Revisiting the Right to Housing

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently made headlines by declaring that “housing rights are human rights.” His statement came on the heels of the Liberal government’s unveiling of Canada’s National Housing Strategy, notable in its embrace of a rights-based approach to housing.

Prior to last week’s announcement, Canada was the only major industrialized nation in the world to lack a nationally coordinated housing strategy.1 Canada’s primary housing challenges – rising inequality, decades of increasing rates of homelessness, high construction costs in remote communities, and lack of affordable housing supply in many major cities – have only been exacerbated by the absence of robust national policy. Sourced from months of grassroots engagement, often with homeless populations, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups, the National Housing Strategy’s final iteration intends to co-produce solutions that will finally address the complex challenges facing low-income Canadians.

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Mixed-used, high-rise housing characterizes much of metropolitan Vancouver, a phenomenon referred to as “Vancouverism.” Photo Credit: Adam Hasan

Other aspects of the plan include funds for the construction and renovation of up to 400,000 affordable units across Canada, the removal of 530,000 households from housing need waitlists, and special provisions for housing policy in First Nations. Between 2020 and 2028, a newly designed Canada Housing Benefit will act as a rental subsidy program totaling C$4 billion annually, funded in part by provincial governments, and is intended to help over 300,000 Canadians pay rent.2 Unlike similar rental subsidy programs in the United States, the Canada Housing Benefit is tied to individuals rather than properties and units, giving users greater freedom of housing choice.

A residential street in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood. Photo Credit: Adam Hasan

Despite this, the Trudeau Administration’s announcement has been met with criticism by opposition parties on both the left and the right. Conservatives have argued its approach does little to promote housing ownership. Social democrats in Canada’s center left New Democratic Party have expressed concerns that its scope and timeline lack ambition required to adequately address Canada’s present and anticipated housing challenges. The goal of reducing chronic homelessness by 50% over the course of a decade is laudable, but for many housing rights activists this reduction is not enough.3

Outside Canada, the right to housing is enshrined in a number of international treaties and agreements, among them the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At last year’s Habitat III Conference, UN-Habitat, along with several NGOs, endorsed a “housing at the centre” approach to drafting the New Urban Agenda, recognizing the critical role adequate housing and security of land tenure play in promoting positive social outcomes as urbanization occurs. Some countries, such as South Africa, have even codified the right to housing in their national constitutions, mandating government action and tangible resources to achieve the realization of this right.

But, it is important to remember that rights do not exist merely as static doctrines to be enshrined in declarations and debated in courts; they manifest themselves as contested principles to be claimed by communities and individuals in democratic spaces. Their role is inherently dynamic and should be open to a variety of implementations based on factors such as geography, history, demographics, and both individual and collective needs. It is why South Africa’s right to housing is based in mass housing provision and restorative justice principles, while Canada’s largely focuses on homelessness prevention, increased public-private coordination, and the integration of the country’s existing social welfare programs with new policy frameworks.

The conversation about the right to housing in the North American context recalls the work of Dr. Chester Hartman, who in 1998 published one of his best known articles, “The Case for the Right to Housing.” Specifically discussing the United States, his argument makes an economic argument for a right to housing. Inadequate housing conditions often accompany public health and safety risks derived from environmental conditions, leading to higher spending on programs like Medicaid. Hartman argues that if adequate housing is provided to all, the societal benefits of investment in shelter would reduce spending on other social welfare programs.4 A long history of existing policy already lays a basic foundation for housing rights in the United States, with programs like municipal building codes, rent stabilization for tenants, anti-discrimination elements of the Fair Housing Act, and provisions for veteran housing.5 Viewing a North American right to housing as a more holistic mandate than simply a directive for material housing provision is a good starting point for a discussion on how to implement this right by building on existing policy frameworks.

2017 marks Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, commemorated across the country with displays like this one in Vancouver. Photo Credit: Adam Hasan

Measuring the success of Canada’s National Housing Strategy will go beyond the country’s ability to meet the targets set by the current administration; they are merely a starting point for additional rights-based urban policy to follow. As the sesquicentennial anniversary of Canada’s Confederation enters its final month, the announcement and framing of the National Housing Strategy present new opportunities for North Americans to reconsider the role of rights in the formation of national identity. The political climate in the United States today may not seem conducive to a discussion about human rights, but it is this very context that makes the conversation all the more imperative.

1 “Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development,” United Nations Human Rights Council.

2 “A Place to Call Home,” National Housing Strategy.

3 Peter Zimonjic, “Liberals detail $40B for 10-year national housing strategy, introduce Canada Housing Benefit,” CBC. November 22, 2017.

4 Chester Hartman, “The Case for a Right to Housing,” Housing Policy Debate 9, no. 2 (1998): 224.

5 Ibid., 234-235

About the Author: Adam is a Junior undergraduate student studying Geography and City & Regional Planning. His research interests include understanding the actors involved in defining and redefining Global South urbanisms through social movements, governance systems, and media, as well as the history of spatial planning in post-colonial regions. Adam has previously worked with participatory informal settlement upgrading in South Africa, coastal resilience planning in Brooklyn, and was once ranked internationally as one of Simcity 4’s best city builders. In his free time he enjoys birdwatching, coffee roasting, and plays vice-skip on a local curling team.