Housing is a human right
Natural disasters that leave large numbers of previously housed people homeless often evoke humanitarian responses that amount to a collective expression that "people should be housed!" The housing as a human right ethic focuses attention on the fact that decent, safe and affordable housing is critical to proper human development. It demands that all people should have legally enforceable rights to housing. This ethic often includes an economic critique of the private market production system because profit-based incentives will not produce decent affordable housing for all. As the U.S. Catholic bishops' current advocacy position on housing states: "Catholic teaching supports the right to private property, but recognizes that communities and the government have an obligation to ensure the housing needs of all are met, especially poor and vulnerable people and their families. At a time of rising homelessness and when many workers' wages are stagnant and living expenses are rising, it is important to ensure housing security."
The substance of a right to housing is a critical issue. Sometimes, only a minimal right to shelter is advocated, e.g. some campaigns only require emergency shelter for homeless people. In contrast, advocates such as Chester Harman have articulated full-blown versions of a right to housing that include affordability, physical quality of the unit, non-discriminatory access, secure tenure and social and physical characteristics of the neighborhood environment. This raises hard policy questions, which are rarely answered to the satisfaction of critics. While South Africa, France and Scotland have enacted full housing rights, the proposal regularly evokes strong political opposition in the U.S. Yet, rising homelessness in the United States since the 1980s keeps the right to housing discussion alive.
In Lindsey v. Normet, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Constitution does not require government to guarantee an individual right to housing. Nevertheless, numerous particular housing rights have been established incrementally by courts and legislatures. For example, the implied warranty of habitability ensures the quality of rental housing. Anti-discrimination law — the federal Fair Housing Act and California's Fair Employment and Housing Act — protect fair access to housing. Rent control ordinances ensure ongoing affordability. Just cause eviction ordinances limit the reasons for which landlords can evict tenants. Even state statutes that establish summary eviction proceedings — which arguably benefit landlords by providing quick access to courts — provide due process protection to tenants and prohibit landlords from exercising "self-help" remedies such as lock-outs or turning off utilities. Unfortunately, tenants are often unable to reap the benefit of many of these housing rights because they lack legal representation.
While there have been dozens of federal housing programs since the 1930s, federal policy has never provided an individual right to housing to all who qualify. The only major federal housing program that is available to all who qualify is the federal mortgage interest deduction. It is also the largest program costing more than $70 billion last year, dwarfing the budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Notably, this program primarily benefits the most wealthy homeowners because they have the largest mortgages. The public housing program was never conceived of as offering a general right to housing. And Congress never appropriated sufficient funding for it to fulfill even its lesser role as "housing of last resort" for the very poor. For many years, there have been astoundingly long waiting lists of several years for a public housing unit or a Section 8 voucher. In the last three decades, federal funding for housing has dwindled considerably. Most federal housing programs serve only a third or less of those who are eligible according to each program's requirements.
In "The Right to a Decent Home," issued Nov. 20, 1975, U.S. bishops, wrote: "Since decent housing is a human right, its provision involves a public responsibility. The magnitude of our housing crisis requires a massive commitment of resources and energy. Government must supplement and regulate the activities of private individuals and institutions in order to achieve our housing goals. A creative partnership of private enterprise and government is necessary."
On May 2, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski wrote to Congress in his role as chairman of the U.S. Catholic Con-ference's Committee on Domes-tic Justice and Human Develop-ment. He urged Congress to provide funds for the National Housing Trust Fund that would improve the quantity and accessibility of safe and affordable housing.
Catholics and people of other faiths have long been involved in helping provide and advocate for adequate housing especially for the most needy. About one third of all emergency and temporary shelters are church-affiliated. Some church groups get directly involved in the provision of housing. For example, the Oakland Catholic Worker provides transitional housing for immigrants. About 14 percent of the nation's community development organizations are faith-based organizations, and these have helped develop at least 355,000 affordable housing units. Habitat for Humanity, an ecumenical Christian housing ministry, is a well-recognized example with 1,400 local affiliates in the U.S.
One advantage of faith-based groups is that they are in touch with the needs of their community. Church communities often have skilled volunteers and other resources. They have established a good reputation in the larger community and earned good will. They often can provide thoughtful leadership to generate and sustain partnerships that are often the life-blood of community organizations.
(Tim Iglesias is a former Jesuit who has worked in and studies affordable housing development and serves on the Oakland Catholic Worker's Circle.)
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