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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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Adequate housing in the EU: rights and realities

by Misia Coghlan

There are 2.7 million homeless people in the European Union and many millions more are badly housed. But the EU is said to be lagging in taking measures to provide adequate housing - one of the internationally recognised human rights. An expert from a leading campaign group for the homeless explains.

Rights

In the weeks and months leading up to the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), much argument and debate centred around the existence of the right to adequate housing. The legal basis of this right was challenged by a handful of delegates and the arguments continued right through the Conference itself. The outcome is that the final Declaration includes a reaffirmation of states to a 'commitment to the full and progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing as provided for in the international instruments.' (see first box)

The political impact of Habitat II as the culmination of the recent series of UN Conferences has been disappointing. The Istanbul Conference was originally heralded with the catch-phrase 'housing for all'. In the course of the preparatory process, this was watered-down to become 'shelter for all' and, as has been seen, the wording of the final Declaration simply refers to existing international commitments and allows for the 'full and progressive realisation of the right.' This of course begs the question of how such a right was ever supposed to have been achieved other than 'progressively' and how meaningful such a commitment can be in the absence of parallel undertakings as to implementation and enforcement. In short, very little has been achieved in progressing international commitment to the realisation of the right.

The right to adequate housing has in fact been recognised for some time now by the Member States of the European Union, all of whom have ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the most important legal basis of housing rights found in international law). Under article 11(1), the parties to the Covenant recognise, 'the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing...'

The concept of 'adequacy', it is generally acknowledged, is determined at least in part by social, economic, cultural and climatic factors. Adequate housing can be understood as including the following components: legal security of tenure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure.

It hardly needs pointing out that commitments in international law, whether legally binding or not, remain statements of intent and are of limited practical use unless accompanied by a comprehensive legislative framework in domestic law which will secure both the access to the right as well as providing enforcement mechanisms. What, then, is the reality? Has the right to adequate housing been enacted into national legislation and, most importantly, is the right actually being respected across the European Union?

Realities

FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Associations Working with the Homeless, has been conducting the European Observatory on Homelessness with the support of the European Commission since 1991. FEANTSA's research findings have increasingly demonstrated both the extent and the gravity of the housing crisis in Europe: in what is one of the wealthiest subregions of the world, a large and growing group of the population is being excluded from adequate housing. (see box on next page)

Moreover, FEANTSA's 1995 transnational research report (Home/essness in the European Union) has found that the right to housing does not exist in any Member State as a legally enforceable claim. Although the right is recognised in the constitution of several Member States, this remains a statement of intent and does not create any entitlement. Other Member States have adopted a different approach - housing legislation in the United Kingdom, for example, does create an obligation on the local authorities to provide housing for those homeless people assessed to be in priority need and found to be unintentionally homeless. There is no sign of convergence in the ways EU Member States address the right to housing and housing exclusion in their national legislation.

The right to housing is not addressed in EU legislation as a legal principle and Member States have exclusive competence to deal with housing issues themselves. There is thus no overall European housing policy, nor is there yet any European policy on homelessness. FEANTSA has, however, identified common trends throughout Europe which have contributed to the escalation of homelessness and the lack of adequate housing provision.

The overall European trend has been an increased reliance on the competitive market to meet all housing needs, with an unwillingness on the part of government to commit public resources to assist lower income groups, who are therefore confronted with the limited choice available to them on the open housing market.

The supply of housing has been undergoing change throughout Europe. In all countries, owner-occupation is on the increase, with tax relief generally being offered as an incentive. The private rented sector, on the other hand, has continued to decline. Social housing has generally suffered from cuts in funding. The result is that there is a shortfall in the supply of affordable housing for rent and rents have become correspondingly higher. It is clear that the competitive housing market cannot and will not meet the needs of the increasing numbers of people without the resources to afford market rents.

The type of housing required has also changed: demographic trends have meant that households are getting smaller but more numerous - thus, there is a need for more but smaller dwellings.

The problem has been exacerbated by the lack of an overall strategy either at European level or, indeed, often at national level, to meet the realities of structural changes on the labour market. Indeed, in some countries, the increase in long-term unemployment has been accompanied by an erosion of social protection systems. Faced with escalating demand for longterm welfare assistance, the authorities have often responded by tightening up on eligibility criteria in an attempt to cut or limit benefit payments, with shortterm palliative measures to deal with emergency cases. Thus, increasing numbers of people living on or under the poverty threshold, coupled with the deregulation of the housing market, have led to severe housing stress and increased vulnerability to homelessness.

Finland sets an example

Finland is one EU country tackling the housing problem. In 1987, the International Year of the Homeless, the Finnish government announced its intention to eliminate homelessness. At that time, the number of homeless people was put at close to 20 000. The programme for the development of housing set the objective of making 18 000 homes available for the homeless over a period of five years. Special funds were set aside in the national budget to permit the local authorities and other organisations to purchase housing for the homeless. State loans for the construction of housing for rent were made available to municipalities with a large homeless population. In under ten years, the number of homeless people in Finland has been reduced to half what it was in the mid-1980s. Finland now enjoys a comprehensive system of carefully targeted housing supply, housing subsidies, benefits and allowances and housing is seen as an integral part of a multi-dimensional strategy to combat poverty.

For one in twenty citizens of the European Union, the criteria which, as a whole, constitute adequate housing remain inaccessible. Yet at Istanbul, the EU voiced its determination to make an important and constructive contribution to the implementation of the Habitat objectives. This included an acknowledgement that increased attention should be paid to people living in poverty and that appropriate action should be taken by governments at all levels.

The European housing ministers were due to meet informally in Dublin, on 24 and 25 October of this year, specifically to tackle the question of 'housing for socially excluded people'. The time has come to devise and implement coherent strategies to prevent housing exclusion for low income groups. The market has neither the ethics nor the long-term planning capacity to do this; it remains the responsibility of the state. It can only be hoped that the housing ministers will recognise this and agree on the necessity of protecting housing as a product and as a service from the competitive market, at least for vulnerable groups. The housing ministers have been holding informal meetings since 1989. This year's meeting provides the opportunity, particularly in the light of the Habitat II debate, to exchange information on effective measures to help low income groups access and maintain a home. The result should be the drafting of a number of concrete goals to be achieved within a realistic time-scale.

Homelessness in Europe is not on the scale seen in other regions of the world - with the development and reinforcement of effective preventive policies, based on proven and cost-effective welfare models existing in some Member States, the housing crisis can still be contained. In short, where there is a political will, there is a way. Europe has the potential to serve as a model of good practice to the rest of the world and should do so, more especially in the light of all that was - and wasn't - achieved at Istanbul.

References

Is the European Union Housing its Poor? Dragana Avramov, Catherine Parmentier and Brian Harvey, FEANTSA, Brussels 1995

Homelessness in the European Union, Dragana Avramov, FEANTSA, Brussels 1995

The Invisible Hand of the Housing Market, Dragana Avramov, FEANTSA, Brussels 1996