Housing is a human right by Franz Segbers, 2017


To guarantee the human right to housing, a fundamental change in policy would be required at all levels. At all levels – federal, state and local – the social housing provision should be enforced against private profit interests. The non-profit status of housing must be revived. Housing must not be a commodity, it must not be the object of speculation and profit interests.

Housing is a human right
Housing shortage in times of concrete money – who still has normal and low-income earners in mind?

by Franz Segbers
[This article posted on May 9, 2017 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://cdn.website-editor.net/98d5a38d38064defa97b9164c019f4fe/files/uploaded/Stuttgart_2017_05_09.pdf.]

I. Housing as the new social issue

“How can it be that people live on the street in a state as rich as Germany?” – This question of the representative of the poor country Nicaragua at the UN Human Rights Council drew attention not only to homelessness. Homelessness is not only a socio-political or diaconal problem for homelessness work, but also a serious human rights problem.

Housing has become the new social issue. The whole misery, which reaches into the middle classes, is shown in the weakest who end up on the street. The UN Social Committee, which regularly reviews the fulfillment of social human rights in the individual signatory states, referred in its most recent report in 2011 to its repeated call for Germany to “report on the extent and causes of homelessness in the country” and to develop programs and measures to address this problem. However, despite the rebuke from the UN Human Rights Committee, there are still no official nationwide statistics on the extent of homelessness in Germany.

Germany is not fulfilling its obligations from a human rights perspective. The federal government has no data of its own. It refers to estimates by the Federal Working Group on Assistance to the Homeless. (FOLIE) According to this, 335,000 people in Germany were without a home in 2014, next year it could be as many as 536,000 people. The increasing social division of society is also reflected in the housing markets. This is the most extreme form of the ever-growing housing poverty in Germany. The housing issue has returned and has become a problem for society as a whole.

The central thesis is: Housing shortage is not just a socio-political problem. Housing shortages violate the human right to housing.

For more and more people and especially those with small and medium incomes, housing and rents are becoming more and more of a problem. Rent evictions are the order of the day, while the number of people in precarious living conditions is increasing. And that’s not all. According to a recent study, 40 percent of all tenant households in Frankfurt are actually entitled to social housing. The glaring shortage of affordable housing is thus in no way a problem of marginalized social groups. Building alone is not enough: in Frankfurt, there were 5,581 building permits in 2015, but only 88 social housing units were built…

The common response to the housing shortage is to build apartments. The Panorama ARD study in 2016 noted, “The private housing construction on which politics is pinning its hopes on, creates virtually no affordable rental housing. 95.3 percent of new private apartments in the 20 largest German cities are not affordable for the majority of German tenants.” (Tagesschau – 2016) There is also a construction boom, but at the same time, the housing shortage is growing.
Why is there nevertheless a housing shortage? In the following, I would like to follow up on this absurdity and, in a second step, show what solution orientation human rights can provide here?

1. the state’s exit from housing policy

In 2005, the Federal Ministry responsible for housing policy changed its name. The word “housing” disappeared from the ministry’s name. It is currently called Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety. This name change reflects the loss of importance of housing policy for political steering objectives at the federal level. Housing policy, which is the responsibility of the state, is in retreat. This is in line with the time of Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV. After all, housing policy was a core element of the welfare state. The erosion of the welfare state and the erosion of the welfare state’s housing supply go hand in hand.

The tense situation on the housing market cannot be explained by increased demand alone. It is the result of a change in housing policy to a housing market policy, which is having a catastrophic effect in the lower price segment in particular. Housing has become a commodity

A market policy that promotes private investment not only fails to solve the housing problem, but also stands in the way of the creation and preservation of affordable housing.
Neither private nor public housing, which is far too small in scale, is in a position to make up for the shortfall in affordable housing. Those who rely on the promotion of private investment not only fail to find a solution to the new housing problem, but also actually prevent it from being solved. For the capital flows primarily into the new construction of apartments in the upper price segment. This is proving to be one of the few safer and more profitable investment strategies. We are dealing with market failure. If you want to housing shortage, we need to return to a housing policy that actively creates and secures affordable stock and curbs land price increases.

