Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

Part two of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

Discourse on economic and social injustice is changing. Now, when advocates and activists discuss pressing human needs or policy goals, their arguments are increasingly couched within a human rights framework. In the last few decades, this shift has become increasingly apparent within the movement to establish housing as a human right.

As Scott Leckie—the former Executive Director of the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions—has explained, there are many possible justifications for addressing housing issues: humanitarian, functionalist, social control-based arguments, and human rights-based arguments.[1] Given these possible justifications, why take a rights-based approach to housing issues? Why frame housing as a right that everyone is entitled to by the fact of their basic human dignity?

A number of legal and non-legal rationales support a rights-based approach. On the legal side, Leckie points out that such an approach establishes explicit and “legally binding obligations” for state actors and “enforceable entitlements” for citizens.[2] As a consequence, a rights-based approach would provide legal accountability. Once rights are established, governing institutions can be held accountable for meeting basic requirements. For example, the core components of  “adequate” housing—as defined by international law—include:  security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location, and cultural adequacy. These components provide a substantive benchmark for assessing the state of housing and maintaining accountability.

That said, a human rights-based approach does not have to be a purely legal approach. Leckie advocates social action that combines legal and political strategies.  With the support of a strong foundation based on human rights, “Public criticism, international embarrassment, complaints from other states, moves by opposition politicians, [and] criticisms in national and international media […] may yield more positive results than resorting to the courts,” writes Leckie.[3]

Moreover, such a rights-based approach to housing provides a new conceptual framework for understanding housing problems—one that differs from traditional humanitarian rationales. For Leckie, taking a rights-based approach “is not simply saying, ‘The government didn’t perform well so we are going to vote it out so that more people get housing.’ The rights based approach says, ‘The government has consciously done certain things or not done certain things and as a result of that it has violated the rights of its citizens.’”[4] By grounding the discussion in human rights, the problem is framed completely differently: a state that fails to meet a policy goal is very different from a state that violates the basic human dignity of its citizens.

Maria Foscarinis—the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty—has also stressed the value of a human rights framework for addressing housing issues. For Foscarinis, a rights-based approach is particularly important now

when so much public debate on these issues—and resulting policy and law—about homelessness and poor people is premised on misguided, hostile, and divisive assumptions. Human rights are universal: they recognize and are based on the inherent dignity and value of all human beings.  The human rights framework can help foster an inclusive, unifying model for a true social safety net based on justice.” [5]

Thus, establishing housing as a human right would not only hold governments accountable through both legal and political approaches, it would also help to reframe public debate on housing issues.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


[1] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[2] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[3] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

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