UN declares New Zealand’s housing crisis a breach of human rights


A United Nations report suggests New Zealand follow in Canada’s footsteps by adopting a human rights approach to housing policy and makes 27 recommendations for Government to address the crisis

The housing crisis is a human rights crisis in New Zealand according to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in a new report officially tabled over night at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Housing speculation, a lack of affordable housing options, limited protection for tenants, substandard housing, the absence of an overarching Te Tiriti and human rights based housing strategy, and a lack of adequate social housing or state subsidised housing are the main causes of the crisis according to the report.

During a visit to New Zealand from 10 to 19 February 2020, at the invitation of the Government, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, investigated housing as a human right in New Zealand. She spoke with government officials, residents, researchers and representatives of civil society organisations in visits to Auckland, Christchurch, Kaitaia and Wellington.

The findings of her visit were published in a report tabled at the UN Human Rights Council on June 22 in Geneva. Farha wrote that “legal protection of the right to adequate housing remains relatively weak” in New Zealand.

Housing has become a “speculative asset” in New Zealand rather than a “home” wrote the Special Rapporteur — calling attention to on-going housing speculation due to low interest rates coupled with an underdeveloped rental housing system with inadequate tenant protections.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt has welcomed the report and encouraged local and central government to seriously consider the 27 recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha.

1) Acknowledge housing as a human right

Recognize the right to adequate housing, as set out in international human rights law, as an enforceable right in national legislation and in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

The Canadian model could be an option. This should at minimum include a legal obligation of the State to progressively implement the right to housing and provide suitable and accessible emergency housing to individuals and families at risk or in a situation of homelessness.

A legislated right to housing should render the right justiciable in domestic courts and enable those who have suffered violations access to effective administrative, non-judicial and judicial remedies.

2) Form a human rights-based housing strategy

Develop and implement a comprehensive human rights-based housing strategy based on the right to adequate housing as reflected in international human rights law, the Treaty of Waitangi, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its principles of free, prior and informed consent and self-determination.

The strategy should also take into due consideration the guidelines on the right to a decent home being developed by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. It should also set out how New Zealand will implement the relevant Sustainable Development Goals.

3) Make the private sector accountable

Ensure that private sector actors are aware of their human rights responsibilities with respect to housing provision, maintenance and finance and that they are included in the monitoring and accountability mechanisms established with respect to the right to housing.

4) Put a stop to evictions that result in homelessness

Ensure that national law provides for a complete prohibition of any eviction that may result in homelessness.

Evictions from primary residences should only be ordered after all alternatives have been explored with the affected persons and after ensuring that they have access to all social and housing benefits to which they are entitled.

If eviction cannot be avoided, proof should be submitted to the district court that alternative affordable housing has been offered to the affected tenant(s) in close proximity to the place of residence before an eviction order is executed.

5) Support those who are struggling

Expand advice and financial support for tenants and homeowners who have fallen into arrears for rent, mortgages or utility costs. Such public spending would significantly reduce the high costs that are currently incurred by placing individuals and families into emergency accommodation and the social and health costs incurred by evictions and homelessness.

6) Allow the Human Rights Commission to resolve disputes

Ensure that the New Zealand Human Rights Commission is enabled to provide dispute resolution for all alleged violations of the right to adequate housing, not only those related to allegations of discrimination, without curtailing the ability of courts to hear matters related to the right to adequate housing.

7) Establish commissioners for indigenous and housing rights

Establish forthwith the post of a commissioner for indigenous peoples’ rights in the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, as well as of a commissioner responsible for monitoring the implementation of the right to housing.

8) An international watchdog

Ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which allows individuals who have exhausted all domestic remedies to submit complaints to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

9) Stronger tenant protection associations

Strengthen the capacity of tenant protection associations so that they are better equipped to provide legal advice, assist tenants in out-of-court settlements of grievances with property owners and, if necessary, in filing applications before the Tenancy Tribunal.

10) Improve efforts to ensure rentals are up to standard

Enhance the capacity of the tenancy compliance and investigations team as an independent service to inspect whether housing meets building, safety, health and accessibility standards, including by providing advice, support and credit for private and public lessors to undertake necessary renovations.

Enforce fines for homeowners who fail to undertake required works and adjustments.

11) Improve tenant security

Strengthen tenant protections beyond the latest reform of the Residential Tenancies Act by further enhancing security of tenure through the regulation of rent increases and rental freezes in tight markets, and by fortifying rules around short-term rental platforms to ensure they do not have a deleterious impact on the availability and affordability of long-term rentals.

