What Does the 'Human Right to Adequate Housing' Mean?

While the majority of the world lives in some form of dwelling, around half the world's population does not enjoy all the entitlements necessary for housing to be considered adequate. It has been well established in international human rights law and its interpretation that housing is not just a physical structure of four roofs and a wall. It is a much broader concept, which encompasses various material and non material elements of adequacy, which are necessary to create a safe and secure place to live. Furthermore, adequate housing is not merely a desired goal; it is a basic human right of all human beings. This has been affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which recognises the right to adequate housing as an integral component of the human right to an adequate standard of living. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, in Article 25.1, that:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
On the basis of the provisions established in UDHR, the human right to adequate housing was elaborated and reaffirmed in 1966 by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which in Article 11.1 declares that:
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.
The scope of the human right to adequate housing, as guaranteed by Article 11.1 of ICESCR, was elaborated by the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in its General Comment 4 on 'The right to adequate housing.' The Committee established that in order for housing to be adequate, it must, at a minimum, include the following seven core elements:

Legal security of tenure – All persons should possess a degree of security of tenure which guarantees legal protection against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.

Availability of services – An adequate house must contain certain facilities essential for health, security, comfort and nutrition. All beneficiaries of the right to adequate housing should have sustainable access to natural and common resources, safe drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services.

Affordability – Personal or household financial costs associated with housing should be at such a level that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised.

Habitability – Adequate housing must be habitable, in terms of providing the inhabitants with adequate space and protecting them from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health, structural hazards, and disease vectors. The physical safety of occupants must be guaranteed as well.

Accessibility – Adequate housing must be accessible to those entitled to it. Disadvantaged groups must be accorded full and sustainable access to adequate housing resources. The human right of disadvantaged groups such as older persons, children, persons with disabilities, the terminally ill, HIV-positive individuals, persons with persistent medical problems, the mentally ill, victims of natural disasters, people living in disaster-prone areas and other groups should be protected.

Location – Adequate housing must be in a location which allows access to employment options, food, healthcare services, schools, child care centres and other social facilities.

Cultural adequacy – The way housing is constructed, the building materials used and the policies supporting these must appropriately enable the expression of cultural identity and diversity.

These elements of adequacy have been expanded further by civil society organizations such as HLRN, and the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, to include:

Physical security – Every woman, man, youth and child has the right to live and conduct her / his private life in a secure place and be protected from threats or acts that compromise their mental and / or physical well-being or integrity inside or outside the home.

Access to information – Individuals and communities must have access to appropriate data, documents and intellectual resources that impact their human right to adequate housing.

Participation – At all levels of the decision-making process related to the provision of housing and fulfillment of the human right to adequate housing, individuals and communities must be able to express and share their views; they must be consulted and be able to contribute substantively to such processes that affect their housing.

Access to land, water and other natural resources – Every community must have access to natural resources necessary for its survival and livelihood, including, inter alia, fuel, fodder, water and building materials.

Freedom from dispossession, damage and destruction – All individuals and communities have a right to a place to live without threat of dispossession from their land, all forms of their property, their homes and resources, as well as all individual and collective holdings required to sustain their livelihoods.

Resettlement, restitution, compensation, non-refoulement and return – The rights to resettlement and freedom of movement must be protected. Any resettlement or compensation arrangement, whatever the cause, must be consensual, fair and adequate to meet individual and collective needs.

Access to remedies – Provision of domestic legal and other remedies is an important part of protecting the human right to adequate housing. Individuals and groups must be protected from abuse by landlords, property developers, landowners or any other third party capable of abusing their rights. Where such infringements do occur, public authorities should act to preclude further deprivations as well as guarantee access to judicial redress, including legal and equitable remedies for any infringement caused.

Education and empowerment – Individuals and communities should have access to technical assistance and other means to enable them to improve their living standards and fully realise their economic, cultural and social rights, and development potential.

Freedom from violence against women – The state must prevent all forms of violence against women committed by either state or non-state actors to ensure women's human right to adequate housing.

The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing defined the human right to adequate housing, as: "The right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity."

The human right to adequate housing is thus integral to the realisation of the right to live with dignity, and is inextricably linked to other human rights such as the rights to work/livelihood, health, food, water, land, education, and security of the home and person.