The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes in Article 25 that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’

The right to adequate housing has also been recognised in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which establishes that ‘The States parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.’

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the treaty body in charge of monitoring State compliance with the ICESCR, has further explained that the right to adequate housing goes beyond the right to merely have a roof over one’s head. Rather, adequate housing 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.’

This Committee has also affirmed that housing facilities need to fulfil certain criteria in order to be considered adequate. These include: legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; must be in a location which allows access to employment options, health-care services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities; and must be culturally adequate, meaning that ‘the way housing is constructed, the building materials used, and the policies supporting these must appropriately enable the expression of cultural identity and diversity of housing.’

Some regional human rights conventions and treaties recognize the right to adequate housing. The treaties’ monitoring bodies and courts, in particular the African Charter on Human and Peoples´ Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the European Committee of Social Rights, play an important role in protecting the right to adequate housing and have developed specific jurisprudence related to it. This right is also recognized in the Arab Charter on Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

Right to adequate housing and the right to a healthy environment 

The right to adequate housing is related to the right to a healthy environment as housing depends on, and can be affected by, environmental circumstances. Availability of resources, services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, as well as habitability can be affected by environmental harm, such as land and water pollution, or the improper disposal of toxic and hazardous waste.

The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing has pointed out the present and anticipated effects of climate change indicate serious risks for the right to adequate housing. Flooding and landslides, caused by increases in rainfall intensity, sea-level rise and storm surges in coastal areas can severely impact housing and service infrastructure, such as drainage and sanitation systems. She has also affirmed that the poorest people are most likely to suffer the negative effects of climate change, including when it comes to the right to adequate housing.

Moreover, a 2009 report from the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing stated:

‘the most vulnerable to the impacts of intense storms, floods and droughts are frequently those who already live in poverty and whose human rights are less well protected. Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers live in slums, which are usually located in the most hazardous sites within cities, at risk from the direct and indirect impacts of climate change. Slums lack the basic infrastructure and services necessary to protect their dwellers from     environmental disasters.’

The Special Rapporteur on adequate housing has also affirmed that indigenous peoples’ right to adequate housing has been violated when they are ‘subject to forced evictions and land-grabbing for the sake of resource extraction, agribusiness, nature conservation initiatives and development projects, including pipeline and dam construction.’

Accordingly, Principle 8 of the Framework Principles On Human Rights And The Environment affirms that ‘To avoid undertaking or authorizing actions with environmental impacts that interfere with the full enjoyment of human rights, States should require the prior assessment of the possible environmental impacts of proposed projects and policies, including their potential effects on the enjoyment of human rights.’ The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has confirmed that assessments should take into account the impacts those actions might have on housing.