A home is much more than four walls and a roof. We spoke to Ignasi Martí, head of the Esade Decent Housing Observatory.

Do Better Team

“Housing is the cornerstone of stability and security for individuals and families. It’s the center of our social, emotional and sometimes economic life, and should be a sanctuary where people can live in peace, security and dignity.” So said the UN special rapporteur for housing. However, it seems that the aim of guaranteeing decent homes for everyone is receding into the future. We discussed the matter with Ignasi Martí, head of the recently created Esade Decent Housing Observatory.  

This article is an abridged version of the interview., which you can listen to in full in Spanish here.  

What does a decent home entail? 

We’re used to talking about housing as a financial commodity, so much so that we forget that, apart from its purely economic value as a financial asset, housing has, above all, a social value. Rather than material capital, we should regard it as a source of human, social and cultural capital. When we talk about housing and dignity, we focus on what housing means for our own lives and those of our families and loved ones, and perhaps for people who are more or less close to us. Housing is much more than four walls and a roof. It’s what allows us to guarantee a security that could be called ontological. It’s a place where we can take refuge, a place we can return to, where we can focus, where we can build intimate relationships, where we can look after ourselves and others. Talking about decent housing means thinking about what makes those four walls and roof a home – and also about what doesn’t, because many people do not have a decent home. Housing must provide adequate shelter, enable us to live our lives to the full and be affordable – which in many cases is also a problem. 

Above all, housing has a social value

What is the link between housing and the other factors that guarantee a decent life? 

It’s always played a leading role in all of them, and this won’t change. Housing is fundamental for ensuring a meaningful life. We’re not always aware of this because for many of us, housing is not a major obstacle for building a life for ourselves and our family. Our home is, if all goes well, the place we return to after going out. This idea of being able to return is important because the world can be hostile, and having a place to return to and build relationships with the people around us is essential. Our home is where we live, eat, study, rest, get ready for work or for going out, a place where we welcome friends or take refuge when we’re ill or don’t feel well. The characteristics of our home shape our lives, our health and what we can and can’t do, and likewise for our families. Safe, quality housing has advantages not only for its occupants but also those closest to us and society as a whole. It means fewer health hazards and accidents, fewer days off school for children and adolescents due to illnesses caused by damp or cold in inadequate housing. Besides physical considerations, housing is also a focal point for the construction and development of the ego from an emotional, psychological and social viewpoint, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and beyond. The precariousness or lack of housing causes many traumas that impact child development very negatively. 

Can the notion of housing as a social right exist alongside the notion of it as a financial commodity, or are they at loggerheads? 

It’s obvious that the second notion prevails nowadays. When we talk about housing and dignity it’s essential to remember that many studies, standards and regulations highlight the importance of the social value of housing. But in the last 30 or 40 years – and more harshly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – the tendency to regard housing as a financial commodity has increased. Since then, there has been some action in that respect but no bold policies. Housing has become a fundamental cog in the machinery of finance, thereby losing its social role and forcing us to consider a complete overhaul of our concept of housing, a certain readjustment. We must once again underline the social value of housing. 

Housing has become a fundamental cog in the machinery of finance, thereby losing its social role

What sectors of the population are most vulnerable when housing is not regarded as a social asset?  

Groups which are particularly vulnerable include low-income families who must make a greater effort to pay for housing and for whom buying a house today is out of the question. Families that in many cases have to spend more than 50% of their income on rent: a particularly prevalent issue amongst women, single-parent families, immigrants and disabled persons. Many studies and reports confirm this situation and how it has become chronic. In addition to the groups affected most, some people who were traditionally middle class now realize that the issue of precarious housing could affect them too. 

What is the mission of the Esade Housing Observatory that you have just set up?  

Our aim is to focus on the experiences of certain groups on the basis of their living conditions in order to analyze how housing is linked to and affects their physical, psychological, mental and emotional health; the adequate educational development of children and adolescents; job prospects and options; and the prosperity of society as a whole. In this respect, we aim to generate knowledge in order to produce outputs of different sorts in the realms of academic research and dissemination. We believe it is extremely important to generate knowledge that enables us to have an impact on society and make recommendations about actions and public policies to address the issue of housing insecurity. One of the main housing problems is that we all know it is an important issue, but it is very difficult to get people to sit down and deal with it. This is why the Observatory aims to be a forum where agents from the third sector, the public authorities and the private sector can dialogue in the light of the knowledge generated. 

When talking about solutions, it is necessary for many institutions and systems to pool their willingness and actions

As for solutions, what do you think is the most reasonable approach to the housing issue? 

I would insist that it requires action at all levels from a legislative viewpoint. There are initiatives and responses of all sorts that have different effects. When talking about solutions, it is necessary for many institutions and systems to pool their willingness and actions. The most reasonable approach is complex but simple and involves putting the social value of housing at the heart of the matter and bringing political decisions and actions into line with an ambitious goal. The government’s role is fundamental, it determines the rules of the game and so it should. But the agents in the private sector and third sector also play an important role. 

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