Housing as a Human Right in Europe

AuthorMatti Mikkola
DOI10.1177/138826270801000303
Published date01 September 2008
Date01 September 2008
Subject MatterArticle
European Jour nal of Social Sec urity, Volume 10 (2008), No. 3 249
HOUSING AS A HUMAN RIGHT IN EUROPE
M M*
Abstract
is article analyses the exercise of the right to housing in Europe in the light of
European human rights standards. Special attention is given to the European
Social Charter Article 31.1 which deals with the right to housing in general and
overlaps with paragraph 2 on the prevention of homelessness and paragraph 3 on
the a ordability of housing costs. e European Convention of Human Rights also
includes provisions on the right to housing, such as Article 3 (degrading treatment)
and Article 8 (family), which overlap with provisions of the Charter. Together
these provisions require States to guarantee citizens the right to receive temporary
housing of dignity under all circumstances and access to standard housing without
unreasonable delay.  e last mentioned requires, in turn, that States have at
their disposal a su cient and su ciently rotating stock of social rented housing,
which is accessible to vulnerable persons and families.  e article concludes that a
mult idim ensi onal i ndic ator i s nee ded t o ass ess th e e ciency of the hous ing programs
and measures to prevent and remove homelessne ss.
Keywords: human rights; housing; adequate standards; homelessness; a ordability;
basic amenities; contractual safety; habitability; homebuyer; low-cost housing;
standard housing; tempora ry housing; waiting periods
1. OVERVIEW
Without a dwelling, it is di cult to  nd shelter from the elements, to satisfy basic
needs or to replenish one’s body and mind. Of course, the same di culty applies to
self-actualis ation, as well as to maintaining privacy a nd starti ng a family. Housing is
a necessity and it should be recognised as a basic human right across Europe, where
* Pro fess or o f La bour Law, Dep ar tmen t of P riv ate Law, Univ ers ity of He lsi nk i. Ad dre ss: Yli opi stok atu
3, P.O. Box 4, 00140 Helsinki, Finla nd; tel. +358 9 191 22 819; e-mail: matt i.mikkola@helsink i. .
Former Member (1995–2006) and C hairman of the Eu ropean Committee on S ocial Rights.
Matti Mik kola
250 Intersentia
there are considerable seasonal cha nges, where winters are cold and where life wit hout
a dwelling fall s short of being digni ed. Whether or not this is real ly the case, and the
paths towards the realisation of the right to housing as a fundamental human right,
are the concerns of this a rticle.
e question of housing encompasses economic, political, cultural and legal
aspects. Any e ort targeting one policy area alone is unlikely to guarantee the
realisation of the right to housing. Legal measures are required, in particular when
aiming to guarantee that the most vulnerable persons and families attain the
possibility of liv ing in dignity.
1.1. SITUATIO N AND TE NDENCIE S
1.1.1. Market
e majority of European s are either home-owners or tenants in dwellings owned by
someone else.  e landlord, whether this is a public landlord or some other type of
organisation or a private indiv idual, expect s a pro table return on his investment in
the form of rent or an increase in propert y values. It follows that a place of residence
is also a capital investment. In recent decades, many countries have actively created
‘in-between alternatives’ to owning and renting. A would-be occupant is typically
required to invest in some portion of the dwelling’s value and become a part owner.
As a part owner, the occupant would not be entitled to a f ull share of any increase in
value, but would enjoy greater security of tenure t han a mere tenant.
Ownership status can also be applied to distinguish between di erent types
of markets within the housing market itself.  ere are owner-occupied and rental
markets, as well as a ma rket for housing that fall s between the two.  e possibility of
securing housing is determined primarily by the citizen’s competitive position and
the means of action available to him in the aforementioned markets. Poor  nancial
status limits the possibility of obtaining standard housing, and, in e ect, may o en
result in i nadequate housing or homelessne ss.
Because the market mechanism is insensitive to the universal need for housing
and inept at correcting t he inequalities it creates, active housing polic y is needed.
1.1.2. Policies
e primary questions for housing policy deal with the functioning of the housing
market, the relationship between demand and supply, and the accountability and
reliability of contract s in all areas of the housing market.
In the owner-occupied market, public intervention usually translates into
providing consumer protection for the buyer against unfair or disproportionate
contractual conditions, as well as against inadequacies of and faults in housing.  e
Housing as a Huma n Right in Europe
European Jour nal of Social Sec urity, Volume 10 (2008), No. 3 251
state may also regulate the owner-occupied housing market by means of interest
rates, low-interest mortgages and interest rate subsidies, as well as tax relief. In the
case of part-owned housing schemes, the state or municipality o en partly  nances
new house construction.  e public authority may also provide direct subsidies to
reconstruction projects a nd to  rst-time homebuyers.
In the rental market, the need for protection focuses also on contractual
conditions, especially on the protection of the weaker party (i.e. the tenant) against
unfair or disproportionate contractual conditions, unjusti able rent increases and
indiscriminate termination of tenancy agreements. Moreover, in the interest of
meeting the housing needs of disadvantaged groups in a digni ed and sustainable
way, su cient stock of rented and social rented housing, as well as temporar y shelter
for emergency accommodation, are required . Governments may also ensure the right
to access and maintain rented housing by regulating rents or by introducing housing
allowances.
Contemporary housing policy is more and more frequently concerned with
high purchase prices and housing expenditure, which have together resulted in
disadvantaged groups incre asingly seeking social rented housing a nd facing a greater
risk of homelessness. To counter this trend, especially in countries aiming to secure
social integrat ion and promote the well-being of citizens, the core func tion of housing
policy should be that of guaranteeing that the citizens can obtain adequate housing.
To this end, many countries have subsidised housing costs with low-interest loans,
interest rate subsidies, tax a llowances and other such systems.  ey have also borne
some of the housing costs by regulating rents and by setting up housing bene t
systems.
1.2. LEGAL SOURCES AND DEFINITIONS
1.2.1. Provisions
e majority of housing demand is satis ed by markets. People either purchase a
dwelling, rent it from a private indiv idual, company, foundation or non-governmental
organisation, or have it provided for their use by a public body. However, the most
vulnerable citi zens are not catered for by the market and thus face inadequate housing
or homelessness.
Well-functioning housing policy, supported by national legislation, not only
ensures fair and undisturbed housing markets and access to housing but also sets
minimum standards for the quality of housing and prevents homelessness. To this
end, European States have committed themselves to universal international human
rights conventions, which they have enforced further by adopting speci c European
human and basic rights.

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