The Right to Housing

AuthorKaty Wells
Published date01 May 2019
Date01 May 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Studies
2019, Vol. 67(2) 406 –421
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0032321718769009
The Right to Housing
Katy Wells
The issue of justice in housing is rarely discussed in political philosophy. Yet, housing crises such
as that currently faceSd by the UK highlight the importance of work in this area. In this article, I
address the issue of housing justice by defending a basic right to housing. The right is in the first
instance specific to a particular context, that of a Western liberal society. I defend a positive
right to exercise a set of property rights called ‘lease rights’ over a self-contained living space
of a certain standard, for a minimum term of 3 years. An important feature of this right is that
it is a right to live alone. Where individuals have to live in communal housing because they lack
the resources to do otherwise, their basic rights are violated. The account provides a distinctive
understanding of how a government’s housing policy can fail its citizens.
housing, property, freedom of association, socioeconomic rights, social rights
Accepted: 7 March 2018
Housing is a pressing public issue in the UK at the moment, as a glance at the newspapers
will demonstrate. Successive governments’ failure to invest in housing provision has been
blamed for a severe shortage of housing (BBC News, 2015). Those seeking housing in the
UK face high housing costs, poor renting conditions, and a shortage of social housing.1
A crisis such as that faced by the UK raises the question of what justice requires when
it comes to the provision of housing. Yet, political philosophers have largely failed to
engage with this issue. In this article, I address the question of justice in housing by set-
ting out and defending a basic right to housing. The right is, in the first instance, specific
to a particular context: it is a right to housing that something like a contemporary Western
liberal society ought to include. The right I defend is a positive right to exercise a set of
property rights I call ‘lease rights’ over a self-contained living space of a certain standard,
for a minimum term of 3 years.2 The different elements of this right will be explained
below, but lease rights are based on the rights a person with secure tenancy of rental hous-
ing would exercise over that housing.
Magdalen College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Corresponding author:
Katy Wells, Magdalen College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 4AU, UK.
769009PCX0010.1177/0032321718769009Political StudiesWells
Wells 407
Perhaps, the most distinctive and controversial feature of this right is that it is a right
to live alone. Each individual has a right to exercise lease rights over a self-contained liv-
ing space. On this account, if an individual has to live in shared housing (such as a house-
or flat-share) due to a lack of resources, their basic rights are being violated. This is
because, I argue, in such a scenario, the individual’s freedom of association, specifically
their freedom to refuse to engage in a kind of intimate association, is not being protected.
The present account, then, offers a significant re-evaluation of the way we view common
communal housing arrangements.
The right to housing I defend, therefore, is not simply a right to some unspecified good
‘housing’ nor is it simply a right not to be homeless. It is a right to housing of a particular
quality and type. Having such an account gives us a distinctive understanding of the most
serious ways a government’s housing policy can fail its citizens. In order to show this,
after presenting my account, I will consider its implications for an analysis of the UK
housing situation.
Although little political philosophy has been written on housing provision, one exist-
ing literature is relevant to consideration of a basic right to housing. This is the literature
on socioeconomic rights. However, as I will argue below, accounts from this literature do
not offer an adequate account of a basic right to housing, since they are either too modest,
or are insufficiently developed.
The article proceeds as follows. First, I discuss the socioeconomic rights literature.
Second, I set out the basic right to housing I want to defend. Third, I offer a justification
for this right. The justification I give makes ultimate appeal to the value of individual
autonomy; however, different rights in the set of lease rights are justified with reference
to different interests (such as an interest in freedom of association) – interests that are
themselves important for individual autonomy. While the justification I offer is therefore
a piecemeal one, it is one that, in virtue of this, captures the different ways in which
accessing housing of the right sort is of fundamental significance. I conclude by spelling
out some of the implications of this account for the UK.
Existing Work on the Right to Housing
Housing is an under-discussed topic in political philosophy. When it comes to a right to
housing, what discussion we have comes predominantly from the socioeconomic rights
literature. Socioeconomic rights theorists defend rights to social and economic resources
such as health care, adequate nutrition, and education. Such theorists almost always
include housing on the list of social and economic resources to which individuals have
rights. However, we ought to have significant concerns about accounts from these theo-
rists. To show this, I briefly consider what two major types of account of socioeco-
nomic rights have to say about a basic right to housing: minimal accounts and more
demanding accounts.
Minimal accounts of socioeconomic rights take it that these rights secure ‘the endur-
ance of material life’ or ‘minimal agency’ (Morales, 2017). On such accounts, socioeco-
nomic rights are rights to a modest set of goods. For instance, Henry Shue (1996: 23)
argues that we have a basic right to subsistence: a right to ‘have available for consumption
what is needed for a decent chance at a reasonably healthy and active life of more or less
normal length, barring tragic interventions’. On Shue’s (1996: 23) view, this involves
having access to unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate clothing, ade-
quate shelter and minimal preventive public health care.

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