The worst effects of the UK’s housing crisis include rising levels of homelessness, and growing numbers of people being housed in unsafe or overcrowded conditions. According to the charity Crisis, 59,890 households were accepted as homeless in England in 2017. And according to recent statistics, 27 per cent of privately rented homes and 13 per cent of homes in the social housing sector are not classed as “decent”.
In response to this crisis, some have suggested that the UK should follow countries such as the Netherlands and South Africa, by enshrining a person’s right to housing in law. But if the UK were to adopt a right to housing, what should this right look like?
In a recent article for Political Studies, I made the case that a right to housing should be understood as a right to have at least a three-year secure tenancy over a house or flat of a decent size and decent quality. More controversially, that a right to housing is a right to live alone.
For the growing numbers of people who have to live in a house or flat share because they cannot afford to live alone, their right to housing is being violated.
A right to live alone
We all need somewhere we can relax, sleep, wash and prepare food; it protects our mental and physical health, and gives us the means to lead productive lives. That’s why it’s so important that housing should not be cramped, damp, cold or unsanitary.
It’s also clear how having a secure, longer-term tenancy can give people a measure of stability, which allows them to live their lives without the stress and disruption of constant moves. A minimum term of three years can provide this stability: this term is already in place in France and has recently been proposed by the UK government.
Yet, in a nation with a shortage of affordable housing, it’s fair to ask why people should have the right to live alone. I argue that this right protects an important basic freedom: our freedom of intimate association. This is the freedom to choose when we are, and when we are not, in close or intimate relationships with other people.
This freedom is undermined when we stop people from having close or intimate relationships with those that they wish to – for example, by making such relationships illegal – and when we force people to have close or intimate relationships with those they do not wish to.
It’s particularly important to protect this freedom, because our close and intimate relationships can have a profound effect on who we are, and on our fundamental beliefs and commitments. But I argue that for those who are forced to share housing, because they cannot afford to live alone, this freedom is not being adequately protected.
An intimate relationship
Living with another person is a certain kind of intimate relationship: people who live together, especially over longer periods of time, will often know many intimate details about each others’ lives. Since the home is the place where we can relax and be ourselves, the people we live with also get access to our private life.
A right to housing, then, should be understood not just as a right to secure tenancy of decent quality housing – it should also be understood as a right to live alone. Only if people can live alone, can we protect people’s ability to choose their intimate relationships, and protect their freedom of intimate association.
For the UK, this means there is a long way to go before peoples’ right to housing is properly protected.
Katy Wells, Assistant Professor in Political Theory, University of Warwick.
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