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Stay-at-home orders have exposed just how poor housing is, says Leilani Farha

The outgoing UN special rapporteur says governments' failure on the right to housing has left societies vulnerable in the pandemic. 

When Leilani Farha visited the UK after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, she called it “a devastating illustration of the impact of substandard housing on the lives of poor people.” This week, Farha, a lawyer by training, ends her six-year mandate as UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, throughout which she has highlighted the role of housing in making societies more unequal. As special rapporteur, her mandate has been to "examine, monitor, advise, and publicly report" on housing issues in UN member states. “I want [ordinary people] to come out of this whole", she said in a recent Skype call from her home in Canada, "not crippled by debt and bad credit ratings so that when it ends, it ends – not five years later after you’ve paid your debt.” The interview, on housing and the coronavirus crisis, has been edited for length and clarity. 

New Statesman: What do you think the importance of the coronavirus pandemic is for housing?

Leilani Farha: I have spent the last six years telling government that they need to implement the right to housing, and we are in the wake of a pandemic so we know exactly why. In the face of a pandemic you have very clear global policy in place – the “stay at home policy”: Stay at home. Wash your hands. Social distance. Those are the three things. There’s another piece, which is the testing and the more medicalised side. And what that exposes is because we had a failure of governments to implement the right to housing, we now have very exposed societies to a deadly virus. 

NS: What do you mean by “exposed societies”? 

LF: A big percentage of many populations are living paycheck-to-paycheck: paying their rent, paying for their food, but with no money at the end of the month. So you have people suffering not just because they’ve lost their jobs but because their housing is so expensive. And you have a system of evictions, not just forced, just straightforward evictions for non-payment of rent etcetera. [These] absolutely cannot occur during the course of a pandemic because it exposes those people to the virus. 

NS: What do you think about the housing responses of governments to the pandemic?

LF: You see governments doing things they said three months ago were impossible: housing homeless people. The way I’m trying to see it is they are taking steps towards the realisation of the right to housing. And what we need to do is convince states not to take steps backwards. There is a provision in international human rights law called non-retrogression. So where a state takes retrogressive measures – actually moves backwards on a human right – they are in violation of human rights law. I think they have a political problem on their hands, too, at the end of a pandemic when we know there might be another pandemic down the road. Now we know what it’s like, I think there would be huge outcry if they try to put people back on the streets, for example. 

We see a lot of governments adopting no-eviction. Sometimes it’s legislation, sometimes it’s just a policy, sometimes it’s just some language they’re throwing about. None of it is good enough. In many cases I am hearing governments say “no evictions. Go and negotiate that with your landlord.” I think of people living in these circumstances – two earner households both lose their jobs, they’ve got a family, they’re not sure how they’re going to pay their rent, English is not their first language – and you want those people to go and negotiate with their landlord or their mortgage lender? It’s a little rich.

It would be much better if there was just blanket legislation – I’ve been pushing some governments around the idea that no person should be paying more than 30 percent of whatever their new income is on rent. If your new income is zero dollars and you’ve got no savings, then you should be paying zero. If you’ve had a 50 percent cut in your earnings then whatever 30 percent of that is what you should be paying in rent or mortgage payments. I mean there might be all sorts of ways in which tenants might be vulnerable so I think we really have to work with governments to get them to recognise this as a real threat.

NS: You are known for your work on highlighting the “financialisation” of housing and its social impacts. What do you think the impact of the pandemic will be?

LF: We know from the 2008/2009 global financial crisis that when there are “distressed assets” and when those assets are housing, real estate, certain actors who have money come in, buy up those assets at a cheap rate – “cheap debt” they call it – and they manage to make a profit off that debt because eventually things bounce back. And we know that’s been a part of this affordability problem across countries. I’m really keeping my ear to the ground on this one, because though the stock market is down, pension funds and private equity and insurance firms still do have a lot of assets at their disposal and they need to put that money somewhere. Let’s watch where they put it and let’s try to encourage governments to prevent them from doing what they did in 2008/2009. 

Now is actually the time for governments to be buying those distressed assets and increasing their own public assets – because, of course, public assets are now at a minimum. In most places they’ve been selling off public assets, public land, and public buildings. We need to make sure that apartment buildings, if there is some faltering on payments and owners are wanting to sell, that governments have the right of first refusal, for example, so governments can pick up those assets. 

The hospitality industry is dead because of the pandemic. Some of these hotels will go into receivership and shouldn’t cities and national level governments be eyeing those as potential good buys that could be used in the short term to house people who are in homelessness, or families experiencing violence? In the longer term they could repurpose those into fewer units, bigger units, and long-term affordable housing or deeply affordable housing units – I’d love to see that happen. 

NS: What about the condition and quality of housing now that governments are asking people to stay inside? 

LF: I worry about that too, and I don’t think much is being done about that at the moment … in any country that I’ve heard about. I was thinking about New Zealand, just because that’s where my last mission was, and it’s known New Zealand homes are very inadequate. So you may have a home but damp, mouldy, either poorly ventilated or too ventilated, and they’re moving into worse weather. No, I’m definitely worried about that and I haven’t heard that anything pandemic-specific is being done to address those concerns.

NS: What can civil society and community organisations be doing, too? 

LF: I run an anti-poverty organisation here in Canada, when I have time, and one of the things we are starting to do is to document poor people's experiences in the pandemic: housing experiences, access to food, access to support. 

One thing that people aren’t talking about a lot that my organisation is trying to talk about is we’ve lost democratic space, there’s no public fora in which to lodge your complaint, talk about what’s happening. For poor people in Canada, our country, we used to use parliamentary systems: hearings, public gatherings, or meetings, just community meetings. Well, none of that is happening now. So there’s a real democratic deficit right now that needs to be addressed as well. 

NS: What do you think the impact of stimulus policies will be? 

LF: If you look at the stimulus packages that are rolling out – who’s going to end up okay at the end of these stimulus packages? The corporates are going to end up okay…How will pension funds, insurance, the ones who fund private equity be affected? I don’t know. Banks are really being supported by governments to ensure their liquidity. So where banks might be supported in terms of liquidity it might not be enough and then they might feel there are too many distressed assets on their books that they want to get rid of, and that’s when private equity moves in. I think that unless we raise [our] voice about this and try and get governments to enact legislation to keep it from happening, there’s a real risk. 

NS: And will debt and bad credit be an issue for ordinary people?

LF: Yes, definitely, which will cripple people. I mean one of the things when I say “who do we want to be the winners out of this?”, well I want everyday people, households, low income people to be the winners. I want them to come out of this whole and not crippled by debt and bad credit ratings so that when the pandemic ends, the pandemic ends – not five years later after you’ve paid your debt. So, how unfair is it to allow households to be crippled by debt and therefore have the pandemic go on for five years afterwards? Whereas big retail, let’s say, is going to rebound because they can keep their foothold in their leases – they’re not at real risk of losing their stores and their ability to have a foothold. But for low income households and middle-class households it goes on for another five years. That doesn’t seem fair to me. So that’s one of the things we have to protect against. 

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman