokrembangan region, including of households located along the riverbank areas.

In other countries, the social function of property was promoted. Inclusive urban planning was instrumental in promoting integrated communities and ensuring that well-located housing was available to the poor. Inclusionary zoning requires that a proportion of neighbourhood property be allocated to low-income dwellings, and parcelling and development regulations require that a proportion of new housing developments is reserved for low-income housing, for example in some cities in the United States.

In urban areas in France with a population of more than 50,000 people, 25 per cent of all new housing developments must be allocated to social housing. A ceiling on plot sizes in residential zones can also lower housing costs by promoting higher-density accommodation.

Rolnik also noted that gender discrimination exists under all types of land tenure systems. To promote women’s security of tenure, she recommended that States adopt measures to strengthen women’s registration of tenure rights.

In Tajikistan, a law reform in 2004 made it mandatory to list all family members, including women, on certificates when families received plots of land from former collective farms.

17 March 2014