November 12, 2021
Architecture and Cultural Rights
November 20, 2021
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Housing Rights and Architecture

from Raising the Roof (

As luck would have it, I was an architecture student when the first UN-Habitat conference came to Vancouver in 1976.  I was exposed to global issues that were certainly not on my architecture curriculum.  This was much bigger and much beyond the technique of architecture.  People from around the world were discussing broad issues of habitat and how we can work together to fashion a better world.  I have been thinking about those issues ever since.

When I went back to do a research masters many years later, I enrolled because I wanted to explore the relationship between architecture and Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care . . .”

I wanted to know how it is that the profession of architecture can support Art. 25 and the right to housing.  Thirty years later, I am still working on the answer to that question.

At present, it would be difficult for anyone to miss that there is a global housing crisis upon us.  But what is the nature of that crisis and how is it that architecture can ameliorate any of those difficult obstacles to affordable housing?  At this point, we cannot even produce a reasonable definition of what ‘affordable’ means.

In my own work, there are a few pressing issues I have found.

Land – the cost of land is prohibitively expensive in most cities. Materials and labour costs are not the crucial factor in affordability.  While architects and engineers have explored many ways to reduce material and labour costs, affordability will not be achieved by that alone.

Commodification 1 – as long as land is ‘in the market’ it will continue to be dependent on the market.  As such, costs continue to rise.  As they say, nobody is making more of it.  As the human population continues to urbanize, the pressure on urban land will mount. (on issues of decommodification, see Leilani Farha. She has written extensively on this issue in the Guardian over the years)

Commodification 2 – as long as it is in the market there will be speculation on land.  This can be curtailed by regulating the land market if there are senior levels of government prepared to do so.  If not (as is the case in much of the Western world) land costs quickly spiral out of control.  There are far too many examples of this (see, for example, here)

People will get housing despite the obstacles – we see this in the growth of slums throughout the developing world.  We now have ‘tent cities’ in the developed world for much the same reason.  People will find housing.  In a more regulated environment – especially true in the developed world – much of that housing will not meet regulations and will be designated as illegal.  This often results in a State response to housing through the courts and the police.  In that instance, the State response to housing is often jail.

Forms of housing – After the return of veterans from WW2, there was an acute need for housing.  This typically spread into the suburbs.  Houses at that time were often 1000-1200 sf.  The typical single-family house now is closer to 1800-2000 sf.  The size of families has not grown.  If anything, we are reducing the size of the family.  It is even fragmenting.  The market called for the design of ‘mingles’ units back in the 90s.  Like student housing they had shared space (living room, dining, kitchen) and private space (bedroom, bathroom) so that two single people could share a condo and still have some privacy.  This has expanded into co-housing using the same principle of common areas and private space at a larger scale.  Here, architecture and planning can make best use of their expertise to develop such hybrid spaces and amortize the costs of housing.  Co-ops can work in a similar fashion.  Nevertheless, alternative house forms still must be built on a piece of land which grows increasingly expensive with speculation.

In trying to address the question of how it is that architecture and housing rights intersect, there are other areas of intervention where the profession can make a difference.  This relates to two aspects of development work – the management of the process and the choices in clients. 

Since the 60s Community Design Centers (CDCs) have arisen to provide design services for communities that cannot afford any professional services.  These communities would otherwise be at the mercy of developers, their architects, and the City’s zoning regulations.  CDCs can act as a kind of ‘public defender’ on behalf of a community under threat of eviction or the forces of gentrification and urban land economics.  One way to protect and improve existing housing stock is by having a group of professionals advocate on behalf of vulnerable communities – communities which would otherwise have little or no voice.  In this way it is much more possible for the profession to protect and promote human rights.  I see at least two means by which this can be done.  The first is by managing the process of development and the second is by recognizing the role of the ‘citizen architect’.

  1. Process – communities can develop a stronger and more coherent voice with relevant information about development and with the technical support of their own ‘defense team’ of architects and planners (see Davidoff “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning“).  It helps to protect their right to participate (see Vancouver Declaration, II:13, p5) beyond the tokenism of formal public hearings (see Arnstein’s ‘The Ladder of Citizen Participation’).  ‘Citizen control,’ as Arnstein describes the top of that ladder, can be supported by engaged architects in improving the democratic process by lending another voice so these communities can be heard.  This also helps to protect existing housing stock.  The protection of that housing stock is instrumental in maintaining the existence of the community itself.
  2. Citizen Architect’ – Sam Mockbee, the late architecture professor at Auburn University, coined the term ‘citizen architect’ for those professionals who made the choice to use their skills to support vulnerable communities.  This might be likened to a public defender in the legal profession.  The significant difference between the two is that the public defender is paid by the State to provide these services and access to these services is often constitutionally protected.  The Citizen Architect has no such support from State or from the architectural institutions.  Nevertheless, there are still architects – many associated with universities – who choose to work with vulnerable communities.  Much of the work they do with such communities is in the protection of rights – the right to participate meaningfully, the rights of access, and, most often, the protection of housing rights.

An important element, though, is missing here.  The State must recognize the right to housing in policy and law.  In Canada, the National Housing Strategy Act became the law of Canada when Bill C-97 received royal assent on June 21, 2019. This Act confirms housing rights in Canada but . . . there are still many questions about the promotion and protection of that right in its implementation.  (see, for example, here and here)

In such work it will be critical that both the State and the profession first to recognize the right to housing and then to act upon it.  The Canadian government has finally verified its recognition of housing rights.  What have architectural institutes (provincial, national and International) done to recognize and act upon that basic right?

Graeme Bristol
Graeme Bristol
Graeme Bristol is the ED/founder of the Centre for Architecture and Human Rights. He holds professional and research degrees in architecture from UBC and an LLM in human rights law from Queen’s University Belfast. He worked as an architect in Vancouver until 1994. Between 1994 and 1997 he was a supervising architect with the national Department of Works in Papua New Guinea where he was also a technical advisor to the PNG government at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul, and the Registrar of the PNG Board of Architects. He taught architecture at KMUTT in Bangkok where he worked with students mainly in slum communities and in construction camps with migrant workers and their families. He also worked with the UN during the tsunami recovery in Thailand. He has been writing and speaking on architecture and human rights for many years.

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