Chloe Swarbrick: UN-enshrined human right to housing eclipsed by investor greed


Housing is a human right. More than that, adequate housing is a human right.

This is not some new-age wokeness, or whatever the latest culture war-baiting buzzword is.

We signed up to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and passed without dissent by the United Nations General Assembly. The UN was created after some of the world’s most devastating wars, in hope of creating peace by enforcing basic standards for member nations and their people.

The succeeding 70 years, however, saw basic tenets of that contract broken as elected representatives sacrificed goals of shared security and prosperity in favour of individual greed and gain.

They instead gamed the system to procure untold wealth for a handful of people at the expense of the largest transient population since around the time we were signing on to the Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago. In Aotearoa New Zealand, that wealth comes in the form of owning houses, multiples of them.

Human rights are for everyone. You don’t get human rights only if you’re “good”, wear a nice suit to an open home, or don’t complain about the mouldy bathroom for fear of being kicked out of your rental. You have them because you are human. That’s the point.

Rights aren’t supposed to shift and change with whoever is in power changing the definition of who is worthy and who is not. We all have these rights regardless of whether we rent or own our home.

The Government has a duty to protect the human right of all of us to adequate housing.

Despite how much less oxygen it’s given than it deserves in our Parliament, as desperate leaders try to revive polling numbers with fear-mongering and culture wars, our material reality remains the biggest concern for most of us. In fact, since the Ipsos poll began in 2018, housing has consistently been the top issue for New Zealanders.

A recent off-air chat with a talkback radio host cemented for me that most politicians would prefer to keep dishing out the sugar high of whataboutism than play the stoic dentist, rectifying generations of neglect and enforcing healthier, new behaviours.

We don’t need UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha’s report, tabled in February in Geneva, to know that housing in our country has long been treated as a speculative asset instead of a home – the core ingredient to upholding that human right. Along with renters’ rights, freezes and regulation, Farha suggested courageous tax changes to transform our economy from “a housing market with a few bits tacked on”, as defined in a 2011 tweet by former backbench Labour MP, Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern.

In 1997, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defined that “adequate” housing Human Right by breaking it down into seven standards. We’re so obviously failing on the basic first four (security of tenure, habitability, accessibility and affordability) that even paying heed to the final three (services/materials/infrastructure, location and cultural adequacy) feels farcical.

Everyone agrees we’ve got to build more (although not, necessarily, where). What we seem most unwilling to civilly discuss is whether we’re comfortable to continue treating housing in Aotearoa as a game of Monopoly.

We have to acknowledge this crisis of adequate housing – this human rights crisis – didn’t come from nowhere, but from a series of decisions by successive governments. We can’t have our cake and eat it too; we cannot continue to treat housing as a commodity and a human right. As our track record and the consequences of it show, you can only choose one of those things.

Back to the dental metaphor: we’ve got a collective case of severe tooth decay. It’s irreversible without someone taking responsibility and implementing the solutions experts know are necessary. It might just be quite expensive but, without that investment, we’re stuffed. And in pain.

The Greens have spent years putting solutions on the table and, in the past few months, pushing forward the public debate on ensuring speculative money stops pumping up house prices. We’re unashamedly working to ensure the human right of the 1.4 million New Zealanders who rent. Security of tenure? Renters’ rights. Habitability? Rental Warrant of Fitness. Accessibility? Building standards. Affordability? Rental controls.

Attempts to uphold the human rights of renters to adequate housing has somehow been spun by a few commentators – filtering through to my inbox – as an attack on landlords. To that I can only say: there’s a reason feudalism fell apart and, 70-odd years ago, we enshrined basic human rights in a post-world-war consensus.

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