James R. Martin

Naming Housing as a Human Right Is a First Step to Solving the Housing Crisis

December is Universal and National Human Rights month, which celebrates the universal and inalienable rights that belong to people simply because they exist.

Safe, stable, affordable housing was first recognized as a human right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has since been reaffirmed in many international treaties, resolutions, and declarations. Housing is critical to many other facets of life, including physical and mental healthquality of lifeaccess to educationeconomic outcomes among many others. Given this role, safe, stable, and affordable housing is a necessity to achieving many other human rights, including security and safety

Though the US has signed onto many of these international resolutions, housing is still treated as a commodity rather than a right. No federal laws guarantee a right to housing; rather, Americans are provided a bundle of protections, including freedom from housing discrimination through the Fair Housing Act.

The tension between the critical need for housing and the role of housing as a commodity is reflected in the ongoing affordability crisis that policy has been unable to address. A large and increasing number of American households struggle to find secure, affordable housing. Nationally, there is a shortage of more than 7 million affordable homeshundreds of thousands of Americans experience homelessness each year, and a growing number of households spend more than half of their income on housing. When viewed as a market-based commodity, there is no mandate or requirement for governing entities to fund, manage, or provide affordable housing.

Can housing as a human right address the affordability crisis? 

In some cities, housing advocates are arguing that recognizing housing as a right in the federal or state and local constitutions would be one way to commit the appropriate budgetary and oversight resources to solve the affordability crisis. They say acknowledging housing as a right could provide a way to hold entities like landlords or city governments legally responsible for evictions, a lack of enough affordable housing, and the criminalization of homelessness. 

A spate of recent proposals have positioned housing as a human right as a way to justify and encourage sufficient investments in housing construction and affordability. In June 2021, Representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) and Grace Meng (NY-06) introduced the Housing is a Human Right Act, which aimed to commit funds, services, and supports to address gaps in housing and help support people experiencing homelessness.

In Oakland, California, Moms 4 Housing has been working with Assemblyman Rob Bonta to introduce legislation that asserts a right to housing. In Sacramento, Mayor Steinberg is discussing how to establish housing as a legal obligation to provide a roof for people who have nothing. If these bills pass, it would shift the responsibility for housing production from the market to governing bodies, and, in doing so, may compel a large increase in funds for the provision of housing, housing supports, and protections for people living in unstable or precarious housing situations. 

International efforts to enforce housing as a human right 

However, as advocates build frameworks for housing as a human right, simply naming housing as a human right may not necessarily accomplish desired outcomes. Given the small number of regions and nations that have enacted housing as a human right, there is not a strong set of evidence demonstrating that this approach is the key to solving issues of housing affordability and availability. Examples from across the globe show the complexity of addressing housing crises, even when housing is declared a human right.

Scotland has incorporated this commitment into its legislation and budget in multiple ways, including homelessness prevention legislation and means-tested benefits that help meet housing costs. Between 1987 and 2003, Scotland passed a series of acts that framed housing as a right, which made local governments responsible for the provision of housing (PDF) for people unintentionally experiencing homelessness within 90 days and which allows people to sue if their right to housing is not respected. With this comprehensive set of policies, Scotland has witnessed reductions in the numbers of people identified as homeless, improvements in homelessness services and benefits provision (PDF). Yet, despite the focus on human rights, Scotland has continued to struggle with housing access in the wake of recent economic downturns (PDF).

France and South Africa also codified the right to housing (though less extensively than Scotland), and have experienced varied results. In 2007 France adopted the Droit au Logement Opposable, which prioritizes vulnerable groups for social housing and provides them with the ability to take legal action if they have not received accommodation. Yet, DALO has been unable to meet its goals due, in part, to lack of adequate resources and lack of awareness.

South Africa’s constitution was amended to guarantee the right to adequate housing, with a series of laws that codify this right (PDF) with particularly protection against eviction. Yet, seventeen years later, this has not met its goals, in part due to a lack of adequate time frames for implementing the law and lack of access to permanent housing.

Framing housing as a human right may be an important first step to solving housing challenges, but the evidence base suggests that simply naming housing as a human right in isolation is likely insufficient to achieve affordable and accessible housing for all. Rather, this framing must be paired with adequate funding, timelines for progress, and pathways to compel compliance.