If we have a right to housing, then we have a right to live alone

Shame about the 17 other housemates. Image: Getty.

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.

The Conversation

Katy Wells, Assistant Professor in Political Theory, University of Warwick.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.