12) Fill empty homes

Adopt regulations that provide incentives for making vacant housing units available to low-income households, and provide to State and community housing providers in regions lacking affordable housing priority for renting a housing unit on the private market to ensure that all people on waiting lists can be housed.

13) Ensure benefits are sufficient

Ensure that housing and social benefits are sufficient to actually cover the cost of living for low-income households, and reduce energy poverty to ensure a life in dignity for all.

14) De-incentivise housing as an investment

Reduce housing speculation and the financialization of housing by:

  • adopting a capital gains tax as a sustainable revenue source to support a strong housing system
  • limiting the debt-to-income ratio to regulate mortgage markets
  • introduce a progressive refinancing scheme for primary homes to limit the effects of negative equity that could result from changes to taxation and mortgage lending

15) Rent-to-buy

Expand rent-to-buy schemes and improve access to State-insured mortgages for low-income households and those who experience difficulties in accessing homeownership financing.

16) Alternative housing schemes for those who need it

Increase efforts to provide alternative housing schemes for low-income and vulnerable groups. This must also include targeted funding, financing and capacity-building for iwi and Maori housing providers.

17) Support indigenous housing

Support, facilitate and provide financial resourcing to iwi, runanga and Maori housing providers and increase the self-determination of housing solutions by indigenous peoples.

18) Build more houses

Significantly increase the public housing stock and enhance the support for community housing providers in order to complement and amplify State efforts to ensure community-based solutions to the housing crisis and ensure that there is competition in the public housing sector in order to promote high quality, well-maintained and responsive homes that go beyond the provision of a roof and four walls.

19) Reduce reliance on emergency accommodation

Redirect, in the long-term, expenditure away from programmes that are failing to realize the right to housing, such as the use of motels as emergency shelters or programmes subsidizing housing that fail to deliver a net increase in affordable housing, towards supporting housing providers and developers committed to building and delivering adequate, affordable housing.

20) More inclusive policy

In conformity with the right to adequate housing, ensure meaningful participation of all residents, including minorities and marginalized groups, in the development and implementation of all government programmes, policies and legislation related to housing, including with respect to urban development and regeneration.

21) Zoning meets everyone’s needs

Adopt regulations requiring or enabling inclusionary zoning nationally and ensure that targets set for affordable units correspond to actual, measured need to ensure thriving communities throughout the country in which nobody is left behind.

22) Adopt accessible design standards

Incorporate universal design standards and other obligations contained in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in all housing-related legislation, building standards and policies, to ensure accessibility of housing and the right of persons with disabilities to independent living in the community.

23) Allow modifications to improve accessibility in existing rentals

Specify in the Residential Tenancies Act the reasonable modifications and adaptations required by homeowners to ensure that rental housing is rendered accessible to persons with disabilities and persons with age-related impairments.

24) Funding for accessible design

Provide to all persons with disabilities, on a non-discriminatory basis, access to funding for housing modification and adaptation based on individual need, not on the basis of their tenure status or other criteria.

25) Do not punish homelessness

Refrain from adopting or implementing laws or by-laws that serve to criminalize homelessness, including living in cars, campervans or tents.

26) Better action and support in natural disasters

Improve regulations and policies in relation to natural disaster response to ensure that compensation, inspection, repair and reconstruction is undertaken in a timely, coordinated, non-intrusive manner and that mitigation measures minimize displacement, relocation and the break-up of communities and prevent any homelessness as required under international human rights law.

27) Better housing policy systems and data recording

Further improve the monitoring and implementation of housing policies by establishing independent accountability and monitoring mechanisms. Regularly publish data, disaggregated by age, population group (Maori, Pacific peoples), gender and sexual orientation, and disability, on:

  • housing affordability
  • housing conditions and housing overcrowding
  • compliance with healthy home standards
  • homelessness
  • accessibility of private and public housing for persons with disabilities
  • security of tenure
  • rent
  • mortgage and utility areas
  • evictions
  • duration on the waiting list for accessing public housing
  • time spent in transitional housing before accessing long-term housing

How do we start?

The Human Rights Commission is set to release framework guidelines on the right to a decent home to help both duty-bearers (e.g. local and central government) and rights-holders (e.g. individuals, communities, iwi and hapū) advance the right to a decent home grounded on Te Tiriti.

“A living-framework for understanding what the right to a decent home means in our distinctive national context, and how it can help individuals, communities, hapū, iwi, housing policy makers and practitioners, is needed in New Zealand,” says Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.

“The government has binding human rights and Te Tiriti obligations to create conditions which permit everyone to enjoy a warm, dry, safe, accessible and affordable home.

“Our new guidelines, grounded on Te Tiriti and international human rights law, will outline what the right to a decent home means in the unique context of Aotearoa.”