How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

After a role at the United Nations, Leilani Farha launched a new effort to protect housing rights.

Your rent goes up, but not by that much. Your missed mortgage payment leads to a penalty instead of foreclosure. Your makeshift hut in an informal settlement is not bulldozed. Your public-housing complex is not sold to an investor group. Your landlord is a person.

This is the world that Leilani Farha is trying to create. As the United Nations’ special rapporteur on adequate housing, she spent the past six years on the front lines of the global housing crisis, seeing homeless encampments in San Francisco, slums in Mumbai, forced evictions in Lagos, and empty investment properties in Lisbon. She’s not the only one who believes these conditions have to change.

Farha, 51, is a human-rights lawyer from Ottawa, and her task, an unpaid position under the umbrella of the U.N. Human Rights Council, was to be a sort of global watchdog on housing issues. After taking on the role in 2014, she traveled through the developed and developing worlds to witness and document the most flagrant violations of international housing standards and then confronted the governments in charge to do something about them. “I don’t know how we’ll solve all of this if we can’t hold someone accountable. And human rights is really clear on who is accountable to whom. Governments are accountable to people,” she says. “I love that clarity.”

But when it comes to adequate housing, fault doesn’t lie with governments alone. In the aftermath of the last global financial crisis, large investors like private-equity firms, hedge funds, and real-estate investment trusts bought up stocks of devalued housing, turning it into one of the most prized assets on the global financial market. These investors now have unprecedented control over housing systems, to the detriment of homeowners and renters alike. The result is both a housing crisis and a human-rights crisis.

And the coronavirus could be making it worse. Unless action is taken soon, the economic instability caused by the pandemic threatens to let even more housing stock slip into the hands of investors for whom profitability is the main priority.

“Housing has become so much a part of the market economy, and has become so privatized globally, it’s no longer thought of as a public good. It’s not thought of as a human right,” Farha says. “I decided I had to change that somehow.”

Now, Farha is launching a fight to make sure the housing catastrophe brought on by the last crisis doesn’t happen again. ...