OTTAWA—Ottawa’s Leilani Farha, a lawyer and anti-poverty activist, has been appointed UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing.
Farha, executive director of Canada Without Poverty, learned of her appointment Wednesday, which also happened to be her birthday.
Farha holds a law degree and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Toronto, and will continue to work at the advocacy group, Canada Without Poverty, while serving in her unpaid role as special rapporteur.
Her appointment was welcomed Wednesday by NDP housing critic Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet. "This role is made all the more important in Canada where 1.5 million citizens lack access to decent and affordable housing,” she said.
Canada is the only country in the OECD that does not have a national housing strategy.
The Citizen spoke Wednesday with Farha. Here is an edited version of that conversation:
Q. Why is adequate housing a human right?
A. Housing is one of the most essential things for well-being in the world. If you ask any person living in poverty, they will tell you that the most important thing to them is housing. And human rights are concerned with things that are important to the most disadvantaged people.
Q. What is the role of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing?
A. The role is interesting: it’s almost like public office but on a world stage. You’re responsible for monitoring the status of housing rights globally; you’re responsible for delving into the content of what adequate housing actually means; and you’re responsible for addressing individual and systemic complaints about inadequate housing, things like forced evictions.
Q. Are there specific issues that you want to address in your new role?
A. I was appointed this morning so I’m working on that, but one of the things I’m interested in is to understand what it actually means to implement adequate housing at the local level. What does that look like? I think there’s a lot of work to be done there, practical nuts and bolts stuff. If we believe that housing is a human right, what does that mean? Are there developed or developing countries that are doing it right? Where are they making inroads and addressing housing disadvantage?
Q. Any there issues in Canada that deserve scrutiny?
A. Canada has already come under a great deal of scrutiny from the United Nations and from the previous special rapporteurs on adequate housing. Canada has been told by the UN that it’s not doing a good enough job—not just with respect to aboriginal people—but also with respect to other marginalized and disadvantaged groups. Canada has been told clearly by the UN that it needs to adapt a national housing strategy.
Q. What else do you hope to accomplish as special rapporteur?
I want to contribute to a better understanding as to why a human rights framework is so important for socio-economic issues like housing. My belief is that it’s only once we understand housing as a human right—as an entitlement of some sort—that we will start to make change. It changes the nature of how we view something like housing when we understand it as a human right.
Photo: Leilani Farah poses for a portrait in Ottawa, 8 May 2014. Source: Chris Roussakis, Ottawa Citizen