Amicus Curiae: Is Housing A Human Right?

Daniel Gambitsis

New Zealand’s housing issues are a perennial news item, whether it is the price bubble, the leaky house crisis or state housing, and now David Rutherford, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner has addressed the issue. Mr Rutherford called for cross-party cooperation to confront the problems, bemoaning the lack of coordination in the current approach. He cited housing affordability and the supply of adequate housing as particular areas of concern, especially given that they have ramifications for our health where housing is cold, damp, or overcrowded.

Mr Rutherford invoked the government’s legal obligation to protect the right to adequate housing. This obligation is affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under article 25 which states:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The right to housing is incorporated into the right to an adequate standard of living in several other treaties to which New Zealand is also party. As noted by the Human Rights Commission, these obligations do not mean the government must build houses or own them, but that it must assure New Zealanders’ right to adequate housing.

But what exactly is considered ‘adequate’ housing? The United Nations has defined seven standards that must be fulfilled to qualify as adequate housing:

un housing

The housing crisis is linked to the growing discrepancy between incomes and prices, an especially critical issue in Auckland. Students and first-home buyers are among those struggling the most in the housing market, faced with the prospect of a life of renting.

The impetus remains on the government to devise a solution. Some (most notably the Labour Party at the last election, but also a number of centre-right commentators and most recently the Reserve Bank) have argued for the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax, and some polls have indicated public support for its introduction. New Zealand remains the exception among OECD countries by not having one. However, a Capital Gains Tax is far from a miracle solution. For example, despite having a Capital Gains Tax since 1985, Australia’s house prices nevertheless increased 66 percent since 2003. Furthermore, given that Labour failed to be elected with a Capital Gains Tax as one of the central planks of their economic plan, National is unlikely to be keen to introduce one with that in mind.

Similarly controversial is National’s latest concept of “social housing”, a policy which seeks to increase the engagement of non-profit agencies in the communities they provide for in complementing or replacing Housing New Zealand’s role. This plan has been criticised by some as a dangerous experiment of neo-liberal economic ideology, although its proponents point to successful precedents in other nations, and it is at least in theory supported by Labour. Perhaps the biggest criticism of the policy however is that simply changing who owns state housing does not deal with the preponderant issue of supply.

Other possible measures include stricter rules for property investors, increasing land availability, removing zoning restrictions and lowering building costs. Efforts need to be centred on the drive to increase the supply of adequate housing, taking into account the needs of different areas of the nation. In the meantime, efforts to improve security of tenure for renters and imposing minimum standards of quality on landlords would be helpful for those currently locked out of the market. These avenues, some of which will involve re-examining the Resource Management Act (a particularly contentious issue), are going to require a cohesive cross-party commitment and an over-arching plan which balances ideology, economy and conservation concerns.

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