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11 July 2017

The time is right, the time is now: human rights and housing

Dessie Donnelly
Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) and its partners are supporting social housing tenants in Scotland and Ireland to use human rights approaches to address their housing problems.
Strengthening Civil Society

Dessie Donnelly of PPR describes why a human rights based approach is important, what its use means in practice, and some of the improvements in housing conditions residents have achieved so far.

The dreadful events witnessed at Grenfell last month, much like the 2015 disaster at the halting site in Carrickmines, Dublin, lays bare the devastation caused by failed housing policies. To comprehend how such apparent institutional neglect and disregard towards tenants can be engrained in the culture of decision making, it is necessary to appreciate that Grenfell occurred in a wider context where the ability to live safely and securely has been superseded by other agendas. Such agendas have produced spiralling homelessness, chronic under investment in existing and new build social housing, gentrification that has priced people out of their communities, scandals around the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers and even in Northern Ireland where we are based, the sectarianisation of housing policy.

Since 2006, PPR has been supporting communities in tight spaces in Scotland and on both sides of the Irish border – tenants in run-down high rise flats, families growing up in ‘temporary’ homeless hostels, Travellers abandoned by official state policy, asylum seekers experiencing enforced destitution, communities seeking remedies for entrenched religious inequality – to oppose these agendas and use human rights as a practical tool to find solutions to failed housing policies.

The principles underpinning PPR’s rights based approach, which find resonance and relevance in many contexts, include the following.

Participation is essential. People’s rights are denied when their experiences are not valued, their voices are silenced and their rights are not prioritised when public authorities make decisions about laws, policies, resources and services that affect them. Poverty and inequality can only be sustainably addressed if people participate in decisions impacting their lives.

Communities do not have to wait for consent to practice their rights but can independently identify their housing rights priorities, carry out research, develop proposals and hold the state to account for obligations unfulfilled. Such participation is based on a constructive impatience with the status quo.

Communities do not have to wait for consent to practice their rights

Human rights and power are inseparable. People are generally afforded their rights in proportion to how much power they have. Human rights are progressed, frustrated or abused as a result of power relationships in society. Rights must be asserted in ways that cannot be ignored by decision makers. This requires that power is built by and for people who need human rights protections – through making alliances, using the media, engaging in protest, etc.

Change must be experienced by the people who need it most. The scale of change needed can be daunting but people must start where they stand. Housing inequalities manifest themselves in people’s everyday lives – in poor conditions, long waiting lists, debt inducing rents and homelessness.  A human rights based approach must be capable of addressing these tangible problems, while also pushing for change which can ward off recurrence and be availed of by other groups experiencing similar problems. Change must be immediate, sustainable and capable of being useful for others in similar circumstances.

The process is as important as the outcome. There are many laws which enable human rights protections – the Human Rights Act, equality laws in Northern Ireland’s peace agreement, the Community Empowerment Act in Scotland. What people often experience, however, is that the implementation arrangements for these laws (consultative committees or partnerships) frustrate rather than facilitate people’s enjoyment of rights. If, as Einstein said, it is true that “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, then the manner in which rights are progressed has to fundamentally change. Where necessary, communities must be prepared to design new mechanisms capable of compelling state and public authorities to engage in human rights frameworks at the local level. This has involved, for example, innovative approaches such as monitoring groups or ‘human rights appeals’ which circumvent existing complaints or consultation processes and require the state to respond to human rights based demands for accountability. Such an approach can start to provide traction and legitimacy for human rights based governance on larger scales.

Communities must be prepared to design new mechanisms capable of compelling state and public authorities to engage in human rights frameworks at the local level

The communities PPR supports to pursue this rights-based approach have achieved significant progress in effectively challenging and addressing both the causes and manifestations of persisting inequalities. For example:

  • structural maintenance and refurbishment programmes such as the commitment to tackle dampness, heating, and run down kitchen and bathrooms in an Edinburgh high rise community
  • securing the first social housing development in a neglected estate for over two decades and challenging government policy of leaving publicly owned accommodation boarded up while homelessness rises
  • exposing the treatment of asylum seekers housed in UK Home Office sponsored accommodation and forcing initial reforms following successful complaints
  • building broad based support (including attracting three United Nations interventions) to end housing inequality, providing structural solutions through reports outlining the land and resources available to tackle homelessness and supporting people directly affected by homelessness to use rights in holding housing authorities to account. In 2015 alone, 82 families were awarded a total of almost 3,000 additional points on the waiting list by challenging their initial assessments, 24 families were re-housed and 12 families had rent arrears reduced to a total cost of almost £30,000.

However, it is the manner in which this progress has been made, with people directly affected driving the change using rights frameworks, that has attracted significant attention from other campaigners, policy makers and communities. It resonates because it is responding to the chronic need for new ways of addressing systemic housing problems.

In 2017, with the support of the Baring Foundation, PPR will be working with partner organisations – Edinburgh Tenants Federation, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Simon Community Northern Ireland – on promoting Human Rights in Practice by supporting some of the most excluded groups on these islands to drive change. By sharing the learning from these initiatives and, as importantly, learning from other approaches to housing rights we hope to play a role in creating societies where housing rights are promoted, protected and fulfilled.

Dessie Donnelly
Director (Development), Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR)

PPR recently received funding under the Foundation’s Strengthening the Voluntary Sector programme, which supports the effective use of the law and human rights based approaches by the voluntary sector.