Housing as both a ‘human right’ and policy priority

It’s as if healthcare is by default treated like a basic human right but housing isn’t.

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Published by Astro Awani, image from Astro Awani.

In Malaysia, the B40 as a whole and the lower segment of the M40 don’t have adequate access to affordable housing understood in terms of permanent possession or ownership. This even whilst there’s adequate provision of and continuous access to healthcare, relatively speaking, under public hospitals and clinics. It’s almost as if that healthcare is implicitly and by default treated like a basic human right but housing isn’t.

Like healthcare, housing should be a human right enshrined in our Federal Constitution or at the very least explicitly recognised as such whether directly (in “black and white terms”, that is) or indirectly by way of national strategic policies, plans, and frameworks aimed at providing adequate and affordable housing for the B40 and the disadvantaged.

We have a national healthcare system – where the poor and B40 are taken care of and so, ideally, we should also have a nationalised housing system.

Furthermore, Internet (access and connectivity) is already indirectly recognised as a basic right under Budget 2021 by being categorised (finally) as utility. The matter was presented at the 36th meeting of the National Physical Planning Council chaired by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in October this year and will be included in the Infrastructure Planning Guidelines (GPP-I) to facilitate the provision of digital infrastructure in line with the implementation of the National Digital Network (Jendela).

Some have called for it to be enshrined as a constitutional right. Internet as an utility, like the other basic preconditions of life and human civilisation, i.e., water and electricity, ought to mark a significant step towards the recognition of affordable house ownership as the next logical development.

Internationally, human rights as universal and intrinsic or natural values are articulated and enshrined in the foundational documents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights/UDHR (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights/ICESCR (1966), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights/ICCPR (1966). Whilst Malaysia is a signatory to the UDHR as representing a basic condition of membership of the United Nations (UN) as well as being compatible with and reflected in our Federal Constitution, we have yet to ratify both the ICESCR and ICCPR for fear of infringements of that part of the context-specific dimension of our basic law that makes our nation unique. All three reaffirm the basic human right to adequate standard of living which definitively includes housing.

In the United Nations (UN) document, “Adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living” (2016), the UN Special Rapporteur (Leilani Farha) deftly and persuasively tie and weave in the right to adequate standard of living – of which the right to adequate housing is subsumed under – with the right to life as the “supreme right”. As such, the UN Special Rapporteur, instead of making a special pleading, makes the cogent case for the indispensable and inextricable relationship between the right to adequate housing with the right to life, ultimately as part of the overarching structure of human existence.

With population growth outstripping adequate housing, thus producing what is an analogous Malthusian correlation (with the original one postulating population growth as exponential outpacing food growth as linear) and with the push and move towards sustainability, family planning as an integral aspect of the State’s duty (in the form of the National Family Planning Act, 1966) albeit not a priority or critical compared to e.g., unemployment levels and national security, should by right be extended to the duty to provide adequate and affordable housing.

In short, sustainable development (as embodied in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) should include adequate housing as a natural and logical component and extension. This is so since by logic and experience, lack of adequate housing is unsustainable in that it’ll lead to poor outcomes in terms of quality of life and health (physical and mental) and is in itself an indictment of the quality of the developmental process as exemplified by the multipliers of lack of or inadequate access to water and sanitation services.

The World Bank has recognised that adequate housing should be at the centre of the sustainable development agenda and should be seen as part of the sustainable urbanisation future.

In the Report of the Special Rapporteur (Dr Philip Alston) on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to Malaysia (2020), among the highlights of the findings related to adequate housing where it’s revealed that: “[a]dequate housing is unaffordable for many and housing costs rose 87 per cent between 2010 and 2018, outpacing the 59 per cent rise in wages. According to the World Bank, households with monthly incomes of less than RM5,000 (USD 1,229) experience “severe housing unaffordability”, with more than half of those in Kuala Lumpur earning RM3,000-5,000 having no access to housing within their capacity-to-pay”.

The Report further noted that, “as of 2018, just 20.9 per cent of the housing stock was low cost and it accounted for only 7.4 per cent of new housing in 2017. Social housing programmes often do not benefit the intended target groups owing to the inability of people in the bottom 40 per cent to qualify for loans, a shortage of affordable units and inefficient low-cost housing distribution systems”. The Report stated that 11 per cent of houses in Kelantan and Sabah and 4.4 per cent in Sarawak are classified as “dilapidated or deteriorating”.

The federal government might find this disconcerting and even the respective state governments would well dispute the situation. And, of course, we read of news reports about poorly maintained or neglected People’s Housing Projects (PPR) estates where lift breakdowns, breaks-ins, unsanitary conditions, etc. are common. But be that as it may, there needs to be an urgency to tackle and address the situation if we want to pride ourselves as a future developed nation shaped by sustainable development across the policy spectrum.

For one, there needs to be accelerated efforts to ensure that the rent-to-own (RTO) scheme – under the National Housing Policy (2018-2025) of which the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is the lead government stakeholder – is realised. RTO should be popularised, especially in the main urban areas such as the Klang Valley conurbation and Iskandar Malaysia economic corridor, where the urban poor – and what has been pejoratively called the “new poor” in light of Covid-19 and the recent revision of the national Poverty Line Income (PLI) from RM908 to RM2,208 in July 2020 – are concentrated. There should be a RTO revolution that will uplift the standard and quality of living of the B40 especially and further cement the reputation of the government of the day as “prihatin” (empathetic/compassionate).

The time has come for adequate and affordable housing to be recognised as a basic human right although not necessarily ranked equally with the others as such. But at the very least, it should constitute a core policy priority of the government (of all political stripes and colours) and a mandate that must be fulfilled over the course of the parliamentary life-cycle (five years) or at least within two full-terms.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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