Property Rights
Living Rights

by  David Korten

One of the most hotly debated issues of the UN Habitat II conference help in Istanbul in June 1996 was whether its Global Action Plan (GAP) would recognize housing as a basic human right. NGOs were adamant that access to adequate shelter be recognized as a human right. Some governments - most notably the United States - have waged a campaign to exclude any such language from conference documents. In the end the voices of the people prevailed and the right to housing was reaffirmed by the official delegates.

The housing crisis is real. The United Nations estimates that 100 million people presently sleep outside with no shelter at all or sleep in public buildings such as railway, bus, or metro stations. If the definition of homelessness is expanded to include people living in insecure or temporary shelters - often of poor quality - the estimate of the world's homeless rises to more than a billion. The problem is not limited to Southern countries. In the 12 countries of the European Union, some 1.8 million people sleep on the streets or depend on temporary public shelters. For the United States, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that more than 3 million people sleep in the open or in temporary night shelters. The limited available data suggest that both homelessness and evictions are growing in most Northern and Southern countries.

The U.S. and Indian governments took the lead during the Habitat II process in arguing that if housing were made a legal right citizens might sue their governments to provide them with a free house - a burden few governments would be able to bear. They had a valid point. The globalized economy has drained national governments of their power and resources just as it has drained the power and resources of most people and localities - leaving them unable to pick up the burden of meeting the growing range of needs that people are no longer able to meet for themselves. Consequently, so long as the issue is defined as a choice between looking to either governments or markets for solutions, governments are increasingly inclined to favor markets.

Yet citizen groups concerned with economic justice issues have good reason to be skeptical of market solutions - because markets respond only to the needs of those people who have money. Those who have secure incomes rarely lack for adequate shelter. It is specifically those who lack an adequate source of income who bear the burden of the housing crisis.


The dilemma can be resolved only by moving beyond the assumption that governments and markets are our only sources of shelter. It is helpful to recall that throughout history most of the world's housing has been constructed by the people who need it, often with the voluntary help of their immediate neighbors. Furthermore, to this day a substantial portion of new housing, especially in low income countries, is still being produced on a self-help basis.

Contrary to what some commentators would have us believe, the poor are among the most resourceful of people. If there is a way to meet their needs, they will generally find it. When the poor lack adequate housing it is more often the consequence of being barred from access to the land, credit, and materials, with which to build than a lack of motivation or resourcefulness. Government action to implement land reform, provide secure titles to land, remove restrictions on using available local materials for construction, and make credit available are often the most direct routes to meeting housing needs - what the UN Centre for Human Settlements calls enabling strategies.

This suggests we must make a basic distinction between the right to be provided with a house by a governmental agency and the right of access to the means of providing adequate shelter for oneself. A demand by the able bodied for a free house is appropriately dismissed as an unwarranted demand for a handout. A plea for access to the means of providing adequate shelter for oneself is quite different. It is a call on government to remove the barriers that prevent or make more difficult the efforts of ordinary people to provide their own housing - more broadly to create their own means of living. It is a demand that government act to protect the most basic of rights - the right of access to a means of livelihood - a means of living - literally the right to live.


Properly addressed, the housing rights issue leads to a larger truth basic to nearly every human settlement problem of concern to the Habitat II conference. Depriving a person of access to a means of creating a livelihood is essentially a denial of their right to live - arguably the most basic of human rights, since without life other rights have no meaning. Yet, in our current world, hundreds of millions of people find themselves denied access to the land, markets, technology, money, and jobs essential to creating their own livelihoods.

This exclusion often comes down to a conflict between the property rights of the few and living rights of the many. For example, when the poor are evicted from lands they have homesteaded, the eviction is commonly carried out in the name of protecting property rights of the land owner. Similarly, property rights are the legal foundation of most other exclusionary processes that deny the poor access to technology, money, markets, and even jobs.

Where property rights are widely and fairly distributed they are inseparable from the right to a means of living. For example, in the early days of U.S. history farming families owned and tilled their own land and artisans owned their own tools and shops. So distributed, property rights serve to root economic and political power in the citizenry as a counter to the potential abuse of state power and provide the foundation for strong and prosperous democratic societies.

It is very different in a world in which the net worth of the world's 358 billionaires roughly equals the aggregate annual incomes of the world's 2.5 billion poorest people. Under conditions of extreme inequality, property rights and living rights come into conflict and the free market becomes an instrument of tyranny rather than an agency of democracy.


Since 1950, aggregate global economic output has increased more than five-fold, creating comparable increases in the human burden on the planet's ecosystem. A growing body of evidence suggests that we are now exploiting our world's ocean fisheries, fresh water sources, farm lands, forests, and waste absorption capabilities faster than the planet can regenerate them. In such a situation, the continued press for economic growth accelerates depletion of the natural capital on which the well-being of future generations depends and intensifies the competition between rich and poor for the natural life-sustaining capital that remains.

