E-newsletter 22th December, 2016
Analysis & News from Housing Rights Watch
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NEW ANALYSIS from the United Kingdom and Hungary.

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In 2017 we will continue seeking the realisation of the right of every person to live in dignity and to have a secure, adequate and affordable place to live. 

Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight  and more is coming

December 2016
By Koldo Casla, Policy, Research and Training Officer.
Just Fair

After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.

To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”.  The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.

These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).

2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.

UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.

Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?

The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.

As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.

Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.

Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.

If you are reading this from the UK, consider taking part in the online actions Just Fair is promoting: Tell the government to implement the 60 recommendations to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights in the UK.

Evictions and harassment of Miskolc residents declared unlawful and anti-constitutional by Ombudsman

By Fehér Boróka
BMSZKI - Budapesti Módszertani Szociális Központ és Intézményei

According to estimates, about 7-10% of the population of Hungary, with a total of a little under 10 million inhabitants, belong to the Roma minority. The Roma tend to live in certain geographical areas, often in segregated settlements – 30% of Roma citizens live in segregated places as opposed to 3% of the general population. Often Roma people live in substandard housing situation as well. Hungary does not recognize the right to housing, and while the Constitution states that the state shall strive to create humane housing conditions for all of its citizens, this is far from the everyday experience of those living in poverty, especially the Roma.

The following is the case of the fight between a local authority trying to get rid of social tenants, many of them Roma, by evicting them without offering rehousing. While pro bono lawyers have chosen to sue the local authority for discrimination, the right to housing and the right to a fair trial are also at stake.

Miskolc, a Hungarian settlement of 161 000 inhabitants, is the third largest settlement in Hungary, is situated in one of the poorest areas of the country. The City decided to demolish the neighborhood called “Numbered Streets”, where a large part of the inhabitants are Roma – partly to get rid of an slummy area (see Integrated Development Strategy of 2014) - though sociologists claim this neighborhood is far from being the poorest as far as housing conditions go in Miskolc, partly to erect a new football stadium, or, to be more, precise, its parking lot.

The numbered streets neighborhood originally had a population of about 770 people, of whom a large proportion are children (270), and of whom about 80% have a low level of schooling, and there is noone employed in 70% of the households. The population is not homogeneous, some would like to get employed and find better housing while some “due to the lack of motivation or social attitudes have difficulty finding employment” (p. 66). Most of the housing units are owned by the City, almost all of them are in very bad state – no foundation, walls getting wet. Half of the housing units have one single room, while the average number of inhabitants is 4 people/housing unit. 80% of the children in the local kindergarten are Roma.

As a first step, the original 10 or 5 year rental contracts have been shortened, and the newer tenants usually have been offered one-year contracts only. Some of the tenants waiting for eviction had had arrears at one point, which had given cause to the City to terminate the contract – even the arrears were of no great value, and/or had been paid since. Those whose contracts are terminated are evicted without further offer of housing, no matter what their circumstances – whether the family has children, disabled or elderly members.

In the second step, the City modified its local housing decree on May 8th, 2014, offering financial compensation (a maximum of about € 4750 - 6300/tenants) for those tenants who are willing to terminate their indefinite contract ONLY IF they buy property OUTSIDE of Miskolc which cannot be sold within 5 years. TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberty’s Union, turned to the Ombudsman in April 2014, asking for the case to be sent to the Constitutional Court, claiming the decree to be unconstitutional as it is discriminatory and limits the freedom of movement. Several settlements around Miskolc have, in response, accepted local decrees excluding newcomers from social services if they have acquired their housing with the support of another settlement.

TASZ, the National Ethnic and Minority Protection Institute (NEKI), the European Roma Rights Centre and the Chance for Children Foundation also claim that the decree is not in accordance with the Anti-discriminatory Act not the local Equal Opportunities Program. Even though the Regional Government Office asked the city to revise the decree, the City Hall voted to leave it unchanged in December 2014. The Supreme Court, however, annulled the relevant articles in its decision of April 28th, 2015. Until that day, only one family had shown interest in buying property outside of the city, but even they did not do so.

TASZ has also turned to the Ombudsman about police raids in poverty neighborhoods of Miskolc prior to the first modification of the Housing Decree – 45 raids within a period of 9 months (April 2013 – January 2014), of teams of 20-30 people (policemen, city officials), who entered private apartments and checked the ID of everyone found there, with no legal foundation for this action.

