The rising global movement to demand housing as a human right

Cape Town, like so many cities across the world, has found itself to be the piggy bank for global surplus capital looking to invest in property. We have seen wave after wave of exclusive developments catering to the super wealthy jack up prices and strip our homes of their basic function – to house families. It has had a devastating effect on the last remaining poor and working-class communities in well-located areas who now find themselves unable to pay rents and property taxes,” Jared Rossouw, a member of the co-ordinating committee of Reclaim the City, tells Equal Times.

Through direct action, legal action and lobbying, the participative tenants and workers’ movement has brought pressure on the provincial Western Cape government to make a U-turn on their housing policy. Last year, the administration announced ten more social housing developments in downtown.

On World Homelessness Awareness Day, 10 October 2018, Western Cape government set up a safe zone to distribute food, water and support. The administration promised it would conduct a new census of homeless figures. It has not conducted one since 2015, when it estimated that 7,000 people were street homeless.

Cape Town is not the only city where finding homelessness figures is challenging. There are many hidden homeless, including those sofa-surfing with friends or family.

In 2005, the United Nations Economic and Social Council estimated that there were 100 million people without homes worldwide, 2 per cent of humankind. But given the impact of the 2008 financial crash and general population growth, the current figure is probably much higher. A further 1.6 billion people are estimated to lack access to adequate housing.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 60 per cent of urban residents live in slums, and this figure is only set to increase with the increasing urbanisation of the continent.

The problem also applies to the Global North. A recent investigation by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism found that at least 449 homeless people died in Britain in the last 12 months.

“There are many more people sleeping on the streets, but the huge increase in homeless deaths is just one result of the housing crisis,” says Katya Nasim, one of the co-founders of London Renters’ Union, which was launched this year. This member-led union has already grown to over 600 members that support each other in fighting evictions or pressuring landlords to do repairs. The London Renters’ Union also campaigns for security of tenure.

“In London, private renting is horrendous, with high prices and few rights for renters. Home ownership is beyond the reach of most people and social housing is unavailable,” Nasim explains. “The situation has worsened severely since austerity and the financial crash.”

The Shift: a UN campaign for housing rights

The UN also recognises the deepening global housing crisis. In June 2017, the first meeting was called for a campaign named ‘The Shift’ demanding a paradigm shift in how we see housing: not as a commodity, but that decent housing is considered within the international human rights framework. The campaign is spearheaded by the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha.

Farha tells Equal Times: "We are seeing a perfect storm. Firstly, a manifestation of housing policies that started in the 1980s, with neoliberal deregulation and reduced social housing. Deregulation means the cost of housing has risen, whilst people’s rights decay. Globally, there has also been rapid urbanisation."

“The financial crisis should have been called a global housing crisis,” she adds. “Not just because it was sparked by mortgage defaults which led to many people losing their homes. It gave private equity firms, vulture funds and many financial institutions so much liquidity compared to cash-strapped banks and governments they were able to march into this unregulated domain and start purchasing in an unwieldy fashion.”

Farha wants to see housing considered a social good. This would reduce real suffering, such as homelessness, that strips people of personal dignity. However, governments and institutions are trying to solve housing problems “using the same framework that created the problem”.

She made a country visit to Egypt in late-September. “The IMF (International Monetary Fund) still says they must liberalise their rental market. At one point the IMF said trickle-down neoliberalism did not work. But they have gone back to this model.”

Governments around the world have already signed up in principle to the right to housing, as it is enshrined in many international human rights declarations and conventions. The Shift campaign is pushing cities and governments to affirm this. Many cities, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Montreal, Seoul, Montevideo and New York have already signed up to the campaign.

In Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, this means supporting housing co-operatives. The city makes urban land available for co-operatives through land banks. 25,000 families are organised into 560 cooperatives through the Uruguayan Federation of Mutual-Aid Housing Cooperatives (FUCVAM). In 2017, the government awarded FUCVAM support to build over 400 homes for 11 cooperatives across Uruguay.

In Barcelona, Spain, the city government has fined banks for keeping properties empty. Last year it began regulating tourism, by reducing licences for hotels and houses used for tourism in the city’s central areas.

Farha sees the Shift campaign as an umbrella for ideas and activities.

“For instance, Barcelona is dealing with Airbnb differently from Toronto. Human rights provide the frame where the culturally appropriate content can then be filled in. Things like promoting equality and protecting the most vulnerable groups come under human rights, and the state or city can work out how to do this in their context.”

Varying problems, shared solutions

In most urban areas, city centres are for the affluent. But economic inequalities are not the only ones exacerbated by spatial distribution.

In South Africa, this is extreme: during apartheid era, it was official policy to house people of colour in townships far from services or jobs, with city centres mainly whites-only. Nearly 25 years later, much of the division still persists.

Rossouw from Reclaim the City explains: “Many new government houses have been built but tend to replicate spatial apartheid. At a time when we should be restructuring the city – and advancing the right to housing and the equitable access to land – the opposite is happening. Wealthier areas have become more exclusive and poorer areas remain locked in limbo.”

Currently, the group is occupying empty buildings including a former nurses’ home in the heart of the city’s exclusive waterfront. They aim high, campaigning for the best land in the best locations for the people who need housing the most: “If we are to change the city as a whole and disrupt the system replicating spatial apartheid, we must take the struggle to the heart of the city, to the seat of government and the people who live there. If we are to address the poverty and inequality that is hidden on the periphery of our city, we must be visible where the decisions are made by those with the power and the wealth.”

The London Renters’ Union also engages in direct action, such as protesting at letting agencies and eviction resistance.

Both movements emphasise education and participation. Cape Town’s Reclaim the City runs weekly local advice assemblies, and in London, the Renters’ Union puts an emphasis on leadership development and skill-sharing.

Nasim explains: “The branches of the union run on a peer-to-peer model, so it is not just about getting advice: we talk collectively and collaborate on a plan of action. Like other unions, we work on the basis that collectively, we have power.”

She reflects on previous housing campaigns she has been part of: “[They] were often short-lived. People come in for the duration of their issue, and leave when [their individual] problem is solved.” Education and analysing power, including collective power, nurtures continuity and leadership.

Farha echoes this approach: “Money and power [in the housing market] are much bigger than a special rapporteur or any one organisation or city. We must galvanise together to realise the right to housing and recommit to the idea that people can live dignified lives in decent housing.”