The Right to Housing: Report From a Visit to the Human Rights Council

Jeremy Greenberg (2L)

It's appropriate that on my recent trip to Geneva I stayed in a youth hostel. Hostels are not the most pleasant environment. Not horrible, mind, but a far cry from the comfort of home. Even just the option to stay in one for a few nights, then return to one’s own bed, is a luxury we sometimes overlook. 

 I certainly couldn’t imagine living this way - or worse - for much longer. And then I walked over to the United Nations to talk about housing. 

This past March, I travelled to Geneva for the 37th annual session of the Human Rights Council, as part of my work for Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. I started this work last term as a clinic student with the Faculty of Law's International Human Rights Program (IHRP). I was joined by Lauren Pinder, a fellow classmate whose expansive experience with the Special Rapporteur is also covered in this issue of Rights Review. 

Last term, Lauren and I researched and helped to write the Rapporteur's annual report (available here on the importance of a human rights-based approach to housing. The report highlighted the importance of things like access to transportation and to a justice system capable of enforcing human rights, and the fact that adequate housing constitutes more than just four walls and a roof. 

The conditions that we advocated for are decidedly worse than those found in a youth hostel in a wealthy country. But they aren't much worse than the conditions faced by the 30,000 Canadians who are homeless on any given night of the year. Not to mention the housing conditions facing Indigenous peoples in Canada, which are so severe the Assembly of First Nations has estimated 85,000 new housing units need to be constructed. Currently there are 1.6 billion people worldwide living without access to adequate housing. That is a massive human rights violation on a global scale. 

It so happened that the week I was in Geneva, there was an historic snowfall that made most of Western Europe look like Yellowknife on a good day. Freezing temperatures, thick snow, major transport shutdowns. I had to hike to the Palais des Nations because the busses weren’t running, trudging through the snow with diplomats and foreign dignitaries flowing in from decidedly non-frozen countries. The hostel kept the heat on blast, and we propped windows open to prevent suffocation in our dingy sixteen-person dorm. 

I don't know what Europe's homeless did that week, but I do know that in 2017 one hundred homeless people died in the streets of Toronto. I know that earlier this year, a homeless person died in Toronto after an influenza outbreak at a shelter. I know that our shelters continue to run over-capacity, and I know that our federal, provincial, and municipal governments refuse to budget for more. 

When we worked with Leilani (a fellow Canadian) on her new report, we made a strategic choice not to foreground Canada's new - in fact, first-ever - housing strategy. While it’s fantastic, and long overdue, that Canada now has a housing strategy, and that it’s explicitly couched in human rights language, it’s also long overdue. That it took until 2018 to develop a national housing strategy should be a source of shame for Canadians, not of pride. So Canada was left out this year, and it remains to be seen what impact this policy will have. That said, I am hopeful that when it comes time for the 2019 report, there will be some exciting and promising new information about Canada’s housing implementation.

While the Special Rapporteur has done an admirable job of promoting this less-well-known human right, we had the added task this year of explaining what a human right lens actually means. That is, the report’s object was to convince countries to design housing strategies based on human rights, and not just making passing mention of them. We developed ten principles, including the need to “base the strategy in law and legal standards” (Principle 1), “have human rights-based goals and timelines” (Principle 6), and “clarify the obligations of private actors and regulate financial, housing and real estate markets” (Principle 10).

That means ensuring housing for all through various strategies, including the growing field of "Housing First" policy making. “Housing First” foregoes shelters, halfway houses, various forms of institutionalization for people with mental illness, addiction, or other difficult life circumstances, and focuses on providing them with housing. It's a controversial approach, because it often means putting individuals with addiction and mental health challenges into living circumstances that they may not be prepared to handle on their own. This is why the policy is tied to things like social support services and in-house medical care, for example, by having psychologists or counsellors live in the same building.

At a more practical level, our time in Geneva consisted of long days at the Palais des Nations, prepping notes and doing last-minute research, then taking up our positions in the famously-ceilinged main chamber to watch Leilani advocate in front of the Human Rights Council. She presented the report, sat on a panel with other thematic rapporteurs, and hosted a special panel on strategic litigation for housing rights. Undoubtedly the highlight of witnessing Leilani’s advocacy was the Q&A portion, during which states and NGOs submitted questions to the Special Rapporteur, who responded with eloquence and a depth of knowledge.

I came into this work not even knowing that housing was a human right. The past half-year of work has led me to believe that the fact there is anyone in the world, let alone in Canada, with no hot water, no public transportation, no waste disposal, no court to hear their cases, and no government-enshrined housing strategy, is an inexcusable tragedy. 

I am grateful to the IHRP for this incredible work experience, and to Leilani, Lauren, Bruce Porter (executive director of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, commissioner at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, world-renowned housing expert), and the rest of the team for all the leadership and expertise they have provided.