When thinking about human rights issues, we tend to imagine the brutal human rights abuses, including torture and massacres, conducted by regimes thousands of miles away from our homes or the rights of minority groups, such as LGBQTI rights. We often forget that human rights are for everyone and that they incorporate not just those civil and political rights – rights that include the right to vote and to a fair trial – but also rights focusing on economic, social and cultural issues, including housing.

68 years ago this Saturday the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – an event that is celebrated annually around the world as Human Rights Day. Since the adaptation of the UDHR, the international community has passed nine other international treaties along with numerous regional conventions aimed at guaranteeing various human rights, including the right to adequate housing.

But what does the right to housing mean and why is it so important to see housing as a human right? According to the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights,[1] the right to adequate housing entails more than just having a roof over one’s head. Housing must be affordable, habitable, accessible, safe, provide legal security of tenure and access to employment and important services, such as schools and healthcare. Moreover, it must allow for cultural expression – in other words, we should be able to make a house a our home.

At Shelter Scotland, we actively engage with human rights. Framing housing as a human right matters because it acknowledges the immense impact housing has on our lives. We see the importance of this every day. A child growing up in bad housing has an increased risk of up to 25 per cent of developing severe ill-health and disability, a greater chance of suffering from mental health issues and a greater likelihood of future unemployment, living in poverty as an adult and of lower educational achievement.[2] As this illustrates, housing also affects numerous other human rights issues, including the right to education and the right to health.

By focusing on rights and not just needs, we have come a long way in improving housing in Scotland. The Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act 2003 did away with needs-based tests and, as a result, everyone assessed as being unintentionally homeless has had the right to settled accommodation (a home!) since 2012. This has made a big difference to people who previously were considered to be low-priority – such as single men. Using the language of human rights to say that everyone has a right to housing is powerful and allows us to hold our government to account. The UK, and in turn Scotland, is a member of several treaties which guarantee this right and therefore is responsible for ensuring that there’s an adequate home for everyone.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) celebrated Human Rights Day this week at the Scottish Parliament to showcase some of its current projects. One of these projects focuses on applying a human rights-based approach to housing. Together with the SHRC, Edinburgh Tenants Federation and Participation and the Practice of Rights (a Belfast organisation), social tenants in Leith have led this project by identifying key indicators of their living conditions that they want to see improvements on.

As a tenant explained to me at the event: “I was sceptical about human rights and thought they didn’t apply to me. But now I know that they do and I demand that my rights are met.” To me this is the most important thing about human rights – putting the person experiencing the issue at the heart of any response and empowering that individual or group to demand change.

Housing is a central part of our everyday lives and everyone has a right to adequate housing. It is time that we fully realise this right. That realisation starts with acknowledging the vital importance of housing and recognising that, as these tenants perfectly demonstrate, human rights are for everyone – including you.

You can watch a video describing the on-going Leith project here.

[1] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (1991), CESCR General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (Art. 11 (1) of the Covenant).

[2] Shelter (2006), Chance of a lifetime: The impact of bad housing on children’s lives.