Beyond Four Walls and a Roof

A decent place to live

No matter who we are or where we come from, we all deserve a decent life. We deserve strength and stability.

Lyndall McCarthy – May 2018


Currently, South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies with approximately 12 million South Africans living in extreme poverty.

The current housing backlog is in excess of 2 million units despite the delivery of over 3 million housing units and opportunities through various government subsidy programmes since 1994.

Habitat for Humanity’s overarching vision since 1976 is “a world where everyone has a decent place to live”.

In a world where well over a billion people are not adequately housed, what exactly defines a ‘decent’ place to live? What level of shelter condition is of an “acceptable standard”; “satisfactory” to the wellbeing and livelihoods of the family occupying it?

Decent housing as a basic human right was declared in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

This right is not be interpreted narrowly. “Rather, it should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.”(Human Right to Decent Housing, UN Habitat, Fact Sheet no. 21, Rev 1, pg 3).

Seven characteristics identified by the declaration required for adequate housing are listed:

  1. Security of Tenure: protection against forced evictions
  2. Availability of services and infrastructure: safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, energy for cooking, heating, lighting, food storage or refuse disposal
  3. Affordability: costs need to not threaten the occupants’ enjoyment other human rights
  4. Habitability: housing needs to ensure occupant’s physical safety and provide adequate space/privacy
  5. Accessibility: the needs of marginalised and disadvantaged groups has to be taken into account
  6. Location: accessibilty to employment opportunities, healthcare facilities, schools, childcare centres. Away from polluted/hazardous environments
  7. Cultural Adequacy: respect for the expression of cultural identity

So if its every human being’s human right to decent shelter, what is the effect of inadequate shelter on the millions around the world who live in life- or health-threatening conditions due to their habitation?

According to the Robert’s Centre Shelter Impact Report, there are three key impacts of inadequate shelter on occupants who reside in it:

Physical Health

  • 25 per cent of children who persistently lived in accommodation in poor state of repair had a long-standing illness or disability.
  • Children living in bad housing are almost twice as likely to suffer from poor health as other children.
  • Children living in unfit and overcrowded accommodation are almost a third more likely to suffer respiratory problems such as chest problems, breathing difficulties, asthma and bronchitis than other children.
  • Children in overcrowded housing are up to 10 times more likely to contract meningitis than children in general.
  • There is a direct link between childhood tuberculosis and overcrowding.
  • Overcrowded conditions have been linked to slow growth in childhood, which is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in later life.
  • Fifty-eight per cent of respondents to a Shelter survey said their health or their family’s health had suffered as a result of living in temporary accommodation.
  • Ninety per cent of respondents to a Shelter survey said their children had suffered as a result of living in temporary accommodation. The longer families had lived in temporary accommodation, the more likely they were to attribute their worsening health to their accommodation.
  • Research has found that people with asthma are twice as likely to live in damp homes.
  • Research has found that 11% of childhood accidents are a result of badly designed housing and dangerous fittings.
  • Research has found that children living in cramped accommodation experience disturbed sleep, poor diet, hyperactivity, bedwetting and soiling, aggression and higher rates of accidents and infectious disease
  • Research has found that overcrowding can increase the spread of illness, make it harder for children to find a quiet space or read or do their homework and cause unsettled sleep patterns.
  • Research has found strong links between overcrowding and particular health conditions, in both children and adults, including respiratory conditions, meningitis and helicobacter pylori, which are a cause of stomach ulcers.
  • Research has established that disturbed sleep patterns can be a particular problem for people having to sleep in communal rooms.


Mental Health

  • Mothers living in bad housing are almost three times as likely as other mothers to be clinically depressed.
  • More than half of respondents to a Shelter survey stated that they were depressed. This rose to 64% in workless households.
  • More than 60% of respondents to a Shelter survey said that living in temporary accommodation had worsened depression and other mental health problems.
  • Research has found that overcrowding can have a detrimental impact on the quality of relationships between parents and children, and between siblings.



  • Children living in bad housing are nearly twice as likely as other children to leave school without any qualifications.
  • Children living in acutely bad housing are twice as likely not to attend school as other children.
  • Children who live in bad housing are five times as likely to lack a quiet place to do their homework as other children.
  • Homeless children are two to three times more likely to be absent from school than other children due to the disruption caused by moving into and between temporary accommodation.
  • Children in overcrowded homes miss school more frequently due to medical reasons than other children
  • Overcrowding is linked to delayed cognitive development, and homelessness to delayed development in communication skills.
  • Shelter’s research found that homeless children in temporary accommodation are often forced to move school frequently, thus missing out on class time and stable influences
  • Two thirds of respondents to a Shelter survey said their children had problems at school, and nearly half described their children as ‘often unhappy or depressed’.

More than merely four walls and a roof, decent housing is the foundation of our childrens’ futures and livelihoods. A human right that affects generations to come, it poses an urgent need to address shelter poverty and livelihoods in an innovative and sustainable manner.

High rates of urbanisation, population growth, financial constraints and rising development costs have made it impossible to keep pace with the demand for housing in South Africa.

It is only through sectors working together alongside government that the overwhelm can be reduced and the poverty cycle broken, one household at a time.

Extra Reading

UN Habitat Human Right to Decent Housing:

(National Centre for Social Research (2008) The Dynamics of Bad Housing)
(Shelter (2006), Against the Odds)
(Shelter Temporary Accommodation Survey (2004), quoted in Sick and Tired, Shelter 2004)
(Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2004) The Impact of Overcrowding on Health & Education: A Review of Evidence and Literature)
(British Medical Association (2003) Housing and Health, building for the future)
(Shelter Temporary Accommodation Survey (2004), quoted in Sick and Tired, Shelter 2004)
(Shelter Temporary Accommodation Survey (2004), quoted in Sick and Tired, Shelter 2004)
(Shelter Temporary Accommodation Survey (2004), quoted in Toying With Their Future, Shelter 2004)
(Shelter Temporary Accommodation Survey (2004), quoted in Living in Limbo, Shelter 2004)