2 Neoliberal housing policy
Housing policy shows typical contours of a “retreat of the state” in privatization, liberalization and deregulation. Privatization takes the form of the transfer of ownership rights from state/public enterprises and providers to private companies. The term liberalization describes the opening up of public/state monopolies to competing suppliers and the removal of investment barriers. Finally, deregulation includes the dismantling of state regulatory intervention in economic processes.

The extensive phasing out of subsidies for social rental housing and the privatization of public housing stocks is a neoliberal incursion into the welfare state. It is being replaced by expansion of individualized subject subsidies, the transition to indirect owner subsidies instead of supply management, and the shift from providing for the masses to the care of the disadvantaged.

The deregulation and liberalization tendencies in the area of housing policy, with the exception of privatization, affect the federal level. Housing policy is increasingly becoming a task of the states and communities and thus also a central policy field of local politics. The housing market has failed. This is actually not a new realization. Rather, the reasons are systemic and structural.

Market relations are a social construct in which individuals strive to increase their advantage through exchange. They calculate their costs and compare them with the expected profit. The market always needs exchange partners with purchasing power. But housing, like food, clothing and health, is one of the most basic needs to which everyone is entitled for a dignified life. Whoever wants access to this elementary basic need is primarily referred to the market that excludes those who do not have the corresponding purchasing power. As long as politics in Germany was still oriented toward the model of a social market economy, they tried to meet this criterion of fairness of need justice. Toward the end of the 1960s, the phase of the social market economy also began in housing policy. However, the idea that the state had to provide housing for the “broad strata of the population” receded in favor of the market economy.

There was a paradigm shift in 2002, when it was decided that subsidies would henceforth be no longer to broad sections of the population, but only to “households that are unable to obtain adequate housing on the market and are dependent on assistance”. (Law on Social Housing Promotion) On the other hand, it is important to note that a democratic society must primarily follow the principles of justice of need. The housing market is socially blind. In markets, neither needs nor wants count, only demand with purchasing power.
People try to enforce social goals with private interests in returns. The solution can only be to resolve this conflict of goals.

II. Housing is a human right

The answer to this situation is that housing is a basic and human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the Social Charter of 1966, and several state constitutions list this human right. It is not mentioned in the German Basic Law. The Basic Law lists numerous individual civil rights, but it has a blind spot when it comes to social rights.

Are the measures suitable for benefiting economically and socially disadvantaged people who, from a human rights perspective, deserve special protection and support? There is a human right to housing. It is part of the right to an adequate standard of living.

What is meant by the human right to housing? What is demanded by this human right? It is important to know what the human right to housing entails: first, the adequate availability of housing, second, non-discriminatory and affordable access to housing, and third, a decent quality of housing. In addition, it also guarantees protection against arbitrary evictions, evictions, etc. The human right to housing requires that housing be reasonably available and affordable.

States must respect, protect and guarantee this right. Secure, adequate and permanently affordable housing is an indispensable prerequisite for a dignified life. Against this background, the lack of affordable housing is a problem that needs to be addressed more strongly. Unfortunately, the fathers and mothers of the Basic Law, as well as the post-reunification Joint Constitutional Commission were of the opinion that social human rights were difficult to define. They were against enshrining social human rights as enforceable basic rights. But in terms of international law, this view is outdated.

How people live and furnish their homes is their private affair. But living also requires an appropriate living environment, which is shaped by politics: street planning, land use, development plans, etc. The interests of private homeowners are thus embedded in a public space. Therefore, housing is both a private good as well as a public one. But what distinguishes a private good from a public one? Private goods follow the principle of exclusion: Whoever acquires them can dispose of the good at his own discretion. Others are excluded. Public goods, on the other hand, are accessible to the public. They can be used by more than one person. They are also not at the expense of others. Individuals cannot be excluded from the use of public goods. In France, the homeless have a right to housing: more precisely, the right to a dwelling. For the first time in a European Community country, citizens can sue the state if they do not receive social housing. Since 2000, French municipalities have been obliged to provide at least 20 percent social housing since 2000. However, 40 percent of the cities, including Nice and Paris, do not comply with this obligation and, if necessary, accept penalties. The enforceable right to housing was passed shortly before the 2007 presidential election. It was the result of protests in support of the homeless people in several French cities during the 2006 Christmas season. This means that you must fight for your human right.

