When Leilani Farha came to Vancouver last week to study housing “financialization” — what happens when housing is viewed as an investment opportunity rather than a human right — the United Nations’ special rapporteur on adequate housing never expected her own accommodations to be part of her research.
“I couldn’t find a hotel that was within my budget,” Farha said. “AirBnB ended up being the most affordable route.”
A popular choice for the cash-strapped traveller, AirBnB could soon be subject to regulations by the City of Vancouver, which is concerned about the impact that short-term rentals are having on Vancouver’s long-term rental unit availability and cost.
It was just one of the topics Farha discussed with vulnerable groups, housing academics and researchers in preparation for her upcoming report to the UN Human Rights Council on the impacts of housing financialization.
The Tyee spoke with Farha about her visit, what adequate housing looks like, and what a special rapporteur’s report can actually achieve.
The Tyee: Why are you in Vancouver?
Leilani Farha: [I’m] looking at the way in which housing is treated as an asset and a commodity, and the impact of that on low-income households, and vulnerable and marginalized groups who are the most vulnerable to human rights violations.
My predecessor had come to Vancouver maybe 10 years ago, and had reported some concerns about what’s happening in the Downtown Eastside. And I wanted to follow-up on that and take a look for myself. I also ended up going to Burnaby just to see what’s happening there, because I’ve heard [about] some interesting development issues arising around the [SkyTrain].
Where else are you going?
I’ll be contacting academic experts from various countries around the world. My reports are always global in nature, so obviously I need to access global research and research from different countries.
How does Vancouver compare to other regions when it comes to the right to housing?
I tend not to compare cities across the world. What I can say is that of course I am always concerned when I’m in a developed and rich country where I’m seeing gross inequality that’s manifesting in homelessness and insufferable housing conditions. Because I know that there is wealth and capacity, knowledge, etc. to address those problems.
So the question becomes “Why is it this persists as a problem?” and the answer I keep coming up with is my sense that very few levels of government in very few places view housing as a human right and as something that needs to be addressed on an urgent basis.
Where does the right to housing come from?
The principle articulation is in a treaty that we call the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, under Article 11.1 and that basically says everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing, food, and clothing.
What is ‘adequate’ housing?
It’s defined under international human rights law in a variety of ways. One way is through a list of characteristics, and some would be, you don’t have adequate housing if you don’t have secure tenure. In other words, you can easily be evicted.
Affordability is another. Under international human rights law, your income has to be commensurate with the cost of housing, and those two things have a symbiotic relationship.
It has to be proximate in terms of employment, health services, education, etc. A lot of people [may be] being displaced from city centres to more remote locations, and that costs them money in terms of transportation to jobs. That then means that their cost of living has gone up.
The dignity interest of residents is absolutely fundamental to the adequacy of housing.
Where people are suffering in their housing conditions, unable to live full lives, or living in unclean, violent, overcrowded situations where they feel like they might lose their housing at any moment, all of that contributes to whether or not someone is living a life of dignity.
Is home ownership a right?
No. People need access to adequate housing in all sorts of shapes, forms, and conditions. So it can mean rental accommodation, public housing, private housing, private ownership, sub-leasing. It doesn’t preclude the right to own, but it doesn’t mean the right to own.
How should we balance the desire for home ownership and the right to affordable housing?
It’s a good question, I don’t have the answer.
I do wonder about [the] sustainability of a model that privileges homeownership over other types of tenure. In other parts of the world, homeownership is not the be-all, end-all. So there is a way in which that’s a cultural belief and value that maybe could be explored for its sustainability.
I think rental accommodations can provide the type of security that people need. But what good is shifting perceptions if there’s no rental available? So the shift can’t just happen with consumers in the market. There would have to be a concerted effort on the part of governments [to convince] an entire sector that’s making a huge amount of money [on] home ownership that maybe profit margins should be lower or the profit you can make off a rental is still good.
What is the impact of AirBnB and similar services’ on rental availability?
I think there needs to be more research done, but it seems obvious to me the negative impact that it could have where people are buying properties and instead of creating rental properties out of them, they’re creating AirBnB [units], which doesn’t help the low-income segment of the rental market who are desperate for rental accommodation.
On the other hand, there are some positive impacts of AirBnB for lower-income people. Let’s say a single mum, she’s got a two bedroom, her child leaves every second week because of a divorce situation, and she’s then able to AirBnB the second bedroom in her house and get a little supplementary income. That can be really beneficial.
What has happened as a result of previous UN reports you’ve written?
I’ve been fairly hard-hitting on the issue of homelessness and trying to encourage governments to embrace the idea of actually attempting to end homelessness by 2030. That received some traction for this upcoming [Habitat III] world conference in Quito, Ecuador.
Have we made a dent in addressing the right to housing, and violations? That’s questionable. The forces against it are so huge. That’s part of why I’m turning my mind to this financialization issue. I think the neoliberalism that’s been in place since the ‘80s has really done a number on the right to housing and the realization of the right.
Change happens incrementally.
When do you expect this report to be available to the public?
How can Canadians ensure the federal government respects their right to housing?
I think people in Canada are already doing a lot. I see a lot of groups using international human rights mechanisms to ensure Canada is accountable. I see people using the courts, writing to government, engaging in government consultations, and making submissions. I see lots of local activism. ACORN [the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an independent anti-poverty organization] does some really interesting work across the country, for example.
We really need to focus on accountability mechanisms. There just simply aren’t enough mechanisms worldwide dealing with the implementation of the right to housing and ensuring all levels of government remain accountable.
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