The Right to Housing

Adequate housing, as defined under international law, is “the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity.” This right is so much more than simply four walls and a roof over your head.

The Right to Housing and International Human Rights Law

The right to adequate housing, along with many other economic and social rights, is protected in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, specifically Article 11 which details the right to an adequate standard of living and the continuous improvement of living conditions. The same rights are articulated in Article 25 (1) of the non-legally binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There are many other examples of the right to adequate housing in other international treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 16 and 27), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 9 and 28), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 14 and 15), among others.

As previously mentioned, the right to adequate housing is much more than the physical structure of the house. Adequacy is determined by social, economic, and cultural elements, as well as several specific factors:

  • Security of tenure: Regardless of the type of tenure (lease; cooperative housing; emergency housing, etc.), everyone possesses a level of security of tenure which legally protects against forced eviction, harassment, or other intimidations.
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure:Adequate housing must contain the means necessary for health, nutrition, security and comfort. This includes access to safe drinking water, heating and lighting, sanitation facilities, food storage, site drainage, energy for cooking and access to emergency services.
  • Affordability: The financial cost of housing should not be so high that it threatens the attainability of other fundamental rights and needs. Everyone has the right to be protected by appropriate means against unreasonable rent prices or increases.
  • Habitability: Housing must be liveable in terms of protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind and other potential threats to health and wellbeing. It also must have sufficient space for living.
  • Accessibility: housing must accommodate the special needs of disadvantaged groups such as the elderly, the terminally ill, people with physical or mental disabilities, and people with persistent medical problems.
  • Location: Housing must be in a location which has access to healthcare services, schools, employment possibilities and other social services. Housing should not be built in polluted areas that threaten the health of inhabitants.
  • Cultural adequacy: the construction of housing (including building materials and method) must take cultural identity and diversity into account.

There is a document on the right to adequate housing that was created by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to elaborate on the right, including the obligations on governments, the link between housing and other human rights, and accountability mechanisms.

Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

In addition to the international treaties that highlight the importance of the right to adequate housing, there is an expert who is specially-appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council known as the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. The Special Rapporteur is responsible for globally monitoring the status of adequate housing, responding to complaints about alleged violations and representing the United Nations while visiting countries around the world.

LeilaniFarhaThe current Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing is Leilani Farha, who is also the Executive Director for Canada Without Poverty. She recently presented her first thematic report to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which explored the unique role of sub-national (state, provincial and municipal) governments in ensuring the right to adequate housing.

The former Special Rapporteur, Miloon Kothari, visited Canada in 2007 and in his final report called for “Canada to adopt a comprehensive and coordinated national housing policy based on indivisibility of human rights and the protection of the most vulnerable. This national strategy should include measurable goals and timetables, consultation and collaboration with affected communities, complaints procedures, and transparent accountability mechanisms.” He also noted that Canada is one of few countries that does not have a national housing strategy.

The Right to Housing in Canada

Domestic law in Canada does not formally recognize the right to adequate housing—it is not in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Constitution Act of 1982, or the subject of national legislation. However, Canada has signed on and ratified several international human rights treaties that protect the right to adequate housing (see examples above). This means that there is not a direct manner of enforcing the right to adequate housing under international human rights law in the Canadian domestic court system.

In 2012, MP Marie-Claude Morin introduced Bill C-400, a bill which proposed a national housing strategy that would “ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians.” The bill made specific references to Canada’s obligations under international human rights law, as well as the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights. It included provisions to ensure that the cost of housing would not compromise the enjoyment of other rights (i.e. housing would not be so expensive that one could not afford adequate food), that it would be accessible to individuals living with disabilities, and that it would offer priority to groups particularly vulnerable to housing issues.

Bill C-400 was defeated in February 2013.

The right to housing was brought to the Ontario Superior Court with a landmark legal challenge beginning in May 2010 (Tanudjaja v. Canada Attorney General). The challenge was raised on behalf of homeless individuals against the federal and provincial governments, alleging that their Charter rights (specifically section 7 and 15) were violated. The challenge contended that the governments created and maintained conditions that created and sustained homelessness and/or inadequate housing. It sought a remedy which acknowledged that the Charter and international law require the federal and provincial governments to implement effective housing strategies that would reduce and eventually eliminate homelessness and sub-standard living conditions. In June 2012 the government filed a motion to strike the case based on the position that the case had no merit. This means that none of the evidence, including 9000 pages of evidence filed by the applicants would be looked at by the court. In September 2013 the Ontario Superior Court granted the government’s motion. That motion was appealed to the Ontario court of Appeal, and a decision on the motion was released on December 1, 2014. The applicants have applied to the Supreme Court of Canada for leave to appeal the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision.