Author: Ranjani K. Murthy, May 3 2017 - What is adequate housing?

The International Covenant on Economic and Social Cultural Rights, 1996 guarantees  every person the rights to adequate food, to adequate housing, to education, to health, to social security, to take part in cultural life, to water and sanitation, and to work.   A later document of the UN elaborates on what is adequate shelter, which is discussed below. 

Adequate shelter means more than a roof over one's head. It also means adequate privacy; adequate space; physical accessibility; adequate security; security of tenure; structural stability and durability; adequate lighting, heating and ventilation; adequate basic infrastructure, such as water-supply, sanitation and waste-management facilities; suitable environmental quality and health-related factors; and adequate and accessible location with regard to work and basic facilities: all of which should be available at an affordable cost. Adequacy should be determined together with the people concerned, bearing in mind the prospect for gradual development. Adequacy often varies from country to country, since it depends on specific cultural, social, environmental and economic factors. Gender-specific and age-specific factors, such as the exposure of children and women to toxic substances, should be considered in this context

UN, 1996, The Habitat Agenda: Chapter IV: B. Adequate shelter for all, UN, A.Conf.165/4  Last accessed 2nd May, 2017: p1

Estimates of those without adequate shelter

Estimates of proportion of population with adequate shelter are difficult to come by. The Habitat for Humanity estimates that that as many as 1.6 billion people lacked adequate housing. Another estimate, states that 1 of 3 children in the world live without adequate shelter.  

Those without adequate shelter include pavement dwellers, nomadic tribes, distress migrants (including refugees), slum dwellers, dwellers in informal settlements, elderly and infirm without family support and women and children subject to abuse and trafficking 

Do the SDGs ensure adequate shelter for all? 

It is interesting that there is no reference to the phrase “adequate shelter” in the SDGs, targets and indicators, the term “housing” is referred to but never “adequate shelter”.  Five of the seven targets of SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities do refer to some elements of affordable shelter like affordable housing and up-gradation of  slums, safe and affordable public transport systems (with special attention to needs of women), waste management/reduction of pollution, disaster risk reduction and provision of green public spaces.  

The indicators additionally refer to access to safe water, safe sanitation, modern cooking fuel, health facilities, ratio of land consumption rate to population growth rate and percentage of wastewater flows treated to national standards and proportion of public and green space as a proportion of total space.  

While these measures are indeed welcome, there are some gaps: 

  • It not clear whether these indirect “adequate shelter” targets pertain to migrants, refugees, nomads, pavement dwellers, abandoned elderly and infirm and women and children on the streets due to abuse.
  • There are no graduation plans for these people, including access to education, skills, employment and collective housing (if they are not wanted by their families).
  • It is not clear what is the shelter that will be provided under SDGs to vulnerable groups in rural areas.  The destination of migrants is not just urban areas, but also rural.  The above concern is even greater when there is distress migration from poorer countries.   
  • Concerns of prevention of abuse and trafficking of boys, girls and women in places where shelter is inadequate is not addressed. Protection, promotion and provisioning of sexual and reproductive health and rights in such areas are a must. While these issues are mentioned in SDG 5, it does not refer to health and rights of these stakeholders.

Looking forward   

It is suggested that these gaps be addressed as national-level SDG indicators and targets are evolved.  If there is a scope for modifying the global SDG targets and indicators, these gaps may be addressed.   With an increasingly floating, migrating and fleeing population, it is important that adequate shelter is given a separate space as a stand-alone SDG.   

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