VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing, about her concerns over the Irish Government’s ‘practice of adopting laws and policies which treat housing as a commodity and undermine the enjoyment of housing as a human right’
I first came across the name of Leilani Farha after a UN Working Group sent a letter, co-signed by her, to six governments, including the Irish Government, as well as the giant equity firm Blackstone on March 22, this year.
The letter outlined concerns about how policies in the six countries have “financialised housing to the detriment of human rights”. The letter to Ireland criticised our levels of homelessness, an over-reliance on the private rented sector for social housing and the presence of large equity landlords.
I started by asking Ms Farha about what she meant by the “financialisation of housing” and what was the main argument she was putting forward in the letter sent to the Irish Government?
“My main concern in the letter is in respect to the way in which the government of Ireland has dealt with its housing crisis. The letter alleges that by allowing the financialisation of housing to occur post the global financial crisis the government itself has contributed in a quite meaningful way to the housing crisis that Ireland is experiencing right now, in particular, Dublin,” she replied.
Ms Farha went on to say: “The letter outlines that the impact of allowing foreign investment to the extent that it’s been allowed, and in fact promoted through the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA), has had an impact on the housing conditions for a whole swathe of the Irish population.
“The letter says that the privileging by the government in treating housing as an investment has had dire repercussions for people living in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. It has put Ireland on an unsustainable path.”
I asked Ms Farha had the Irish Government formally responded to the criticisms in the letter?
“They have not yet responded,” replied Ms Farha. “But I didn’t give a deadline for a response. It was an invitation to engage in a conversation.”
I then moved on to discuss another part of the UN letter which said: “Contrary to international human rights obligations, investment in housing in the Republic of Ireland has disconnected housing from its core social purpose of providing people with a place to live in with security and dignity. In Ireland, in late 2007 to early 2008, the housing bubble – which started in the early 1990s – burst and the construction sector collapsed.”
I asked Ms Farha was she fearful that another housing crash in Ireland would occur?
“I have a fear of what is happening right now,” replied the UN special rapporteur. “I have an extreme fear that human rights are not being enjoyed when you have such rising homelessness which is an egregious violation of the right to housing. I also take very seriously that there is so very little social housing. I also take very seriously that there is no constitutional or legislative right to housing. I don’t need to look forward to being concerned and alarmed. I’m concerned and alarmed now.”
We then went on to discuss the role of Real Estate Investments Trusts (REITs) in the Irish housing market, (REITs are property investment companies).
Ms Farha said: “It seems that the legislative framework for REITs is the same everywhere which is basically that they are encouraged through tax breaks. I have expressed concern with respect to Ireland and other countries around REITs.
“The idea is to entice people to invest as shareholders in residential real estate. I can’t see that as anything but a push for profit. The creator of the REIT is trying to ensure maximum profit for the shareholder. That doesn’t benefit tenants generally. We know that.
“I want to make it clear though that I don’t have a problem with housing for profit. I don’t think all housing has to be social housing. I think there are people who can afford to live in the private rental market. But that market has to be regulated for the benefit of tenants. The regulation is key because tenants are rights holders and they have the right to adequate housing. And adequate housing should be affordable to them and their household income.
“Governments have to figure out how they are going to make sure that on the one hand, you can have private market accommodation and on the other hand that the private market accommodation is consistent with the State’s human rights obligations. That housing has to be affordable and kept affordable.”
I asked Ms Farha what does the term ‘housing is a human right’ mean in practical terms?
The right to adequate housing means the right to live somewhere in peace, security and dignity. When you are living in homelessness you have neither security or dignity
“It means several things,” she replied. “First of all there should be a right to housing in constitutional provisions or a legislative right to housing. It is symbolic of the State’s recognition that housing is a fundamental human right. We believe that the right to vote is a fundamental human right generally. And you will find that in most constitutions. We believe in criminal justice and you will find a whole bunch of civil and political rights around criminal justice. And so if you believe that housing is a human right then that also should find its place in the legislative apparatus.
“The right to adequate housing means the right to live somewhere in peace, security and dignity. When you are living in homelessness you have neither security or dignity. You can’t have a dignified life without a toilet or a shower for example.
“It’s also understood that states should adopt national housing strategies which are based on human rights. It means having measurable goals and timelines. It also means having accountability mechanisms
“It’s really important that there are recourse mechanisms for people to claim the right to housing.”
I then asked Ms Farha, given the present housing crisis in Ireland, should the Irish Government embark on a huge public housing building programme or should it be a mix of public and private and what should the percentage be?
Ms Farha said: “International human rights law is not prescriptive because it is to be applied to states around the world. What’s necessary is probably a mix, however not just any old mix. It’s clear from advocates on the ground that there is a lack of social housing – the waiting lists are long and there is no access. That obviously has to be addressed. My worry about only building social housing is the solution would take some time. It takes the procurement of land, if it is not available, and it takes building time. If you only took that approach how would people in immediate need fare?
“In some places they are trying what is called inclusionary zoning where a percentage of any new build has to be attributed to affordable housing. It’s a fine proposition except affordability has been co-opted by politicians to mean generally 80 per cent of market rent which is not affordable under international human rights law. Affordability under international human rights law attaches to the ability of the household to pay. It doesn’t attach to the market The market doesn’t dictate what’s affordable, the households and incomes dictate what is affordable.
“If you are going to roll out a housing programme then you are going to have to figure out what is your housing need is and determine in every area how much affordable housing do you actually need and for whom and what income and to plan accordingly.”
Ms Farha then posed the question. “What about the expropriation of existing units by government? Why not subsidise some luxury units for people in need? You have to do what you have to do to end the crisis.”
Last year, Ms Farha’s signature was amongst academics, researchers and experts in the area of housing, economics, social policy and human rights who signed a letter which was sent to the Irish Times. The letter urged that private rents should be affordable and tenancies secure, with tenants having the option of a lifetime tenancy. It also expressed support for a Raise the Roof rally in Dublin.
The Raise the Roof campaign is made up of groups and political parties who have joined forces to protest about the housing crisis in Ireland.
I asked Ms Farha did she support people coming onto the streets to protest about the housing crisis in Ireland?
“Absolutely,” she replied. “People taking to the streets in cities such as Dublin, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich is absolutely imperative. Governments don’t change things on their own and they need to hear from the people, Sometimes for governments to listen to people, the people need to yell.”
My final question to Ms Farha was did she feel pessimistic or optimistic about solutions to the housing crisis?
“I do feel a sense of optimism,” she replied. She referred to her participation in a new housing documentary Push, directed by Fredrik Gertten, which examines the global housing crisis.
“There has been a great reaction to the many screenings of Push. Everywhere I go people are talking about the housing crisis. There has been a shift globally and we’re starting to get on the right track. It’s really important that people in Ireland take to the streets. We need to create a global momentum where people are saying enough is enough.”