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Are social housing flats fit for habitation? HFHR asks Ministry

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has been approached by clients who describe the appalling conditions of their social housing units. The clients tell stories of many families living in flats unfit for housing purposes, some of them described as mould-infested dumps with walls leaking water. Often, social housing units have shared toilets and no hot water. It is equally common for large families to be housed in a one-room apartment.

HFHR responds by writing to Ministry

In response to a large number of complaints against the quality of social housing services, the HFHR asked the Minister of Investment and Development whether, in the Minister’s opinion, the existing legal measures ensure that basic rights of individuals are respected. We also ask whether the Ministry is planning to take any action to address the problem. In the letter we sent to the Minister we referred to the applicable law and standards concerning the conditions in social housing units. We have also emphasised the importance of dignity as a source of freedom and human and civil rights. The Foundation also drew attention to the standards stemming from the International Covenant on Economic and Cultural Rights related to the right to housing. The letter stresses that appropriate housing conditions are those that provide space for residents and protect them from cold, moisture, heat, rain, wind and other health or life hazards.

Housing Department: it is local government’s job

The Housing Department of the Ministry of Investment and Development responded to the HFHR’s letter by stating that the adoption of uniform standards to ensure adequate housing conditions in social housing units was municipalities’ own responsibility. It was also mentioned that municipalities were responsible for the creation and satisfaction of the housing needs of the local government community and the provision of social housing units, replacement housing and satisfaction of the housing needs of low-income households.

The response also indicated that, when implementing housing policies, municipalities must meet certain legal requirements, which means that the premises assigned for social housing purposes must have fixtures and fittings maintained in good order of repair and be fit for habitation. The Ministry reminded that the room area per a household member must not be less than 5 square meters. Lessors of units located in buildings erected based on a building permit issued prior to 1 January 1995 are obliged to provide operating systems and facilities for the distribution of such utilities as water, heat and electricity.

“If a debtor is granted the right to social housing accommodation, the judgment ordering the debtor to vacate the premises cannot be enforced before the person entitled (the debtor) is presented with an offer to conclude a lease of a social housing unit”, recalls Julia Gerlich, a lawyer with the HFHR. The debtor may request a judicial review of the municipality’s performance of the obligation to designate a social housing unit which fulfils the required conditions related to its facilities, technical condition and floor space”, Ms Gerlich adds.

The municipality must accordingly instruct the entitled person that they can challenge inadequate housing conditions or the technical condition of the premises in court.

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