Right to housing

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The right to housing indicates the right of all individuals to have access to adequate shelter.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Right to housing advocates that anyone should be provided with access to housing. As Michalis Goudis from Housing Europe stated “when comes to just and sustainable cities, housing is the first topic that needs to be addressed. To solve social exclusion first, you have to give people a roof, then you think about the rest. If you see it as a ladder, housing is the very first step”. On paper, right to housing is granted by several international and European laws. The network Housing Right Watch, categorizes these laws into three clusters: United Nations housing rights[1], Council of Europe housing rights[2] and EU housing rights [3]. In addition, each European country has its national laws on housing [4]. The EU funded project TENLAW, for instance, explored and summarized all EU member states laws to inform citizens about their rights as tenants. If on the one hand housing can be provided through formal procedures (e.g. existing law enforcement), on the other hand there are multiple informal practices (e.g. squatting vacant spaces) which attempt to provide shelter. There are numerous existing initiatives where citizens, social movements and non-governmental organizations act to fill the gaps of a state unable to fully enforce right to housing.

Shapes, sizes and applications

These a three examples of EU-fundend projects concerning the right to housing.

Anti-gentrification toolkit (AGAPE 2014-2016): This approach responds to the increasing episodes of evictions, speculation and privatization on the urban European housing market. The anti-gentrification toolkit for policy makers and activists collects anti-eviction, anti-speculative, anti-privatization practices performed mainly in Southern European cities. For instance, tenants union lobbying has proved to be a successful practice in mitigating evictions. Similarly, social centers and housing movements have resisted displacement by squatting and re-claiming the right to use vacant urban spaces.

Tenancy and housing law (TENLAW 2012-2015): In a number of cases around Europe national tenancy and housing law ensures citizens with housing rights. However, it often occurs that these laws are not enforced because of the inaccessible language or tenant’s lack of knowledge. The project TENLAW has developed an accessible brochure “My right as a tenant in EU” to inform citizens about their rights. Existing housing law is a legal and effective approach for citizens to see their right to housing respected. However, it might also be a limited one given that the legal system is not always a just one.

Household resilience (RESCuE 2014-2017): A large number of vulnerable households in Europe has proven to be successful in mitigating poverty through self-initiatives which replace the absence of government’s support. Networks such as family, friends, church and other religious associations, schools, urban gardening, foodbanks, cultural events (and the list is still long and can be viewed on RESCuE online exhibition can strengthen household resilience against poverty. The project RESCuE was able to prove that housing is a fundamental aspect from which a great number of household resilience actions can be started or can take place.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

The right to housing addresses living conditions of vulnerable urban citizens which either have no access to housing or no access to adequate housing. As such, the right to housing has an inherent strong focus on social justice as the end goal is to provide vulnerable citizens with decent living standards, ultimately reducing the gap with wealthier classes who are able to fulfil their needs. The underlying message is that social justice can be achieved through formal government interventions. When such interventions are lacking, governments risk to create socially unjust dynamics: lack of housing, lack of affordable-habitable-safe housing, gentrification, evictions and privatisation of the public urban space.

Approaches aimed at granting the right to housing do not necessarily seek to achieve environmental sustainability as the end goal. Yet, sustainability proves to go hand in hand with the pursuit of social justice when comes to provide everyone with a home. In urban areas, for instance, speculation and privatization often occur with the development of new city districts which require extensive input of natural capital; whereas most housing movements (e.g. housing for all) advocate for the reuse (and when needed the renovation) of existing vacant spaces as a solution to allocate socially vulnerable citizens. In this sense, there is no need for further natural resources input, but rather the desire to “recycle” existing vacant spaces or revisit the way in which existing housing is unjustly tenured on the free market. There is also a considerable amount of research on the drivers of injustice that can directly or indirectly cause housing inequalities. Green gentrification, for instance, suggests how urban regreening or re-naturing in distressed neighborhoods can contribute to residents’ exclusion, marginalization, and displacement. GREENLULUS (Green Locally Unwanted Land Uses) by Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability stands as a unique project that explores if, and to what extent, greener cities are less racially and socially equitable or whether greening projects tend to increase environmental inequalities.

Overall, approaches to achieve right to housing for all can be implemented sustainably or can directly promote sustainability. The end goal, however, remains achieving social justice.

Narrative of change

Homelessness is the most severe form of neglection of the right to housing. However, as Michalis Goudis points out “nowadays professionals who cover fundamental roles in our urban centers, such as teachers and nurses, cannot afford to live in the cities where they work because of the high prices”. As the private market owes an increasing number of housing stocks, it becomes harder for public institutions to enforce the right to housing by, for instance, keeping rent prices affordable. This also has an impact on social and public housing as co-operatives or local municipalities themselves struggle to create housing opportunities for vulnerable citizens because of the large dominance of real estate market on urban housing stock. Pilar Garrido, lectures in Constitutional and Autonomous Community Law at the UPV/EHU University of the Basque Country, talks about the need for a “change of paradigm” (Garrido, 2012) [5]. A new paradigm is needed where all individuals and families, with no discrimination, have access to affordable, habitable and safe housing and where they are protected from evictions.

Transformative potential

On a conceptual level, right to housing challenges the model of neoliberal economy which seeks to reduce government spending for public purposes (e.g. social and public housing) in favor of private sector interventions. The concept of "housing for all" is in inherent conflict with the ebbs and flows of a speculative neoliberal market. To challenge this, does not necessarily mean to abolish individuals’ and companies’ right to property, it rather puts pressure on public institutions to intervene and redefine the rules and boundaries under which the housing market operates.The increasing number of social movements demanding action in this direction indicates that the transformative potential of public institutions in very high (see for instance Berlin protests in April 2019 again rise in rent prices[6]). Beside public institutions, there are many non-governmental actors which in a way or another try to grant vulnerable citizens the right housing. These are housing movements, churches, charity associations, unions, cooperatives, family and friend’s networks, and NGOs. These informal actors seek to provide housing based on a solidarity alternative view, which is opposing the dominant neoliberal and capitalist logic of providing housing services for profits. An example is the Moba cooperative, further explained in the next section. See also Co-living, co-housing & intentional communities.

Illustration of approach


The nature of housing cooperatives varies greatly across Europe, for this reason one cannot easily generalize on the role and the work they do. An interesting network of housing cooperatives which shares a similar model is the MOBA Housing Cooperative Network, located across eastern and southern Europe. Their final goal is to make housing more affordable and accessible to poorer residents. Their strength lies in holding responsibility for all processes involving the properties (e.g. contract, payment, construction works...). As they explained, the model "is centered around a cooperative of inhabitants that collectively develops, finances, maintains and operates a multi-apartment building. Because it controls the entire trajectory (and does not need to make profit), the resulting apartments are much more affordable for the inhabitants”.[7]

Social housing

Across Europe, social housing works in a number of different ways, it can be either provided by public institutions or by the private sector. Similarly, access to housing changes from country to country. In Sweden and Denmark, for instance, all citizens can apply for social housing, whereas in countries like Italy, citizens must fulfil certain requirements. In line with this, Denmark's social housing makes up 19% of their stock market, while Italy's social housing only represents 5% of the total housing market. A on-point review of Europe's social housing situation was published by Housing Europe in 2012 and can be read here.

Other solutions to ensure right to housing go into the direction of Co-living, co-housing & intentional communities.

Suggested key readings & links