How Can A Right To Housing Advance Without Preserving What We Have?

What's up and what's down? Hard to tell in a partially demolished old building
Could it have become truly affordable housing? Whoops, too late. The idea wasn't worth a thought when this Christchurch, New Zealand building was Demolished in 2013. More about it here.

Both the United Kingdom and the USA soured on public/social housing coincident with the rise of Reaganism/thatcherism/neoliberalism and its emphasis on small government. In place of government incompetence, free enterprise would, with their near-magical, and far superior, skills, step up to the plate and build, among other things, all the truly affordable housing that a country needs.

And while the number of countries endorsing the UN’s Human Right to Adequate Housing is growing, two countries were leaders in undermining those efforts: New and Old World, America and the United Kingdom.

Yes, it is totally possible to endorse with little or no cost a right to housing as a futuristic dream. But if the mechanism for building that housing is continually undermined by government philosophy, policy and law, the result is a human right all dressed up with no place to go.

Over the new millennium, the private sector has been cleverly finding reasons to condemn as unrepairable even relatively modern public/social housing. These supposedly cost-effective measures, when the handed to private sector developers, often focus on profitable mixed income and/or commercial developments.

As for promises to replace, let alone enhance, truly affordable housing stock, these free market controlled developments generally are at very best, break-even exercises. At worst, over time they seem tantamount to outright fraud1.

As time has passed, events in other countries have given the lie to carefully crafted tales of the undeserving, degenerate poor that underpins destruction of public housing.

Here’s one celebrated example of how truly affordable housing can be refurbished. In 2021 two French Architects won what is sometimes called the ‘Nobel Prize For Architecture’ — the Pritzker Prize. Over the years these two architects have both claimed and demonstrated that they have never encountered a building that cannot be more effectively and inexpensively refurbished rather than pulled down2.

Meanwhile the impact of global warming has been creating urgent new criteria for the building industry to assess costs of construction AND demolition. Demolition, as it turns out, is plagued by costly carbon release costs to the environment.

Does this new ‘green’ costing make more it more sensible to refurbish, rather than pull down housing for those with low or no incomes? A Canadian experiment to refurbish an aging high rise in Hamilton, Ontario provides one promising example3.

The dream of actually fulfilling a human right to adequate housing may well depend upon support for maintaining existing truly affordable housing while building new housing stock that is affordable for people with the lowest incomes.

How far can refurbishing old stock help fulfill a human right to adequate housing? A recent project in Australia, though not originally social housing, illustrates where old stock, combined with ‘green’ practices and accounting, can underpin a refurbishing drive towards an adequate housing dream for all. Enhanced by a bonus of some striking time lapse animation, read and watch more at CNN: World’s first ‘upcycled’ skyscraper saves Australian tower from demolition


  1. Try: The Life And Death Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects, 25 Years On
  2. Try: Public Housing, “Reverence For Pre-Existing Structures” Captures Architecture’s Top Prize
  3. Try: Is EnerPHit the Future of Affordable Housing?