If you, like me, are experiencing Covid-19 news fatigue, it has meant that I’ve finally gotten around to some light reading – namely the Human Rights Commission’s Framework Guidelines on the Right to a Decent Home in Aotearoa, which was released in August.

“New Zealand governments have signed up to a critically important human right: the right to a decent home. For generations, they have promised to create the conditions to enable everyone to live in a decent home, but this has not happened. Successive governments have failed New Zealanders,” Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said.

For context, the Human Rights Act 1993 is designed to provide better protection of human rights in New Zealand in general accordance with United Nations Covenants or Conventions on Human Rights.

The Act sets out the commission’s primary functions, namely to advocate and promote respect for, and an understanding and appreciation of, human rights in New Zealand society.

What people mightn’t know is that successive governments have committed to implement the right to a decent home, as set out in the International Bill of Rights (which New Zealand helped to draft), Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The United Nations outlines that decent housing is one that is: habitable, affordable, accessible, has essential things such as water and power, is located near amenities, has security of tenure, and should be a good fit for lots of cultures.

Although these are binding pieces of international law, the issue is that governments have failed to put these international treaties into action.

A Special Rapporteur, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, made a country visit to New Zealand in March 2020.

According to their End of Mission Statement on the state of housing in New Zealand, the housing crisis is being experienced most acutely by particular groups including: Māori, Pacific peoples and other ethnic communities, persons with disabilities, single parents (particularly single mothers), youth and children, and those living in poverty.

“What is less recognised is that the housing crisis in Aotearoa New Zealand is, in fact, a human rights crisis. The housing conditions – high rates of homelessness, inaccessible housing stock, unaffordability and escalating rents, substandard conditions including overcrowding, a lack of security of tenure for tenants, and lack of social, affordable, and community housing for those in need, alongside an abundance of unaffordable family dwellings available for home ownership – are all inconsistent with the enjoyment of the right to housing.

“While New Zealand has ratified various international human rights treaties obliging all bodies exercising government authority to respect, protect and fulfil the right to adequate housing, there is insufficient expression of this right in law, in related policy and programmes, and in their implementation.

“These conditions would never have arisen to this extent had housing been fully understood, recognised and implemented by governments as a human right and a social good rather than as an asset for wealth accumulation and growth over the last decades.”

Even though the right to a decent home has not been placed in national law, it attracted discussion in Lawson v Housing New Zealand (1997). The government of the day transferred control of stated houses to Housing New Zealand, which resulted in a spike in rent to market rates. The move made it effectively impossible for Mr and Mrs Lawson to continue to reside in their state house and they were subsequently evicted.

One of the arguments was that the impact breached the Lawsons’ human rights, and that politicians had failed to have proper regard to New Zealand’s international obligations as per international law. The case fell over for the Lawsons as it didn’t meet the requirements of the judicial review process.

No matter, the Human Rights Commission has come in to save the day. The guidelines outline the fact that the right to a decent home is about more than just a place to live, it’s about a good home that is safe, warm, dry, secure, affordable, healthy, and accessible.

Of the eight guidelines: the housing system must be explicitly based on values and grounded on Te Tiriti; it must be sustainable irrespective of whether a private or public system is favoured by successive governments; it must be located and applied within the unique historical, demographic, economic, social, cultural, environmental and legal context of Aotearoa; and there must be obligations and accountability measures placed on the private and public sector.

So we now have the guidelines – what next? Commissioner Paul Hunt is one step ahead. Last month he announced plans to conduct a national inquiry into housing – whether that’s affordability, deeply unsatisfactory housing conditions, disabled access, or homelessness. As successive governments have failed New Zealanders for more than 50 years, it seems the Human Rights Commission – quite rightly, I think – is burning down the house.

– Sasha Borissenko is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on the law industry.

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