Situated near Edinburgh, Leith has had major housing problems. Residents have complained of mould, poor heating, vermin infestation and substandard bathrooms and kitchens. Sounds familiar?
For years, the council landlord was largely unresponsive.
The Edinburgh Tenants' Federation, and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, publicly called out the poor housing for what it was: a breach of the residents' human right to a decent home.
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This human right does not mean the authorities have a duty to give everyone a house with a back and front yard. That would be ridiculous. It means the government has a duty to do everything possible within its power to create an economic and social environment in which everyone can enjoy a warm, dry, decent, affordable and accessible home.
There was overwhelming evidence that the Scottish authorities were not discharging their
housing-rights responsibilities in Leith.
So, the Tenants' Federation and Scottish Commission went into action. They listened to
residents and explained to councillors what the human right to a decent home means. Plans were agreed and residents monitored progress. Councillors were held accountable for their human rights responsibilities. It was – and remains – a hard slog.
What happened? Improvements were made, including new kitchens, bathrooms, heating, windows, ventilation and asbestos removal.
But something else occurred. As Heather Ford, the treasurer of the residents' association, put it, "Human rights pulls you together as a community and gives you the same goal. The fact that I know that I have a right to a wind-tight, water-tight, mould-free house means that I don't have to be scared."
In other words, not only did human rights help to improve material lives, they also
empowered tenants and their communities.
The right to a decent home is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, we celebrate the Declaration's 71st anniversary. New Zealanders helped to draft this iconic document. Since then, New Zealand has signed up to several binding international treaties that include the right to a decent home. New Zealand governments of every political hue have affirmed the Declaration and the international treaties.
Years ago, I was asked to speak in Ireland about the human right to an effective, accessible health system for all. As I explained that Dublin had signed up to this human right, a woman shouted from the back of the hall, "That must be the best-kept secret in Ireland!"
She had a point – and the point applies to the right to a decent home in Aotearoa. New Zealand's international housing-rights obligations are among the best-kept secrets in the country. This secrecy lets governments off the hook and disempowers individuals, communities, whānau and iwi.
One of the statutory tasks of the New Zealand Human Rights Commission is to advance
international human rights in Aotearoa. Our job includes advising authorities on how they can implement these human rights, as well as holding government accountable if it falls short.
Human rights are not only about lawyers and courts. They are about listening to and empowering communities. They are about strengthening local and national policies.
Canada has recently passed a National Housing Strategy Act which affirms "the right to adequate housing is a fundamental human right". The Canadian minister is mandated to develop a strategy "taking into account key principles of a human-rights-based approach to housing".
It is time for New Zealand to follow the example set by Canada.
Our housing crisis is also a human rights crisis. The crisis encompasses homeownership, market renting, state housing and homelessness, as well as the punishing impact of substandard housing, especially on the disadvantaged, such as disabled people.
Of course, human rights cannot solve the crisis, but they have a contribution to make. Given the magnitude of the challenge it would be foolhardy not to use all the tools at our disposal.
The first step is to identify what the right to a decent home means in the unique context of Aotearoa.
This requires building on key human rights values, such as fairness, decency, equality, freedom, belonging and community. Honouring Te Ao Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Recognising New Zealand's national and international human rights commitments beyond Te Tiriti. Benefiting from the huge literature on the right to a decent home and learning from the evidence to see what works.
Once it is clarified, the human right to a decent home in Aotearoa can empower individuals, communities, whānau and iwi; strengthen housing initiatives; and serve to hold government accountable.
This would be a fitting way to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we celebrate today.
• Paul Hunt is the Chief Human Rights Commissioner.