What Would 'Housing as a Human Right' Look Like in California?

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February 13, 2020

KQED News, By Molly Solomon. Listen to this radio story here.

Activists with a group of women that took over a vacant house in Oakland want to make the protest chant, ‘housing is a human right’ a reality by changing the California constitution.

The group, Moms 4 Housing, is having preliminary conversations with East Bay Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta to introduce legislation that would “establish a fundamental human right to housing,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, an attorney representing the group. Details about what exactly would be in the proposed legislation or when it would be introduced are still being worked out, she said.

The phrase has recently been on the lips of housing justice activists and some local lawmakers, especially after Dominique Walker and other mothers facing homelessness in November occupied the West Oakland house, which is owned by a Southern California-based real estate investment firm.

“We believe that housing is a human right and we’re going to fight for that,” said Walker, a founder of the group Moms 4 Housing.

The rallying cry is both protest and petition in a bid to urge government leaders and corporations to address the widening equity gap in housing and provide for people forced to live in shelters, on the streets or in overcrowded homes.

What Does ‘Housing as a Human Right’ Mean?

Most advocates for tenants rights and homeless people believe housing is essential, much like food or water. “It has to begin with the recognition of what it takes to be a human being,” said Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center and longtime defender of people experiencing homelessness.

“If someone has a right to life, someone has a right to what is required to live that life,” Neumann said. “And housing, shelter is certainly one of those things.”

The United Nations identifies adequate housing as a fundamental human right, defining it as “the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity.” It further clarifies these rights to include security of tenure, adequate conditions, protection against forced evictions and access to affordable housing, according to the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

A right to adequate housing is not a requirement that states build free housing for the entire population, said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Rather, he said, it devotes resources and protective measures to prevent homelessness, discrimination and promote permanent stable housing. That could take the form of more public housing and vouchers, incentives to develop affordable housing, rent control and inclusionary zoning.

“What that looks like at the local level is a lot of things that our country is doing already, but it needs to be brought to a fuller scale,” Tars said.

Tars has spent most of his career researching housing and human rights law, and said it will take a bold move, like a legal right to housing, to address the country’s affordability crisis and growing homeless population. And time and political pressure is needed to shift housing policy at a local and national level toward a rights-based paradigm.

“I’m hopeful that we’re laying the rhetorical framework to envision housing as a right so that we can then build the political momentum to actually implement it,” Tars said.

Recognizing a legal or human right to housing could give advocates, tenants and people experiencing homelessness a tool to hold landlords legally responsible for spiking rents high or to sue cities that are not building sufficient affordable housing.

But enforcing a right to housing would also be difficult given the high cost of affordable housing production, especially in a region as pricey as the San Francisco Bay Area. And it also runs contrary to America’s longstanding capitalist approach to using housing and property as a market-influenced commodity.

“The right to housing in this society comes when you have the money,” Neumann said. “If you don’t show them the money, you don’t have a right to housing.”

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