Housing is a human right — we need to recognize it

Housing is fundamental to every person’s life, health, and security. Our government should start treating it that way. In the wealthiest country on the planet, too many people still lack access to housing.

The pandemic revealed the full extent of the U.S. housing crisis. Where were the roughly 580,000 people living unhoused in 2020 to go under “stay at home” orders? And what about those facing eviction?

At the same time, the pandemic proved that federal intervention could ease the crisis. Eviction moratoria and unemployment relief helped keep more people housed, fed and secure. But these initiatives ended too quickly.

Lifting federal pandemic eviction protections in 2021 put as many as 17 million people at risk of becoming unhoused. And last year, the number of unsheltered individuals increased by 3.4 percent from 2020 — and many times that in some areas.

There’s a misconception that homelessness is primarily caused by addiction and mental illness. But a new study in California — where more than 171,000 people experience homelessness every day  — found that poverty and high housing costs are the driving forces.

The median monthly income for people who became homeless was just $960, the University of California, San Francisco report found. Prior evictions, poor credit history and systemic discrimination further prevent people from re-entering housing — and even shorten their life expectancy.

These are national problems. Nearly half of all tenants now spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent, which has risen 18 percent nationally over the past five years.

Housing is fundamental to every person’s life, health, and security. We need to recognize it as a human right and transform our country’s approach. While this may sound lofty, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems.

International law already treats housing as a human right. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights codified housing as essential to human dignity and an adequate standard of living. The covenant doesn’t guarantee that everyone will have access to housing immediately, but it does obligate countries to work progressively toward that goal.

The U.S. signed this binding treaty but never joined with 171 countries in ratifying it. Still, the “right to housing” movement is deeply rooted here. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged Congress to adopt a second Bill of Rights focused on economic rights, including housing.

The movement has regained momentum since the pandemic. The “Housing is a Human Right Act of 2023” introduced in Congress this past March would provide more than $300 billion for housing infrastructure and combating homelessness. And California could become the first state to legally recognize a right to housing.

Critics often invoke the high cost of building affordable housing. But during a time of extreme wealth inequality, as Institute for Policy Studies expert Chuck Collins has argued, the problem isn’t supply — it’s who owns that supply.

Large corporations and private equity firms like Blackstone have been buying millions of units, including single-family homes, driving up both rents and home prices. Other investors have converted units into short-term rentals, which removes them from the market and drives rents higher for everyone else.

Reforms like rent control and eviction moratoria can help, but ultimately we need local homeownership and permanently affordable rental housing. Housing should belong to families, nonprofit groups, and community housing authorities — not Wall Street banks and real estate speculators. A right to housing could help rein in third-party profiteers and hold governments accountable for housing failures.

Housing is more than a roof over our heads. It determines our ability to stay healthy, get an education, build wealth and live longer. It is not merely a luxury commodity limited to those who can afford it. It is a right — and our government should start recognizing and treating it as such.

About Farrah Hassen
Farrah Hassen, J.D., is a writer, policy analyst, and adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Cal Poly Pomona. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.