On April 20, the European Commission also published its ideas on the establishment of a European pillar of social rights. In it, in Art. 19, there is a right to “Housing and assistance for the homeless”. (Access to social housing or housing assistance of good quality shall be provided for those in need. And c. Adequate shelter and services shall be provided to the homeless in order to promote their social inclusion).
The state should promote more non-profit housing. This would certainly enforce the human right to housing, as would other instruments. For example, existing housing stock at socially acceptable rents, sustainably promotes the construction of cheap housing with higher housing subsidies. Some things are already being done; others are still challenges such as emergency housing statistics at the federal level, so that we can first find out exactly how many people have no place to live.

The Federal Working Group on Housing estimates that there are 335,000 homeless people in Germany, and the number is rising rapidly. This high number is an immense human rights problem. Above all, one thing is true: Decent housing is a human right. This is not only a question of the needy. Everyone has a right to decent housing. The extent to which this human right is being violated can be seen in the poor.

If the housing market is socially blind, since in markets neither needs nor wants count but only demand with purchasing power, housing must be withdrawn from the logic of markets. The problem of housing supply is not to be found in the lack of tenancy rent regulations, but in the market logic itself: within this logic, there is no incentive for a social housing supply. Anyone who really wants a socially oriented organization of housing supply, there is no getting around the fact that housing is not a commodity and that the public sector is therefore called upon to provide it.

Housing must be taken out of the market logic. Housing must not be a commodity. But then it is not enough to promote investment to strengthen housing construction. Such a policy creates the shortage in the first place. A housing policy geared to the needs of the people must promote municipal, non-profit and cooperative housing construction and ownership. Therefore, there is a yardstick for evaluating housing policy programs and regulations: To what extent can market logic be overridden? This is why there is no need for a rent brake, but for a but a brake on utilization. This can only succeed, however, if public and nonprofit sponsors are strengthened. This is why Diakonie also has a role to play here if it wants to fight poverty and provide adequate housing for the poor.

What is needed is a return to the non-profit character of housing. It originated in the 19th century as a reaction to the failure of the liberal housing market economy and the housing shortage of that time.

The state can decide for itself what to do. In the short term, speculation with land must be stopped. In Switzerland, for example, there has been good experience with organizing housing construction through ground leases. The land then remains in public ownership and no speculative profits arise. This is used far too seldom in Germany. Far too often, public land is sold to private owners. Above all, the state must focus on those groups that are particularly disadvantaged.

In Germany’s federal state structure, the municipalities are primarily responsible for urban planning and shaping a social city. In particular, they have the task of providing for low-income groups of the population in such a way that housing is adequate and inexpensive.

Politicians are capitulating to the wealthy and the rich. They are claiming more and more land and living space for themselves. Land can hardly be increased. Therefore, there are good reasons to declare land as a public good and to withdraw it from private disposal.

In order to guarantee the human right to housing, a fundamental change in policy would be required at all levels. At all levels – federal, state and local – the social housing provision should be enforced against private profit interests. Otherwise, there is a risk of a long-term deepening of the social divide that already exists in our cities.
The non-profit status of housing as a service of general interest must be revived. Housing must not be a commodity, it must not be the object of speculation and profit interests.

Rents must not be dictated by the market, because housing is a human right. A new social tenant movement is emerging in many places. It is not the protest milieus that are mobilizing around the housing issue, but more and more often those directly affected are fighting back. They claim a right to the city as a public space.

The human right to housing is not a concrete policy guideline but it is an encouragement to take possession of the right that one has long had. The human right to housing includes not only adequate access to housing, but also that housing in homeless asylums, shelters and makeshift housing is contrary to the human right to housing.

Everyone has the right to housing and not just to lodging of any kind.

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