Housing as a human right

International Women’s Day: Celebrating Leilani and Her Quest


Today, it is March 8; International Women’s Day. Therefore, we are highlighting a woman that really makes a difference. We had the privilege of talking to Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur, after our screening of PUSH´the film during the Swedish Human Rights Film Festival. We encourage you to see PUSH.

In PUSH, Leilani starts out by presenting herself:

“I am a woman, 157 cm tall and I try to make a difference in the world.”

About her work she says:

“My job is to travel the world and investigate different housing issues, to see how people are faring with the respect to housing.”

UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

Being a special rapporteur, means being an independent expert, working on behalf of the United Nations (UN) within the scope of “special procedure” mechanisms.

Leilani’s specific thematic mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council is thus adequate housing. To the profession, Leilani is a laywer.

What is the issue at stake?

Housing is moving from being a human right to becoming commodities. Large equity firms and other financial actors, buy large pieces of our cities – buildings, blocks and boroughs – to use as commodities in financial transactions.

Rents and prices increase dramatically and create a ripple effect on the housing market. The consequences are that poor, marginalized groups but also middle class families, are forced to move outside of the cities. They can no longer afford to live in them.

Another thing that happens is that cities become empty and deserted. As apartments become commodities, equity firms see them as assets and do not rent them out. Only corporates can affording staying in the cities.

Leilani’s quest

In PUSH the film, which has really made her quest move forward, she investigates the state of our cities and what is happening to them:

 “Who is going to live in the cities? Who are cities for”, she says. “It is not rocket science. Decent housing is one of the fundamental rights, and supported by international law”.

What is Leilani trying to do?

Leilani is travelling the world to convince cities and states that she hold responsible, to join her movement, the Shift.

“States are accountable. They are responsible, they make commitments, and they form policies.”

The Shift is a treaty, based on action. Leilani has now engaged forty-six stakeholders in this movement. Stakeholders such as architect having been joining lately, not only cities.

“The way we have asked the cities to get involved, is to take action”, she says. “We are only interested in stakeholders that are willing to do something, to ensure that housing is implemented as a human right – as opposed a commodity. To me, it is not interesting to have cities that only sign. They need to do something concretely, for example to regulate exploiting companies such as Air BnB, Blackstone and others.”

The key to ensuring adequate housing is the implementation of this human right through appropriate government policy and programmes, including national housing strategies.

What does housing as a human right mean?

Under international law, to be adequately housed means that you have the right to have a secure tenure. You should not have to worry about being evicted or having your home or lands taken away. You should be able to live somewhere when you can have access to appropriate services, schools, and employment.

Increasingly viewed as a commodity, housing is most importantly a human right.

Leilani Farha has soon come to the end of her term, six years, as a UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing.

But what she is currently doing is;

“We are working concretely and on the ground. Right now we are addressing and working together with four municipalities in Canada, in a pilot project. We are helping them to create “right to housing strategies” and will help them implement these. If it will work for them, I really would like to see such a demonstration project in Sweden. It would be amazing if we could roll this out in other cities.”