Housing is a commodity. This is a complex idea masquerading as a simple statement of fact. It means that we buy and sell housing like any other good. If you lack money, you cannot buy a house. Some of us seek to profit by selling houses. More and more government bodies treat housing as a resource to be developed and exploited.
Yet, as ubiquitous as this habit of treating housing as a product to be bought and sold is, it does not harmonise with how we understand the idea of home. This is the great contradiction of the modern housing market: almost no one lives as though their home is simply a commodity like any other. Homes are not commodities, they are an essential human need. Our home is more than a building, it is the place where our sense of self is formed, where our social bonds are made. Home is intimately tied to our wellbeing and is essential to community. Yet, today, most societies allow our ability to pay determine who has access to housing. The tragic consequence of this is that we learn to accept that some people do not deserve a secure home and that none of us have an absolute right to a home.
Across the globe diverse political movements have begun to combat this problem and demand the realisation of a human right to housing. These movements are bound together by their rejection of the idea that housing is a commodity, their commitment to democratic methods of controlling access to housing, and their desire to develop a housing system that builds rather than shatters communities. At the centre of this movement for housing as a human right is a demand to de-commodify housing. This entails that we cease thinking of housing as a good to be bought and sold, and that we reconnect housing and home, appreciating that individuals and communities can only flourish when we all have access to a place to call home. This shift also needs to be reflected in our public institutions to ensure the structural protection of this vital human right. The various campaigns for housing as a human right, however, do not conceive of the right to housing as a need to be fulfilled by government agencies, as this inculcates dependence in individuals and communities. Rather, they see a right to housing as right to democratic control over housing, which links to their preference for direct action to realise the human right to housing.
These emergent alternatives are only suggestive of the possibility of a different vision of housing. The changes they envision will have to be fought for over decades, s they entail a direct challenge to the existing distribution of wealth and power. A human right to housing requires redistributing the wealth and power of the privileged, which will necessarily involve a political battle. We should not shrink from this or downplay the difficulty. The end goal of ensuring every human being has a home in community with others.
For further work on this project please see:
“The Political Movement for a Human Right to the City,” in Critical Perspectives on Human Rights, Birgit Schippers ed. (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2018).
Report from the workshop on Human Rights and the London Housing Crisis: Grassroots Perspectives.
Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016), especially Chapter 6.
‘Housing is a mental health issue: Root Shock and the London housing crisis,’ Focus E15, 18 May 2016.
‘Claiming a Human Right to Housing: Eviction Defence, Home (Re)Occupation and Community Resistance,’ Third World Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 6 (2015), 1092-1102.
‘Washington, DC: a human rights city?,’ The Disorder of Things, 25 August 2013.
‘What We Talked About at ISA 2012: A Human Right to Housing,’ The Disorder of Things, 20 June 2012.
‘Philosophers, Activists, and Radicals: a story of human rights and other scandals’ (with Marta Iñiguez de Heredia), Human Rights Review, Volume 12, Issue 2 (2011), 191-220.