If we were to think of a scenario where an event threatens all of humanity at the same time, experts say that a pandemic would have a higher success ratio than a nuclear attack or an asteroid collision. As for COVID-19, no matter how hard governments tried to curb the impact, the world has proved clearly unprepared to face this pandemic.

We are currently living in a time of uncertainty, isolation, introspection, concern and economic collapse, but that should also allow us to reassess our lifestyle and social values.

Such reality is providing us with the opportunity to reconsider human rights as fundamental principles in order to reshape our society and make it less weak and vulnerable.

The right to housing – and we should even say “productive” housing- in a stable rural-urban living context is what provides a strong baseline for the rest of human rights to flourish in a sustainable way.

What’s the point of having modern medical equipment and trained medical staff in hospitals, if citizens fall ill in substandard housing? What the point of going home after school and not being able to study because of the lack of electricity and a quiet place to focus? Are awareness workshops on women’s and children’s rights relevant, when we know that inter-family abuses often take place in a bed shared by all family members? How can we ensure the economic and social integration of displaced persons, or former combatants, if they are abandoned in unhealthy camps and isolated from basic services?

Doesn’t the fact that our houses and neighborhoods are the unsafest places to live raise a red flag? How can we be safe in the middle of a health crisis, if we are homeless or poorly housed?

Today, we need to define new development models, such as “green cities” and “healthy cities”. We need to strengthen our commitment to the protection of public health around the world, understanding that adequate housing is closely linked to global priorities, from food security to mental health.

In 1969 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized the right to housing as a universal right. However, homelessness, inadequate housing, and eviction are still on the rise in all cities and rural areas of the world. Before the current pandemic, UN-Habitat estimated that, by 2050, 3 billion people would be living in slums in cities such as São Paulo, Caracas, Bogotá and Mumbai.

The dramatic aspect of this hyper-urbanization is that it happens in the largest cities in developing countries with unstable economies, which are dependent on primary production and foreign exploitation. Such factor, combined with high levels of environmental pollution, makes them more exposed to natural and human events with little resilience capacity. Shouldn’t decent housing in healthy neighborhoods be a priority response in a logic of promoting sustainable development?

According to the New World Urban Agenda 2016, poverty, inequality and environmental degradation are considered fundamental obstacles undermining the processes of urban development. Therefore, decent housing deserves special attention, both in informal settlements and in the newly planned residential areas. Improving housing conditions in small cities and rural areas is essential for building a more equitable society. It is urgent to promote sustainable projects that can combine government agendas with the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 11 – Sustainable cities and communities- and local governments’ commitment in the New Urban Agenda framework. This is crucial in order for housing projects to respond not only to the right to housing but also to contribute in a comprehensive and systematic way to protect the health of our cities and territories.

Today, there are more than 50 million internally displaced people and more than 25 million refugees worldwide, in addition to more than one billion living in urban slums. In the coming decades, these numbers could increase dramatically due to climate change, violence and
humanitarian concerns. Nevertheless, today’s pandemic and the rapid urbanization through social transformation is accelerating this process that could result in about 3 billion people moving to urban centers in the next three decades, often to informal settlements. Such displacement will greatly affect the territory and will pose huge challenges, especially in providing decent housing for people in vulnerable situations. Therefore, decent housing should be not only considered in
terms of numbers, but also as a means to guarantee the basic rights of these new citizens in
the territories and their effective integration with the host communities, both in rural and
urban contexts.

Decent housing is the only way of social inclusion. It is also a source of employment and a key element for the development of citizens. The current health crisis is highlighting the weaknesses of our economic and social system. Over the last decades, decent housing has not been prioritized in development projects, since it has always been regarded as a luxury, speculative and negotiable asset. Our homes today have turned into cities, our whole life is within them. We do everything, living, working and studying in just one place, our house, and, in a large part of our society, such houses are not even well equipped for this new lifestyle.

On the one hand, we have homeless people, who are nowadays directly exposed to deadly viruses and face the impossibility of proper isolation. We also have poorly housed people, who live in a sort of “precarious ramparts”, in overcrowded environments. We have refugee camps, hosting thousands of people who cannot return home and whose houses have been looted or bombed. On the other hand, we have well-housed people who are fortunate enough to be able to isolate themselves for the duration of this health emergency. But let’s face it: because most of the world’s population fits in the first three categories, the spread of the virus will not be stopped by quarantine. We will all be victims, directly or indirectly, of the global housing shortage.

Covid-19, which has affected all of us – more or less equally according to our possibility to spend confinement under an adequate roof – is now challenging the way we live. At Hurbanity and all other signatory organizations, we are asking ourselves whether this health crisis will make the world of development cooperation commit more deeply to decent housing.

Development cooperation, unlike humanitarian assistance and emergency aid, has a long-term vision. It aims to have a global impact at a local level. We are therefore able to justify the need for a budget to support adequate housing projects.

Today, we have all been affected by this health crisis. Isn’t it time for development agencies and local governments to recognize the role of decent housing in protecting populations?

Association Hurbanity