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The global housing and land crisis needs a human rights response

by Shivani Chaudhry | Housing and Land Rights Network, India
Monday, 1 October 2018 08:53 GMT

Archive Photo: A girl stands at the door of a grocery shop at a slum in New Delhi July 29, 2013. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

World Habitat Day is meant to remind us to ensure the human right to adequate housing and land for everyone

At 5 a.m. on a cold December morning, the sound of bulldozers woke up Rukshana, a woman in her late fifties. By 6 a.m., her home in Delhi, where she had lived for 35 years, had been demolished and with it her meagre belongings.

Rukshana is just one of the world’s 1.6 billion people estimated to be inadequately housed, over 100 million of whom are considered to be homeless.

In India alone, about 54 million rural households are landless while 3 million are homeless in cities.

World Habitat Day, celebrated by the United Nations on the first Monday of October, is meant to remind us of the need to work towards ensuring the realisation of the human right to adequate housing and land for everyone, everywhere.

The actions of states along with economic policies and market-based approaches that consider housing and land as commodities not human rights, continue to cause and exacerbate homelessness evictions, displacement, landlessness, gentrification and the denial of housing and land rights, especially for women around the world.

Financial crises and speculation further the unaffordability crisis, while climate change and disasters increase risks, vulnerability, loss of housing and displacement.

The absence of social housing policies forces millions of people, especially in the global south, to live in inadequate settlements without security of tenure.

When the land they live on increases in value or when the state embraces a city plan devoid of the poor, it demolishes homes of low-income communities. In other instances, mortgage policies and foreclosures cause evictions and infrastructure projects in the guise of ‘development’ increase displacement. Evicted persons, however, are seldom compensated for their losses or rehabilitated.

The various applications of the law and differing processes for the rich and poor is most evident in the way states approach the issue of land.

Private ownership is usually the only legally recognised system and those unable to afford property or live within formal housing arrangements are considered ‘illegal’. As a custodian of land for the people, governments have a legal and moral responsibility to provide for and protect people and their habitats, not demolish their houses and displace them.

Given the magnitude of the global housing and land crisis, there is a need for states to: invest in low-cost housing with a focus on social rental housing; impose a moratorium on evictions; encourage the principle of ‘social function of land’ that recognises its role in promoting economic and social equality; provide legal security of tenure; implement human rights-based land and agrarian reform; carry out ‘human rights impact assessments’ prior to implementing projects; incorporate a ‘human rights approach’ in all laws, policies, and schemes; recognise linkages between rural and urban as two ends of the habitat spectrum; and implement recommendations of U.N. human rights bodies.

World Habitat Day is an occasion for states to reiterate their commitments to creating human rights habitats in rural and urban areas; to guaranteeing land and housing justice; and to enable the realisation of the human right to an adequate standard of living for all, which allows every individual, family, group and community to live with safety, security and dignity.

It is not just on this day, but every day, that we must work collectively to ensure that “no one is left behind” in securing their housing and land rights.

Shivani Chaudhry is the Executive Director of Housing and Land Rights Network India

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