Opinion

Housing as a Human Right Is Big News — Can We Do It?

It could cut deep into homelessness or end up as just another government platitude.

By Erin Dej, Stephen Gaetz and Kaitlin Schwan 8 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Erin Dej and Kaitiln Schwan are postdoctoral fellows at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Stephen Gaetz is the president and CEO of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and professor in the Faculty of Education at York University.

There’s been lots of analysis and speculation in the days following the federal government’s announcement of the National Housing Strategy. With $40 billion on the table to invest in affordable housing through several measures, the federal government’s return to housing after a 30-year absence gives us lots to talk about. And while advocates and political pundits are rightfully picking apart the details of what it will mean to reduce chronic homelessness and core housing need in Canada, and asking questions about how it will roll out over the course of 10 years, the fact that the strategy is positioned within a human rights framework has not received the attention it deserves. In fact, this is big news — as recently as a couple of years ago it would have been almost unimaginable that a North American country like Canada would join other countries from around the world in declaring housing a right.

In last month’s announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated “one person on the streets in Canada is too many,” but what does it mean when we say that housing rights are human rights? While many details of the strategy are to be worked out, the government did outline five components to its human rights framework: the creation of a federal housing advocate, a national housing council, funding to create community-based tenant initiatives and a public engagement campaign to stave off NIMBYism. Most importantly, it calls for new legislation that will entrench the strategy in Canadian law so that subsequent governments can’t disinvest in housing as they did in the early 1990s.

Sure, many are justifiably skeptical, believing the human rights piece may just be rhetoric: political spin to appease housing advocates. Canada is already a signatory on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the OHCHR Convention on the Rights of the Child, all calling for housing as a human right, with little action. But here’s why it might be different this time. The legislation will require various ministries to report on their progress to Parliament, thereby recognizing that all sorts of different sectors need to take responsibility for the homelessness and housing crisis we’re in. A report on the National Housing Strategy will also be tabled every three years to keep the federal government accountable. Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, has called the Strategy “encouraging” and claims that it meets many of the requirements for a human rights approach to housing. She is also quoted as saying that the targets for reducing chronic homelessness could have been bolder.

The potential of the human rights legislation lies in its ability to prevent homelessness in the first place. As the legislation takes shape over the next two years, it is crucial that the federal government look internationally where housing and homelessness legislation has successfully kept people in their homes and prevented individuals and families from experiencing the trauma of homelessness. For example, Wales recently adopted legislation that creates a “duty to assist” those at risk of losing their housing. In the two years that the law has been in place, Wales has seen an 18 per cent reduction in demand for emergency shelter. Sixty-five per cent of those who sought help to prevent them from becoming homeless were successful. Similarly, Australia’s federally run Reconnect program prevented homelessness for 72 per cent of its young people. Other nations, such as England, Finland, and the United States, all provide important learnings on how the right to housing legislation can be crafted to have teeth and provoke meaningful change.

Of course, there will be challenges along the way. Declaring housing as a right has considerable legal and financial implications for other orders of government and negotiations between federal, provincial and territorial governments will have to address how this works. There will need to be an investment beyond the commitment of $40 billion to follow through on this commitment. Helping people who are vulnerable to losing their housing will require that new approaches to prevention and early intervention be funded and implemented. Finally, working through how these rights can be protected and what remedies people whose right to housing is violated will have access to will be crucial.

Housing as a human right is the foundation of the new National Housing Strategy. Get it right and the federal government can reach, if not exceed, its target of pulling 530,000 out of core housing need and cutting the number of shelter users in half. Get it wrong and we can chalk the human rights language up to another platitude with no substance. It is our responsibility to hold all orders of government to account to make sure they create and fully implement legislation protecting the housing rights of Canadians that will have the outcome of preventing and reducing homelessness in Canada.  [Tyee]

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