Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Lack of a Right to Housing and Its Implications in Australia

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

The Lack of a Right to Housing and Its Implications in Australia

Article excerpt

Over the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the OECD countries, social rights that historically have been viewed as the preserve of the few have become universal. Although there are dramatic variations in quality and quantity, in the contemporary period almost all advanced economies have an extensive social security system, public health system and free public schooling until year 12. Although the right to aspects of the social security system is increasingly conditional and defined as a privilege rather than a right, in OECD countries it is accepted that citizens who are not in the workforce and do not have a source of income are entitled to income support from government for a period of time or constantly (Castles, 2006; Kemeny, 2001).

These advances in the sphere of social policy and rights do not usually extend to the notion that all citizens should have the right to adequate and affordable housing. The latter is still viewed as an unrealistic demand, particularly in those countries which Esping-Andersen has categorised as 'liberal welfare regimes'. Kemeny (2001) argues that, while health, education and social security are universal and generally paid for by government through taxation, this has never been the case with housing. Torgersen (1987) refers to housing as the 'wobbly pillar' of the welfare state. Hartman (1998: 223) concludes that in the United States, 'Publishing an article advocating a right or entitlement to decent, affordable housing ... could well be regarded as futile, quixotic, even bizarre.'

In Australia, although a substantial amount has been written on the right to housing (HREOC, 2008; McRae and Nicholson, 2004; Otto and Lynch, 2004; Sackville, 2004; Walsh and Klease, 2004), much of this literature has a narrow definition of the right to housing and focuses mainly on homelessness. What I argue in this article is that the right to housing implies that all households have the right to affordable and adequate housing and firm security of tenure. Using this definition, as will be illustrated, a substantial proportion of Australian households do not have a right to housing. The focus is mainly on housing affordability and security of tenure rather than housing conditions.

The next section of this article outlines the international instruments relating to the right to housing. Housing affordability, security of tenure and adequate housing are then defined. The situation in respect to the right to housing in Australia is then explored by briefly sketching the features of housing policy and housing affordability from the mid-1980s to 2007. The potential health implications of having or not having a right to housing are then briefly examined. This examination involves a review of some of the literature on housing affordability and health and an analysis of in-depth interviews I conducted with older (65 plus) renters in public housing, heavily subsidised housing and the private rental market. All the interviewees were dependent primarily or solely on the age pension for their income. The analysis shows the potential benefits of a right to housing reflected in the provision of affordable and secure public housing and, conversely, the suffering that is often wrought when an older person is reliant on the relatively expensive and insecure private rental market. The article concludes by evaluating whether the shifts in housing policy initiated by the Rudd government represent a significant move towards a right to housing.

Housing as a right in international conventions

Numerous international conventions view affordable, adequate and secure housing as a right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, 'Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.' In 1991, the Committee that has the responsibility of monitoring and implementing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) elaborated on what defines a right to housing with the passing of General Comment No. …

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