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Opinion: Housing must be at the heart of the COVID-19 response and recovery

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30 October 2020* - *Housing has always been a matter of life and death. Having a home is central for shelter against rain, storm, cold, or heat. It is also the first line of defense against extreme events and crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Homes are essential for accessing job opportunities, hospitals, schools, food, sanitation, transportation, water and energy, and other public services.

Housing is not only a human right on its own, but also a precondition for the enjoyment of many other fundamental rights, human dignity, and overall well-being.

At the peak of the COVID-19 emergency response, more than 3.9 billion people, or half of the world's population, were asked or ordered to stay at home by their governments. They were also told to physically distance themselves from people outside their household.

Yet for a huge number of people, these emergency orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have been difficult, if not impossible, to follow. Over 1 billion people live in informal settlements or in unsafe and overcrowded homes, where physical distancing is not an option. A massive eviction crisis looms large for renters, nearly 80 million people are refugees or displaced within their own countries, and more than 100 million people do not have any place to call their home.

For many women, children, and members of the LGBTQ community around the world, staying at home has also meant being in a place they cannot call safe, where they have been subject to increased risks of domestic abuse. People in psychiatric and social care institutions, migrant worker hostels, prisons, and care homes for older adults have been often left unprotected, resulting in high rates of COVID-19 infection and death. Infection and mortality rates in many countries are far worse among racial, ethnic, and other minorities and Indigenous peoples.

Watch: Habitat's Jonathan Reckford on COVID-19 and global housing

Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar speaks to Habitat for Humanity International's CEO about the impacts of COVID-19 on housing, as well as on international NGOs and the global development community.

COVID-19 has not been equal in its impact, which is an unfortunate result of preexisting discrimination and inequalities in societies --- as pointed out in the new report about the impact of COVID-19 on the right to housing that was presented to the 75th session of the United Nation General Assembly.

Many pandemic emergency response measures have shown that the right to housing can be realized when local and national governments put it at the center of their political agenda. Governments have declared temporary bans on evictions, housed the homeless, and offered protection to renters through rent caps, subsidies, and other support, showing that housing as a human right is central to the management of the pandemic.

However, millions of people are still at risk of losing their homes unless these measures are put on a durable and sustainable footing as part of recovery and rebuilding plans. Decent housing for all must be put at the center of the recovery, embedded in sustainable urban and economic policies.

To harness the efforts and commitments of all stakeholders made during the emergency phase, UN-Habitat has launched its Housing for All Campaign to raise awareness about the key role of housing to create safe and resilient cities and communities, identify actions needed and solutions, and strengthen alliances to develop and implement them.

The need for action by all housing stakeholders has been identified in the following areas:

1. Focus on realizing the right to adequate housing for all, in particular by ensuring that long-term strategies are designed to address the root causes of evictions and homelessness.

These strategies should address multiple, often interrelated causes of foreclosures, evictions, and homelessness, including those that cause or increase poverty and unemployment; the financialization of housing and the overcommodification of land; and speculation and predatory practices by landlords. And they should do so by making national regulations and enforcement of evictions fully compliant with international human rights standards.

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In devising homelessness strategies, governments should also decriminalize homelessness and aim at broadening its definition to include people living in temporary or crisis accommodations, such as hostels, shelters for people fleeing domestic violence, and shared accommodation with friends or relatives on a temporary basis.

2. Set in place programs to renovate and upgrade inadequate housing conditions, particularly with respect to access to services, safety and habitability, and legal security of tenure.

3. Ensure the long-term affordability of housing by promoting policies that encourage inclusive housing development and innovation in the construction and materials sector, as well as by investing in social housing programs. In the absence of public direction and regulation, the housing market falls far short of delivering affordable options in cities, even in prosperous, high-income countries.

Shelter-in-place strategies for COVID-19 require knowing who has secure shelter --- and who doesn't. Time is running out for megacities to find solutions, but some are emerging, according to this op-ed.

Many cities worldwide have a shortage of affordable housing options for their populations. Governments could consider alternative ways to increase social housing stock by promoting strategies aiming at the purchasing --- and repurposing --- of empty buildings by local and national governments, which could include housing units or office buildings that might come on the market as a result of the economic crisis.

In addition, governments should engage constructively with businesses and private actors to promote and facilitate business activities that contribute to the realization of the right to housing. This could include adjusting taxation measures to incentivize affordable housing and discourage speculation or vacant ownership of housing or lands, enabling innovative financing models, and encouraging alternatives to individual ownership through shared ownership and social production of housing.

We are at a crossroads. To address these challenges, a framework of shared and collective response is needed, as the U.N. secretary-general reminded us in his report "Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the Socio-Economic Impacts of COVID-19."

The need for coordinated efforts among all stakeholders has also been one of the key takeaways from the World Habitat Day global observance in Indonesia earlier this month.

To build back better, all actors need to be involved, with clear roles, commitments, and mechanisms of accountability. Ensuring the right to adequate housing is a shared responsibility of national and local governments, civil society, the private sector, and the international community, and it is one for which they are all accountable. Only together can we make sure that no one is left behind.

By Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Balakrishnan Rajagopal