human rights news & views

Housing crisis in Australia: UN

Indian architect Miloon Kothari has been UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing since 2000. He has just concluded a visit to Australia to assess compliance with human rights obligations in relation to housing.

Since ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976, Australia has been obliged to fulfil “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living . . . including adequate . . . housing.” The UN committee with the ultimate authority to interpret the Covenant’s meaning understands the right broadly: more than simply a roof over one’s head, the right to adequate housing means we all have a right to live “in security, peace and dignity”.

What is adequate housing? To quote the UN’s Commission on Human Settlements,

“adequate shelter means . . . adequate privacy, adequate space, adequate security, adequate lighting and ventilation, adequate basic infrastructure and adequate location with regard to work and basic facilities – all at a reasonable cost”.

It should also be accessible to all, including the elderly, children, people with disabilities including mental illness, and to people with terminal or persistent illness. It should also be culturally appropriate and affordable.

Everyone has a right to adequate housing, irrespective of income. Affordable housing means people’s other basic needs are not threatened or compromised. This aspect of the right to housing should be protected by government subsidy as well as appropriate measures to prevent unreasonable rent increases. Kothari notes a reluctance in the Australian Government to regulate the housing market.

He also questions its policy of negative gearing whereby Australia’s rich are given, in effect, a $21 billion ($US 15.8bn) subsidy, while the budget for public housing dwindles. Given that the UN Special Rapporteur encountered what he calls a "serious hidden national housing crisis" in Australia, this upward redistribution of wealth is inexcusable.

International law demands continuous improvement in human rights, using the maximum available resources of any given nation. As a wealthy country, Australia can afford – and is obliged to spend – a great deal more than it does to realise the right to housing.

Kothari sees an urgent need for a national housing strategy in Australia. Based on “extensive, genuine consultation”, the strategy should use a rights-based framework to define its objectives, then identify available resources, who is responsible for what, and set a time-frame for the strategy’s implementation. Kothari attributes the problems he observes, in part, to an uncoordinated approach to housing. Thus the national strategy should also coordinate with other relevant policy areas such as economics, agriculture, environment and energy, and between different levels of government.

Given the Howard Government has shown so little regard for the importance of housing as to do away with the ministerial portfolio on housing — something Kothari believes must be reinstated — it’s hard to understand why the government invited the Special Rapporteur to visit Australia, and then gave him minimal time and cooperation.

The UN Special Rapporteur also calls for better legal protection of human rights in Australia. Australia needs a Human Rights Act! But more on that another time.

Kothari invites comment on his preliminary observations prior to his drafting a final report for the UN Human Rights Council in March 2007. Rights Australia is offering to forward your comments.


  1. 16 September 2006 | 9:59 pm

    Australian Senator Rod Kemp, who is Minister for the Arts and Sport (but then, Australia no longer has a Minister for Housing), has seen fit to comment on the Special Rapporteur’s findings, as reported by the BBC:

    “The mere fact you have the UN [make] some comment doesn’t make it right.”

    The UN is not “the font of all wisdom.”

    “Sometimes the UN gets it right and sometimes it gets it wrong.”

    “We just don’t dip our lid to anybody, you see. We’re an independent country and an independent government.”

    Thank you, Mr Kemp.

  2. 29 October 2006 | 9:56 pm

    […] Despite significant housing problems in Australia, these ’suburban castles’ with four or more bedrooms account for 60% of new housing downunder; 48% of them are built by people with only one or two children, while another 42% of McMansion owners have no children at all. […]

  3. 13 February 2008 | 10:29 pm

    […] Perhaps Kevin Rudd and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin are responding to last year’s damning UN human rights report on the state of indigenous housing in Australia when they nominated housing and constitutional amendment as priorities for the bipartisan commission Rudd proposed getting underway "before the end of this week". […]

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