Financialization Of Housing on Urban Democracy

March 8, 2022
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Financialization Of Housing on Urban Democracy

Financialization Of Housing on Urban Democracy

Coursework One (no more than 2,500 words in length) must address the following question using a contemporary city case study and relevant definitions of key concepts used.
To what extent the financialisation of housing affect urban democracy?

Housing is increasingly seen as a vehicle for wealth accumulation rather than a social good. ‘Financialization’ of housing refers to the expanding and dominant role of financial markets and corporations in the field of housing, leading to unaffordable and insufficient housing and discrimination. Although clearly linked to the right to adequate housing, financialization and its effects are not often viewed from a human rights perspective. This article fleshes out this important link by illuminating the standards set in relation to the right to adequate housing enshrined in Article 11(1) ICESCR. It is shown that recently, human rights bodies have confronted the issue of financialization more directly, translating general requirements to this particular issue. Moreover, efforts at UN level are mirrored in initiatives at the local level, signalling the beginning of a shift towards a paradigm that complies with human rights. The financialization of housing and the response of human rights also allow for addressing a more general issue, namely the potential of majority protection in times of human rights backlash. In this regard, it is worth emphasising that human rights such as the right to adequate housing protect not only the extreme poor. In the context of financialization, this may contribute to better housing conditions as well as reconnect people to their human rights.

Housing is increasingly seen as ‘a vehicle for wealth and investment rather than a social good’.1 The ‘financialization’ of housing is omnipresent and has had detrimental effects on low and middle income households. Everywhere in the world, people are dealing with a lack of adequate housing.2 They cannot find an affordable place to live that meets their needs; that provides privacy and facilities and is close to work and education opportunities. Young adults cannot afford a home of their own, women are disproportionately affected by housing insecurity, and homelessness continues to persist even in the most affluent States. Housing options that are adequate, appear scarce, while mass migration makes solutions seem even more out of reach.3

In times of financialization, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that ‘(h)ousing is a right, not a commodity’.4 Although not topping the list of social rights, the right to housing is increasingly recognized as such.5 It can be found in many international documents and national constitutions. According to Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (‘UDHR’), ‘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’. This is mirrored in Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’): ‘the States Parties […] recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate […] housing’. In more precise terms, the (Revised) European Social Charter, for example, requires States to take measures ‘to promote access to housing of an adequate standard’; ‘prevent and reduce homelessness with a view to its gradual elimination’, and ‘make the price of housing accessible to those without adequate resources’.6 Similarly, the Constitution of South Africa guarantees ‘the right to have access to adequate housing’, meaning ‘[t]he state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right’. In this regard, ‘[n]o one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions’.7

It follows that the right to housing cannot be equalled to the right to have a roof over one’s head. At first glance, it entails more and less at the same time. On the one hand, ‘adequate’ housing implies a certain standard of housing that includes facilities, like energy and sanitation, is affordable and culturally adequate.8 On the other hand, having a right to access to adequate housing is not the same as a claim to housing itself, and requirements of progressive realization suggest the right to housing is subject to the means a State has at its disposal. The existence of multiple, partly overlapping housing rights norms, that are elaborated on in a range of documents and practices, including court judgments, committee decisions, reporting cycles etc. does not necessarily make the right to housing more transparent. What exactly can be expected from governments when it comes to housing?

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This question is crucially relevant in times of financialization. ‘Financializaiton’ (or ‘commodification’) is the term used for ‘[t]he expanding role and unprecedented dominance of financial markets and corporations in the housing sector’.9 Financial institutions and markets are sustained by governments while foreclosures and evictions resulting from, for example, prohibitive rents, as well as inadequate housing have a large impact on the individuals concerned. A focus on capital and investors, just like austerity measures involving reducing social housing programmes and (further) privatization, are severing housing from its social function. Financialization detaches housing from a human rights discourse including rights-based entitlements governments must secure.

A different concern, that does not specifically involve the right to housing, is that human rights are under attack and fail to be seen as rights of everyone. They are regularly portrayed as rights belonging to small minorities – wrongly focusing on (undocumented) migrants, detainees and terrorists.10 The so-called ‘populist backlash’ against human rights is endangering the system.11 Populist leaders and governments may use anti-rights rhetoric that appeals to large numbers of concerned citizens, fuelling their scepticism towards the aims of human rights protection as well as these rights themselves. This development requires various responses, but in any case an effort to ‘reconnect’ human rights to those who can rely on them. A fundamental characteristic of human rights and fundamental rights protection more generally, is their anti-majoritarian function, that is, the fact that they protect marginalized individuals and minority groups against the power of the (legislative) majority. This should not, however, close our eyes to the fact that the rights of majorities are not always that well guaranteed either.12 The lack of adequate housing for a great number of people clearly illustrates this. Not every individual will be personally confronted with censored speech, the banning of religious practices or the impossibility to vote. In our lifetimes, however, many of us will incur a housing problem: be it the lack of an affordable dorm room, the impossibility of obtaining a social housing flat, the inadequateness of a rented place, accessibility problems in case of a disability or old age, or obstacles in securing a roof over one’s head in the first place. Even though it is sometimes argued that social rights should primarily address the needs of the poorest, the right to housing is able to exemplify that human rights are important for all of us. When (financial) housing policy is tackled as a human rights issue, this may benefit those facing dire housing situations, but also contribute to a better image of human rights altogether.

In the light of this, this article aims to answer the following question: what are the standards set in relation to the right to housing that are relevant to the issue of financialization, and how does the link between both reflect on the importance of human rights for everyone? To this end, the human right to housing is illuminated in an effort to clarify what it means in times of financialization. In doing so, this article focuses on the context of UN human rights mechanisms and the ICESCR in particular. After an introduction to the housing standards set in the UN context, as well as the phenomenon of financialization, it continues by fleshing out the human rights dimension of this issue by identifying more specific standards. This is followed by several examples of (local) policies and actions that appear sensitive to the rights-dimension of housing. Finally, the article returns to the populist backlash against human rights and the void housing rights might fill.

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