The COVID-19 Health Emergency and the Right to Decent Housing in Latin America

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The COVID-19 Health Emergency and the Right to Decent Housing in Latin America

"Home is not where you were born; home is the place where all your desires for escape, cease." Naguib Mahafoud

The Covid-19 pandemic has altered the global rhythm of life and national government responses have laid bare the enormous and diverse inequalities between and within countries and regions. In a way, COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity to appraise the deficiencies of our states and political systems in a multifaceted way. In terms of fulfilment of constitutional and conventional mandates, it has exposed the impact of disparities of income in the enjoyment of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights, in particular in the area of health services, education through online connectivity, and also in terms of access to adequate housing. This piece offers some reflections on housing as vital in terms of ensuring prevention, resilience and treatment of mild cases of the virus and therefore to preparedness and capacity to respond to the health emergency in the Latin American context.

Without a vaccine or effective treatment for the pandemic, most countries around the world –including those in the Latin American region— confronted the contagion with measures restricting circulation, mainly the so-called ‘compulsory lockdowns’ and quarantine measures. The main prerequisite for compliance consists of having a place where the days of lockdown can be spent, in isolation from other households or from other family members. Other essential hygiene measures include hand-washing with water and disinfectant, which require housing with access to safe drinking water. In the case of families or groups living together, household members may require isolation within the home in case of infection or suspected infection which proves impossible in cases of precarious housing without proper sanitation or sufficient rooms. There is little doubt that adequate housing is central to the pandemic response.

General Comment No. 4 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights relies on a broad concept of the right to housing, defined as the “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” Mariana Pucciarello defines access to adequate housing in terms of the following elements: a) legal security of tenure, b) availability of material services and infrastructure, c) affordable expenses, d) habitability, e) accessibility, f) space, and g) cultural adequacy. These components show the interlocking nature of this right with all human, social, economic and cultural rights.

In Latin America, despite the existence of large tracts of publicly owned land, access to housing in cities is limited for low-income families and individuals. The shantytowns or favelas that have sprung up close to many urban centres –where legal security of tenure is difficult or inaccessible— do not afford access to adequate sanitation services nor to online connectivity. Despite this, populations trespass and settle in these areas either through peaceful occupation or, in some cases, by force.

Until the second half of the twentieth century, 50% of the population lived in rural areas in most countries of the region. But in recent years, the housing deficit reached unprecedented levels after a massive population shift towards urban centres and as a consequence by 2015 only 19.9% of the population remained in rural areas. Despite a sustained deficit in affordable adequate housing and services, cities continued to receive significant numbers of new inhabitants. For instance, in 2018 the housing deficit impacted 25.4% of the population in Argentina. The consequences have been keenly felt during the pandemic where lockdown and quarantine measures increase the inequality between those with access to adequate housing and those sharing crowded spaces, without sanitation.

Territorial boundaries are also relevant to the pandemic: the trajectory of the virus tends to show that urbanisation and overcrowding have played a leading role in the spread of the disease, mainly in large cities. In Latin America, highest rates of infection and death have been common in less-advantaged neighbourhoods with a high population density and overcrowding due to the the lack of adequate housing, the scarcity of family income and the inability to self-isolate during the long-term health emergency. Paradoxically, these highly vulnerable individuals are frequently employed as essential workers in the food logistics sector, or depend on the informal economy for survival, and therefore are more likely to be exposed to contagion.

Conversely, throughout the years, the right to decent housing has been demoted in terms of priorities for funding within national budgets. Although total social public spending in the region increased from 10% to 16% between 2000 and 2013 as compared with the 1990s, housing spending has remained constant, at around 1% of GDP.

Another key factor of consolidating the housing deficit has been the lack of access to mortgage loans for the general population and for the less-advantaged sectors in particular. While in developed countries 100% of GDP is accessible as universal credit. In Latin America such access is 25%. Argentina is the country with the lowest access percentage of 11% of GDP output, making availability of mortgage credit negligible.

Prior to COVID-19, problems were analysed in the light of macroeconomic measurement tools such as Gross Domestic Product, inflation, public debt and currency valuations. From these purely economic parameters a country could be awarded a certificate of good conduct in the rank of nations. Inequality, social injustice, poverty rates, and large levels of youth unemployment were relegated as secondary considerations and treated as such on the road to ensure macroeconomic balance. From a human rights perspective, this approach was insufficient as it ignored fundamental standards for the planning and implementation of public policies and the setting of priorities in the management of national budgets.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of this previous paradigm. In this context there is a need to focus on the fulfilment of constitutional and conventional mandates regarding the right to decent housing, already crippled by austerity programs in Latin America. The right to housing should be considered a priority because of its combined importance in the area of health: both as a means of prevention through adequate safety and sanitation and for mitigation when quarantine to contain the spread of infection prove necessary.

COVID-19 has highlighted both the key role of adequate housing in preventing and combating pandemics, and the strong interface between human rights based-approaches to public policies and performance in terms of public health, national economics and security. The evidence suggests that human rights preparedness in terms of the right to adequate housing requires a paradigm shift in states’ macroeconomic tools, priorities and budgets in Latin America. The way ahead towards a new paradigm requires a substantial increase in national budgets for lower income housing, legal recognition of land ownership, dissemination of land tenure with adequate sanitation, energy and online connectivity as well as the promotion of mortgage credit for the middle and lower income sectors for the acquisition of a first family home.

Hector S. Mazzei

Written by Hector S. Mazzei

Lawyer (UBA) and Master in Public Policy (UBA). Government Administrator – Argentine Republic. Professor of Administrative Law (UNSAM). Professor of Economic and Constitutional Law (UBA). Director of the Degree in Public Administration at UNSAM. Secretary of Government of UNSAM. Member of the Global Campus of Human Rights Assembly.

Cite as: Mazzei, Hector S. "The COVID-19 Health Emergency and the Right to Decent Housing in Latin America", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 15 October 2020,


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