A seven-points approach to how COVID-19 transformed the right to housing
guarantee from a local government perspective
August 27th, 2020
Written by UCLG- CISDPHR Secretariat
Housing-related issues have stood out throughout these months as some of the most pressing socio-economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise of evictions and the number of people who are homeless, the transformation of “home” due to quarantine measures, the impact of housing-related inequalities over city residents’ day-to-day life and a shifting perception of housing’s social function… Are all closely linked to the current crisis which also represents, of course, a period of deep transformations. For good or bad, cities have been at the forefront of this unprecedented situation, with many local governments trying to provide answers to the new challenges it poses. How did COVID-19 impact local housing systems? Did this affect overall human rights access by city residents? What are local governments priorities in this regard?
Throughout 2020, UCLG and its CSIPDHR Committee have provided a platform for local government discussions on how COVID-19 is affecting the right to housing guarantee in worldwide cities. Live exchanges such as the #BeyondTheOutbreak session and the Community of Practice meeting have allowed members’ and other local stakeholders to express emerging challenges they come across, identify innovative practices and propose joint action. Below are several key messages delivered by city leaders and practitioners throughout these sessions, reflecting various local government points of view on housing in the time of COVID-19.
Housing is having a central role in the social crisis caused by COVID-19
From inadequate conditions to increased unaffordability, housing is having a key role in defining the COVID-19 crisis. Not everybody experiences quarantine measures in the same way according to where or how they live. The extent of housing inequalities includes overcrowded housing, lack of adequate conditions, domestic violence and lack of space or facilities to keep up with homeschooling or work remotely. As many saw a drop in their income due to COVID-19’s impact over the economy and job market, increasing housing unaffordability has also put millions of households under stress, who risk being evicted and losing their home.
The lack of adequate housing and social protection mechanisms has not only brought economic and social distress to many, but also aggravated the current health crisis - making the enforcement of quarantine measures more challenging and exacerbating isolation effects over city residents’ physical and mental health.
An exacerbated human rights crisis: Today’s housing-related challenges have root causes that predate the COVID-19 pandemic
Even though the pandemic has clearly exacerbated housing vulnerabilities, their root causes were already in place in the period predating the pandemic. Seen in perspective, this situation would result from the weak, global implementation of adequate housing as a human right, with millions still living in inadequate housing conditions and policymakers being unaware or unable to bring about international human rights law on housing into practice. This scenario is partly caused by housing’s hegemonic view as the commodity of choice, rather than an essential condition to enjoy an adequate standard of living. The impact of COVID-19 over housing financialization and the global real estate market sector remain to be seen.
It is important to enshrine the rights-based approach into housing policy not only because of housing’s fundamental role in securing an adequate standard of living, but due to its interdependence with accessing the rest of human rights too.
Local governments policies are focusing on tackling housing unaffordability and the lack of social protection systems
The current economic and labour market situation is actually turning housing into more unaffordable for many households. That, in turn, is resulting in rising risk of eviction and an increased number of people sleeping rough in many cities across the world. Local governments have put in place a wide variety of measures to address this challenge, from developing new moratoriums on evictions and freezing rental housing prices, to reinforcing or even creating emergency shelter programmes to protect people who are homeless or victims of domestic violence, among many other groups and profiles of residents. You can know more about these practices in the #BeyondTheOutbreak and Community of Practice reports.
Housing-related emergency responses should be maintained for as much as the economic crisis remains
As the current situation has brought many cities to put in place extraordinary measures to support residents struggling to maintain their homes, many local leaders believe these policies should be maintained until the economic situation doesn’t improve. This is necessary to prevent a sudden rise in the number of evictions and of people living below the poverty line. In perspective, many of these measures can also be seen as promising new tools to protect the right to housing in future crises, from rent price regulation to provision of emergency housing.
A shifting relationship with the real estate market: Enhanced cooperation and means to uphold housing’s social function
COVID-19 has impacted the real estate market in many ways. For instance, it has left many former short-term rental apartments or office spaces vacant, in an unprecedented scenario that is being seized by several local governments to expand the offer of social rental housing in their own cities (and, thus, bring about more affordable housing in their cities). More broadly, the pandemic has contributed to transform the relationship between local governments and the (real estate) market. Positive experiences of cooperation (for instance, mobilizing emergency housing) can be found in many cities worldwide.
Other local governments are taking this opportunity to reclaim their central role in housing policy, and are stressing the need to strengthen their regulatory capacities over the real estate market to better assert housing’s social function.
Getting local governments’ challenges right and supporting their action for better housing policies beyond the outbreak
Many active local governments in UCLG discussions on housing and COVID-19 were already signatories of the “Cities for Adequate Housing” Declaration. As such, they had a good experience in policy development for the right to housing and had already been building key messages for advocacy in the past years. At present, these cities are emphasizing on the need for local governments to count with more capacities and resources to be able to reinforce social protection measures put in place during the COVID-19 crisis. Multilevel and multi-stakeholders cooperation is also key to reinforce housing policy in the near future, be it by strengthening social housing programmes or promoting upgrading and community-led initiatives.
Housing must play a key role in the conversation about the future of cities
Last but not least, local governments gathered in UCLG discussions emphasized on the need for the global conversation on the future of cities and sustainability after the pandemic to give housing the attention it deserves (see UCLG Decalogue for the COVID-19 aftermath). This would help structure in a better way policies put in place at various levels and by different types of stakeholders, while articulating the right to housing with the social justice, economic recovery and environmental agendas. More attention should be devoted to showcasing innovative policies adopted by local governments and communities during these last months, and see how they can be scaled-up or serve as an inspiration for other cities.