If Housing is a Human Right, Why is it Always Subject to Debate?

Canada has a long history of speaking out, in the global arena, on behalf
of peace, the environment and social justice. While not perfect or consistent,
still the voice of Canada is primarily a voice for the common good.

As a long time housing advocate, Canada’s stance that housing is a human right at the UN (particularly the Habitat I and Habitat II conferences) was one that I found inspiring. A right is something that has broad social legitimacy. A right is something that the state has an obligation to guarantee and protect. Like the right to a fair trial or the right to be free from discrimination in obtaining the necessities of life, the right to housing has practical applications. It is something that should have been removed from the winds of partisan politics and is to be woven into the ongoing social fabric.

Promises made on the global stage don’t always come alive locally. At Habitat II Canada received a best practices award for the national co-op housing programme, a federally funded initiative that was cancelled the same year.  Those that have found funds to develop new affordable housing in the years following the substantive end of government assisted non-profit housing development face another ongoing barrier to fulfilling the ideal of housing as a human right exists—a NIMBY reinforcing consultation process that encourages those who oppose affordable housing in their neighbourhood or, as is often the case, in anyone’s neighbourhood.

At some of the more militant demonstrations I’ve attended we were faced with club and gas wielding police. Just standing still took remarkable effort to not panic. None-the-less, these experiences were less stressful than a community meeting where vicious opposition to affordable housing and having poor people as one’s neighbours is voiced in a clear, vicious and often dishonest fashion.

There do seem to be two streams of verbal opposition—‘not in my back yard’ and ‘not in anyone’s back yard”. The not in my back yard people can be heard claiming that there aren’t enough support services in the area or that poor and marginalised people won’t fit or that they already have affordable housing in their neighbourhood and it is time for others to do their share. The not in any one’s back yard oppose affordable housing based on stereotypes or on property value concerns. This opposition, sometimes expressed calmly and at other times with rage, is an attack on the right to housing, an enshrined process that is not a part of the practical exercise of most other rights.

There is a degree of ugliness behind such public opposition to affordable housing. When we start raising objections to one group in society being welcomed into a neighbourhood, where does the line become drawn? In stating one doesn’t want poor people in a neighbourhood, who else is excluded—immigrants? first nations people? people needing support services to live independently?

In order to meet other needs of those that are homeless or otherwise marginalised, the right to secure, affordable housing has to be assured. And the right should not be subject to public debate. Affordable housing should be treated like any other form of housing tenure. A community consultation process isn’t a part of the normal process of buying a home. Why is it a part of the expectation for social housing providers?

I was very pleased with the comments Toronto city councillors on the Affordable Housing Committee made in considering the projects being recommended for funding in the latest RFP round. In particular, I was encouraged by Councillor Councilor Giorgio Mammoliti remarks recorded in the Toronto Star (City housing for 1,500 planned—April 14/07):

“Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti says he won’t tolerate any “NIMBY” arguments from residents in neighbourhoods where the projects are likely to end up.
“I won’t accept `not in my back yard.’ I will not accept it,” vowed the chair of the affordable housing committee yesterday. “In fact, I don’t want to talk to anybody if they’re going to bring (that) approach … “I’m going to move forward with our agenda, and I’ll only listen to, and the committee will only listen to, valid planning arguments.”

This is an truly encouraging step forward. However, St. Clare’s has been warned that there will likely be major community opposition to the 200 Madison project. St. Clare’s 48 Abell project is still the subject of an OMB and divisional court appeal. We are still a long way from housing being an actual human right, a long way from ensuring that opposition to meeting the needs of the poor and marginalized ceases to be given legitimacy.


One response to “If Housing is a Human Right, Why is it Always Subject to Debate?

  1. The word “HOUSING” should ipso facto embody shelter, sanitation, water, health, education and the right to a decent life.

    Slums are growing faster than Cities all over the world and these slums are continuing to grow as the drift of the masses from the outskirts to the cities continues unendlessly in search of jobs and home. Forests are being denuded, grasslands are turning into deserts; rivers are drying up or getting silted and poisoned with waste dumped intio them; diseases that were known to have been nearly wiped out are resurfacing again in much more stronger strains.

    Humanity as a whole , including the Co-operative movement ,has a vital role in stemming this tide of affairs as part of the Co-operative Movement’s goal to stop Global Warming.

    K. Paramas Varan, ICHFAP, Malaysia


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