As a third step, in March 2015, Miskolc again modified its decree, removing the exclusion of those who had lived in social housing during the past two years from the eligible applicants for new social housing. However, most tenants are still excluded, as the City also asks for an employment record of at least 3 months and a certain level of income per person that most of them do not have. In April, they have raised the rent of people in the Numbered Street neighborhood with 75%, with no prior notification.

Other discriminative measures have also been put to force against people living in poverty, many of them Roma – for example overcrowded households are not eligible for housing subsidy, and applicants have to submit to an inspection about the “cleanliness” of their home, especially the bathroom and the toilet!

As of May 30th, 2015, only about 107 of the 228 housing units were still inhabited. According to the data of Gabriella Lengyel and Gábor Havas, 28 families have claimed refugee status in Canada, and several others are planning to do so. At least 9 families have moved to Lyukó-völgy, a neighborhood of deep poverty and segregation outside of Miskolc. At least 9 families have moved in with relatives in Miskolc. Only 3 families could apply for social housing as the conditions are very exclusive. 2 single people have moved to a homeless shelter, and two others to a workers’ hostel. Those with an indefinite rent contract are usually offered housing in housing estates or inner city buildings if non-Roma, and slums with no or low comfort housing units if Roma.

Péter Niedermüller, member of the EP from the Hungarian Demokratikus Koalíció, member of the Commission on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, brought the case to the attention of the EC (2015.03.19), asking if the actions of the City were in accordance with the European Framework of National Roma Strategies, targeting the improvement of housing conditions of the Roma, and the 2000/43/EK guideline about anti-discrimination.

The Ombudsman finally revealed the findings of his investigations in the Miskolc case on June 5th, 2015, calling the practice of the Municipality of Miskolc unlawful, anti-constitutional and wrong. It calls on the City to stop harassing local residents in the numbered streets, and to cooperate with social service providers in the area more closely in order to prevent evictions. It also asks the minister of the Prime Minister’s Office to make sure that similar practices all over the country are stopped. It recommends that the Ministry of Human Resources offer support to neighborhoods struggling with similar issues as the “available resources are obviously inadequate.” Even though the Ombudsman’s recommendations are non-binding, and cannot automatically lead to compensation, Hungarian courts refer to them regularly and consider these reports as evidence.

Based on the complaint of the National Ethnic and Minority Protection Institute (NEKI), the  Equal Treatment Authority (ETA), also carried out a year-long investigation and made a decree in July 2015, calling on the Miskolc local government to put an end to the evictions, develop a plan of operation on how to offer housing in accordance to human dignity to those already evicted by September 30th. Although the decree cannot be appealed, it is possible to turn to the Administrative Court and ask for the decision to be revised – which the Miskolc local government actually has done. Though the Administrative Court has declared that all the decisions of ETA have to be carried out while the appeal is pending, as its execution is of public interest, and its suspension would be a violation against the dignity and human rights of many individuals, including children, not much has happened since.

While the city should have a plan of action and have offered to re-house evicted families, the local government has so far refused to cooperate with the local Roma self-government and local NGOs, and the families already evicted or waiting to be evicted have not heard of any solution. The mayor has sworn to continue the demolitions as well as the raid-like inspections.

According to reports by journalists (video in English also available), only a few families remain in the housing units of the numbered streets, and their contracts are going to expire soon. Most of those who have moved out have moved to Lyukóbánya, having bought or renting derelict housing, often without running water or electricity, no insulation, no heating opportunities. Lyukóbánya, once a thriving mining community, is now a slum outside of the border of Miskolc, heavily segregated and with bad public transport opportunities to the city. Even though housing conditions are extremely bad, rents have escalated as the demand has been growing. Several NGOs (among them Amnesty International Hungary, CFCF, the European Roma Rights Centre, the Hungarian Roma Parliament, the Miskolc Roma local government, the Civil Liberty’s Union) as well as academics and activists have also called on the city to comply.

Even if the Court rules in favor of the ETA decision, it will not be easy to relocate the former tenants, many of whom have become invisible to authorities – renting derelict housing units with no possibility of registering it as their official address. Meanwhile, Miskolc has decided to exclude tenants of social housing as well as those who live in crowded or poor housing from the housing benefit system. In the debate, members of the local assembly said that they want to put an end to low income families moving to Miskolc to “live easily from the generous benefit system”. With the growth of populism, it is questionable how much the legal fight can gain for those already evicted, but also for those social tenants who are coming up next.

Full text of the articles directly can be found in the Housing Rights Watch website: 

Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight… and more is coming
Koldo Casla, Policy, Research and Training Officer. Just Fair

Evictions and harassment of Miskolc residents declared unlawful and anti-constitutional by Ombudsman
Féher Boróka, BMSZKI

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