Ahead of the Young Fabians Housing & Infrastructure Network AGM, Raul Lai makes the case for regarding housing a human right, and the impact this shift in focus would have in policy debates surrounding housing. You can sign up to the AGM here.
We all know how important a good night’s sleep can be. Whether it was the night before a big rugby match or the night before an important presentation, I would always make sure that I was tucked in early so I was well rested for the day ahead. On the other hand, I am still all too familiar with how detrimental a bad night’s sleep can be. Those 9 am meetings or lectures are incredibly painful on little sleep, and I think that we can all agree on our inability to function at full capacity on these occasions. Everything is harder without a good night’s sleep.
This was a point that someone brought up whilst we were discussing the importance of affordable and suitable housing. Confused, I asked her what relevance this had for our discussion on housing. In response, she asked me: how could one get those essential 8 hours of quality sleep if they live in an overcrowded flat? Or if they live in a mould and damp ridden house. Or if the anxiety of being able to pay the extortionate rent that month keeps them up at night. Worse still, how can one catch those Zs if they are homeless? For us to be able to go to work, look after our children and function more generally, we need rest. We aren’t going to get that without affordable and suitable housing.
The importance of housing does not stop at a good night’s sleep, but it demonstrates one way in which housing is incredibly important. Housing plays a central role within our lives and impacts everything from our health and wellbeing to our children’s education and development. For far too long, houses have been viewed as financial assets. Ways to invest one’s money and retire on profits gained as a landlord. This monetisation of housing has been devastating as we have seen through soaring rent and the almost unreachable goal of home ownership for the youth of today. It needs to be said: houses are not primarily financial assets. Houses are homes. They are our foundations, our HQ if you will. Our homes are where we keep our treasured belongings, raise our children and come together as friends and family. It can be, and should be, our sanctuary. Most importantly, however, it provides us with stability and acts as a gateway to the fulfilment of other economic, social and cultural rights. It is because of this that we need to start regarding housing as a human right.
Human rights are natural rights that we all possess on the basis of our shared humanity. These rights exist in order to protect this humanity, and to ensure that we all achieve the basic standard for a full human life. When I say a full human life, I mean the one Jonathan Wolff advocated for: a life that consists of (1) having a decent social and family life and (2) achieving the social norm for standard of living (Wolff, 2019, pg.3).
However, a lack of affordable and suitable housing threatens this full human life. Just consider the impact inadequate housing has on our health. Poor housing conditions, like the presence of damp or mould, can lead to respiratory issues like asthma or lung cancer. These increased health problems, which are directly caused by unsuitable housing, affect not only bodily health but the ability for people to have decent social or family lives. Poor health makes it harder for people to fully engage with the social aspects of life. In terms of the consequences for achieving the social norm for standards of living, one only needs to look at the effects inadequate housing has on a child’s education. When comparing a child that lives in an overcrowded home with one who has a spacious room for them to study in, it is not hard to imagine that the quality of work done in an overcrowded home would be significantly lower than that of a home that does not suffer from overcrowding. Now, poor and inadequate housing also acts as a barrier to educational attainment. The housing of children will affect their development and either create or reinforce inequalities that will impact their standards of living in the future. These issues are but two ways out of many that inadequate housing can threaten a full human life.
When one is unable to fulfil a full human life, they are dehumanised. Through my work at Citizens Advice, I saw the toll inadequate housing took on my clients. Living in unaffordable and unsuitable housing creates constant anxiety and stress which prevents people from living. Their home is no longer a sanctuary, and it does not provide stability or safety. This is the biggest crime of allowing people to live in unaffordable and unsuitable housing.
When we actually engage with the reality and consequences of unaffordable and unsuitable housing in this country, it is unavoidable to conclude that we need to re-evaluate the importance we place on housing. Our lives are built from our homes, and the effects of inadequate housing can threaten our fulfilment of a full human life. That is why it is about time we regard housing as a human right.
Human rights are rights that exist to protect our shared humanity and to ensure that we all achieve the basic standard for a full human life – housing helps us to achieve this and this is why it is a human right. With inadequate housing threatening the fulfilment of this, we need to advocate for radical measures to be taken in order to ensure that affordable and suitable housing is available to all. Whilst this is not the place to discuss how we ensure all have access to affordable and suitable housing, it starts by acknowledging one simple thing: housing is a human right.
The Young Fabians Housing & Infrastructure Network are holding their inaugural AGM on the 23rd February at 7:30pm. If you would like to stand for a position, please RSVP here or email [email protected] with any questions.
Raul Lai is an MSc Human Rights and Politics student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, hoping to pursue a career in policy advice or politics. Before returning to university, he was a Generalist Adviser and Caseworker at Citizens Advice where he spent a large amount of time working on homelessness/housing and welfare benefit cases. Shaped by his experiences at Citizens Advice and a long-held desire for a just society, Raul has a deep passion for the fight against poverty and inequality, with a keen focus on housing rights. He tweets at @RaulLai1.
Wolff, Jonathan, ‘Poverty’, Philosophy Compass, Vol.14, No.12 (2019), John Wiley & Sons Ltd