The issues go beyond money - which is often inaccurately referred to as a resource. We cannot eat, drink, or breath money. Money will not warm our bodies or shelter us from the elements. Nor will money itself produce any of the things we need to live. In a money oriented economy those of us who have money can use it to buy life sustaining resources so long as they are available - food, a piece of land, building materials, fibers, energy, clean air, water, or the labor and talent of others - but money itself cannot sustain our lives. This is a basic point. Money is not wealth. It is a simple number that represents a claim on wealth.

Money is easily created. Banks do it every time they make a loan. Any local group can do it, as the growing number of community currency schemes demonstrates.

By contrast, the most important life sustaining resources are finite. Even those resources that continuously regenerate - such as our air and water, soils, forests, and fisheries - have a maximum sustainable yield. A society may chose to allocate the available yield of these resources to those able to pay the highest price, but money itself cannot increase the natural yield.

Where property rights take precedence over living rights, money and the rights it conveys to real resources literally determines whether one has a place. For example, in Nairobi, the informal and illegal settlements that house more than half of the city's population occupy less than 6% of the land area used for residential purposes. Similar illegal settlements provide temporary homes for more than two fifths of Manila's population living on less than 6% of the city's land. The inhabitants of such settlements are subject to the severe health and psychological consequences of a combination of severe crowding, inadequate public services, fear of eviction, and sense of being unwanted - with no recognized place or rights in their own society.

It is not an unwillingness to work. Squatter settlement residents often spend long hours working or searching for work. Neither is it an absolute shortage of unused land. Researchers at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London report that there are vacant lands in most major cities more than adequate to properly accommodate their homeless populations. In Greater Bombay the 2,000 hectares of vacant land owned by only one family would be adequate to house most of the city's street dwellers and squatters. It is a matter of property rights.

In a crowded world it is necessary to distinguish between those property rights that allow a person security in their means of a basic livelihood - which must be protected - and property rights that represent one person's exclusionary control of life sustaining resources beyond personal need - which are of a lower order.

Life sustaining resources are not human creations. They are a common heritage of all living creatures. There can be no moral justification for society to extend to any person the right to deny other persons the right to live by monopolizing a life sustaining common heritage resource they did not create and do not need.

It is even more difficult morally to justify extending such rights to lifeless corporations. Yet a mere 300 of the world's largest transnational corporations own some 25% - roughly $5 trillion worth - of the world's total productive assets. Most everywhere, corporations - especially those involved in agribusiness, real estate development, and mineral, petroleum, and timber extraction - are extending their control over the planet's natural resource base - in many instances depleting, destroying, or poisoning the renewable land and water resources that once provided livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people. The resulting development refugees are left with no choice, but to struggle for survival at the margins of the world's overcrowded cities.

Only natural living things have natural rights. The legal principle that corporations have the same natural rights as real persons is a pure legal fiction without moral foundation that arose out of a decision of a corrupted U.S. Supreme Court in 1886. A legal fiction has no right to deny a real person the right to a means of living.


A study conducted by Friends of the Earth Netherlands asks a basic environmental resources and waste absorption services for the average person in the year 2010, if: a) resource consumption levels were equal among all people living on the earth at that time; and b) the global level of resource consumption were within sustainable limits? The resulting capita consumption levels were then compared with current consumption levels in the Netherlands. Friends of the Earth USA subsequently applied the Dutch estimates to make similar comparisons for the United States. The findings are sobering.

For example, current annual per capita CO2 emissions are 19.5 tons in the United States and 12 tons in the Netherlands. To meet suggested targets for reduction of global warming, world per capita CO2 emission levels from fossil fuel use would need to be brought down to 4 tons by 2010. If the burden of achieving this target were shared equitably, each person would be reduced in 2010 to consuming no more than 1 liter of carbon-based fuel per day. This would mean a choice of traveling 24 km (15.5 mi) by car, 50 km (31 mi) by bus, 65 km (40 mi) by train or 10 km (6.2 mi) by plane per day - if we were to use our allocation solely for direct personal travel. These calculations make no allowance for energy needed to produce, transport, and market the things we consume - burdens we each place on the environment but never see.

Allowable timber usage, based on an assumption that there will be no more logging of primary forests and that existing nonprimary forest lands will be used on a sustained yield basis, would be 0.4 cubic meters per person per year - including wood used for paper. To bring consumption into line with equitable sustainable use, the Netherlands would have to reduce its timber consumption by 60%, the United States by 79%.

Such calculations are at best preliminary approximations based on controversial assumptions and the use of fragmented and often unreliable data. They do put to rest, however, the dangerous illusion that we can at once increase the physical consumption of the already well-to-do and at the same time eliminate the deprivation of the poor. Justice requires that we all learn to live on no more than our rightful personal share of nature's life sustaining resources so that all may live. This will require dramatic changes in how we think about the function and organization of human settlements.

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The world's housing crisis is a direct result of public laws and practices that in nearly every country in the world systematically deny the majority of people access to their rightful share of earth's life sustaining resources so that members of a small privileged minority may accumulate wealth beyond their rightful needs. The real issue goes well beyond housing rights. It is about justice in a finite world, learning to live in balance with the earth, and the right of all people to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. With Habitat II behind us, we need to take a fresh look at the issue of livelihood rights and take seriously the need to put in place public policies that acknowledge the right of ever person to a means of living.

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