Housing as a human right: A European view -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Housing as a human right: A European view

By Maria Koutatzi and Don Haszczyn

Habitat’s principle of the dignity of each human being, and the organization’s focus on the poor and marginalized is not an original human rights idea. Everyone who prays, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven," has a duty to work toward the goal implied in the prayer, love being the motive for action and love for one’s neighbor being the essence of a human rights agenda.

The idea of rights and entitlements, however, is a controversial subject. Since the UN passed the convention on human rights in 1948, which included the right to housing, Europe has been one of the few continents that has put a framework into place to apply these rights in its 48 member states that comprise the “Council of Europe.” Applying a human rights’ framework is important because it guarantees, in law, that every citizen has a right to enforce his/her minimum requirements or entitlements: “Once a State accepts the obligations attached to the right to housing, it agrees to ensure that everyone has access to housing resources adequate for health, well-being and security.” [1] In the case that the state does not fulfill its obligations, then citizens can claim state provision and can use mechanisms in place, including the European Court of Human Rights, to force change of policy and national legislation.

Housing is a right recognized by law in all 48 European states-members of the Council of Europe that signed the European Social Charter.[2] The European Social Charter guarantees among other rights and freedoms, the right to housing by providing a supervisory mechanism for the following housing rights: access to adequate and affordable housing reduction of homelessness housing policy targeted at all disadvantaged categories procedures to limit forced eviction equal access for non-nationals to social housing and housing benefits, housing construction and housing benefits related to family needs.

The interpretation of the law by means of the housing policy and legislations has varied enormously in Europe: from extensive to minimal social housing, from housing subsidies and allowances to subsidized mortgages and loans. Yet, inadequate housing and non-accessible housing is a problem that all European states are facing, albeit in vastly diverse contexts. One common theme, however, emerges—the most vulnerable and “usually” excluded members of the European society suffer most in the housing sector (as in other sectors). This is another reason why it is worth looking at housing from a human rights perspective, because it makes it imperative for both governments and citizens to guarantee the protection of this right.

In the European Union, housing policy has long been considered a national issue to be tackled solely by each member state. The fact that inadequate housing and homelessness have a bigger impact on citizens’ life and overall welfare; the fact that improving housing is imperative to alleviation of poverty and social exclusion; the expansion of the European Union to include some of the transition economies of the East has put housing on the European agenda, and in the last few years, there has been increasing political will to create a European Housing policy. On May 10, 2007, the European Parliament adopted a promising resolution on Housing and Regional Policy (2006/2108(INI),[3] including the following excerpt:
1. Considers that the right to adequate and good-quality housing at reasonable prices is an important fundamental right that is recognized in a number of international charters and constitutions of the Member States;
2. Hopes that the Member States will adopt the legislative provisions necessary in order to make this right to adequate, good-quality, affordable housing effective.

Habitat for Humanity in Europe is only now emerging as an actor in the housing sector of this region. Habitat’s growing experience in 15 countries in Europe, together with the organization’s action-oriented solutions in working with low-income and marginalized groups such as the Roma of Central and Eastern Europe, means that HFH is well-placed to contribute in the housing sector. (See “Helping the Roma” by Lucija Popovska in “The Forum” Volume 13:4 for more information on HFH’s work with the Roma communities.) Habitat has already begun working with other social and low-income groups and alliances on housing in Poland and Romania, not only sharing its experience of bringing solutions, but also urging the necessary change of legislation and mentality to make the vision come true: A world where everyone has a decent place to live in human dignity.

Maria Koutatzi, is an advocacy consultant with HFH in Europe and Central Asia. Prior to this she worked for HFH ECA for three years as Program Enhancement Manager and Training Manager. She may be contacted at: mapiakouta@yahoo.fr

Don Haszczyn is area vice president of HFH in ECA. He has served as a volunteer and director of Habitat for Humanity in Slovakia, Hungary, and the UK for more than 10 years.

Haszcyn started his career with Arthur Andersen, and joined Habitat for Humanity from GE Medical Systems where he served as Chief Financial Officer for Northern Europe. He is a UK Chartered Accountant, holds a bachelors degree in Engineering, and a postgraduate diploma in
Development Management.

[1] COHRE (Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions), Training material
[2] For more details, visit: http://www.coe.int/t/e/human_rights/esc/1_general_presentation/SocialCharterBrochure2007_en.pdf
[3] For more information, see: http://www.europarl.eu.int/oeil/FindByProcnum.do?lang=2&procnum=INI/2006/2108