The Current

Housing a human right not a commodity, says UN rapporteur

In a world of haves and have-mores, those without a home can be found in wealthy Western cities and in the rapidly urbanized spaces of developing countries. The UN's special rapporteur on housing argues housing is not a commodity, it's a human right.
Major house appreciation may feel good for those in the market, but UN housing rapporteur Leilani Farha says the growing 'commodification' of housing threatens the rights of the poor. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

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Canadians may tend not to think of the housing boom as a human rights issue but Leilani Farha says they should.

She's a Canadian human rights lawyer and the UN's special rapporteur on housing attending the Habitat 3 summit taking place this week in Quito, Ecuador. 

Farha tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti her mandate is to look at housing as a human right and understands that means there are implications.

"Obviously there are tensions between, you know, investing in housing as a commodity, as an asset, as a money-maker, and understanding or recognizing housing as a human right."

Farha says the drive toward the "commodification" of housing is not new since real estate has always been considered a good investment.

"What's different right now is the amount of capital," says Farha.

"Those people with those huge dollars, and corporations with those huge dollars are looking for places to park their money ... I'm seeing this across the world."

Because people are migrating for economic reasons, living rurally, Farha points out they can't survive when they go to a city to make money.

"Their only opportunity is really to live in what are called informal settlements."

Farha describes these settlements as emerging organically often on land that has not been purchased.

"The conditions that I've seen in informal settlements are — I mean there's no other word to describe it — they are an inhabitable. They are inhumane."

Women carry buckets with water as they make their way past a Kliptown informal settlement in Soweto, Aug. 5, 2016. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

The settlements have no running water, no sanitation facilities, no electricity, no access to employment opportunities and sometimes, Farha says, no access to school.

"And I'm not talking about one country or two countries, we're talking about 1.6 billion people worldwide living in conditions like [this]."

UN's special rapporteur on housing Leilani Farha says it's not just the housing market that needs to be regulated - there needs to be human rights-based regulations. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

Farha believes that a shift is necessary in how we view the balance of those who invest in housing and those who need housing.

She says regulation of markets should be implemented but says they need to be human rights-based regulations.

"In other words, we need to look at the impact that real estate development investment housing as a commodity is having on the most vulnerable people — looking at what rights are being affected. "

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Idella Sturino.