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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.