Architecture and the Right to Housing

A panel of experts gathered to discuss what it takes to make right to housing a reality for all.

Housing is a human right. This direct message was the opening statement of the Architecture and the Right to Housing panel discussion at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. Hosted on March 21 as part of the Faculty’s Winter Program, the discussion brought out a crowd of architects, designers, and students to listen and learn about what the right to housing actually looks like in practice, and the often understated role that architects can play in making it a reality.

The panel was moderated by Karen Kubey, an assistant professor at the Daniels Faculty, and included speakers Leilani Farha, global director of advocacy agency The Shift, and Paul Karakusevic, founding partner of Karakusevic Carson Architects, a UK-based firm specializing in public-housing design. Supported by the Irving Grossman Fund in Affordable Housing, the discussion was part of an ongoing series of round tables that Kubey is hosting across the Americas to continue her work in advancing housing justice. Addressing the audience to kick the discussion off, Kubey said “I hope that by the time you leave the room tonight, you will have a better understanding of what a right to housing really means, that you feel energized, and you believe, just a little bit more, that another world is possible.”

Architecture and the Right to Housing, 1 Spadina, Karen Kubey, John H Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, Daniels Public Program, Daniels Lecture. Photo credit: Harry Choi

The discussion opened with a presentation from Leilani Farha. Against a backdrop of questions to ask ourselves to better understand the housing crisis, Farha highlighted the internatial human rights laws that support the right to housing, and the importance of holding those who make decisions accountable to upholding these laws. As a former UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, advocating for government accountability on housing issues has been Farha’s focus for years, and continues to be part of her mandate at The Shift.

“To my mind, the implementation of the principles and central ideas that inform human rights law could be used to successfully address the failings of Canada’s housing system,” she asserted. “This means that our housing system must produce results in line with human rights outcomes, not economic ones.” She also emphasized the need for more thorough representation in the process of developing public housing, saying  “as designers, we need to take a step back to play less of a directorial role, and a more facilitative one, so that those most at risk can have a voice.”

Architecture and the Right to Housing, 1 Spadina, Karen Kubey, John H Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, Daniels Public Program, Daniels Lecture. Photo credit: Harry Choi

Next, Karakusevic took the stage with a presentation that walked the audience through the design and funding processes behind several of his firm’s successful public housing projects. Now working entirely in the public sector building new social housing as well as refurbishing existing developments, at Karakusevic Carson Architects have found that projects that incorporate as many housing types as possible and remove distinctions between different income levels lead to the healthiest outcomes.

Karakusevic also expressed the designing to prioritize the spatial needs of the residents is reliant on a specific funding structure. As all of their projects are public led, it allows for a long-term approach to funding, design, and management that deters profit-motivated decisions and instead supports thoughtful consideration of livability.

Architecture and the Right to Housing, 1 Spadina, Karen Kubey, John H Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, Daniels Public Program, Daniels Lecture. Photo credit: Harry Choi

The ideas shared throughout the panel demonstrated that Canada’s current approach to housing development is not structured to support the creation of quality public housing. The speakers asserted that if we wish to create truly affordable and habitable housing, we need to make more noise and demand more meaningful action from our politicians. The discussion ended with an optimistic view of Toronto’s future, that with forward looking leadership, perhaps the city can reset the discussion on affordable housing and allow new ideas to lead to positive changes.

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