Should We Have a Right To Housing?

Blogger Shannon Moriarty has come up with five reasons to feel hopeful about homelessness in 2010. Number two on her list is that homelessness will be discussed as a human rights issue.

She’s looking forward to the UN Special Rappoteur’s final report on her investigation into the housing situation here in the U.S. She expects the findings to be critical, as indeed the preliminary findings were.

But that’s not what’s got her so hopeful. It’s rather that the very fact of the report will provide an opportunity to re-frame homelessness as a human rights violation.

Echoing an earlier posting, she asserts that framing homelessness as a human right will place “a moral obligation on lawmakers and members of the community to see that all individuals are given access to something [in this case, housing] as a basic necessity.” Moreover, she says, it will “remove housing from the pool of issues fighting for priority.”

Dream on.

As Shannon notes, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the U.S. voted for in 1948, includes a sweeping right to “a standard of living adequate for … health and well-being,” including food, clothing housing, medical care, necessary social services and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond an individual’s control.”

Have our lawmakers felt morally obliged to provide any of this to “everyone … and his family?” What about “the right of every family to a decent home” that FDR said we’d accepted, “so to speak,” as part of a second Bill of Rights?

Surely there’s a place for appeals to morality–or moral values like compassion. But to believe that arguing from a human rights foundation will elevate housing above other issues seems to me naive. Nor am I at all sure we should want it out of the pool of related issues.

Why, after all, are people homeless? For the most part, because they can’t afford housing. Major reasons include lack of good health insurance, unemployment or under-employment, low wages and gaping holes in our safety net. Add to these community development policies that deplete the stock of low-cost housing.

So it seems to me to make more sense to integrate housing into a broad anti-poverty strategy like what Half in Ten proposes. A strategy of this sort can bring together advocates and service providers who come at the issues from various angles.

And it’s likely to win more friends in high places than a rhetoric based on rights, which after all are either empty words or enforceable by litigation. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which also champions a human rights approach, seems to envision the latter.

Can you imagine any legislative body agreeing to a right that might allow anyone who didn’t have a decent home to sue the government?

Shannon acknowledges that it may be impractical for homelessness advocates to adopt a human rights paradigm. If by impractical she means forfeiting results, then I think she’s right on target. And why advocate if not to get results?


10 Responses to Should We Have a Right To Housing?

  1. […] As a Human Right Unfortunately I have to agree with this writer’s assessment: “Dream on.” But as a concept, I’m in total […]

  2. Anita says:

    The preamble to the Constitution guarantees each US citizen a right to “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Based on this simple phrase, a great many societal ills should be cured, including homelessness. So why doesn’t someone start up a class action suit against the federal government for violating the civil rights of the poor and working poor via the policies that hinder substantial economic improvement for these populations? It will never happen, because making the federal government liable for poverty would bankrupt the federal government.

  3. jan says:

    Unlike constitutional rights, Human rights provide, the government would not be the only party sued. Human Rights are not just enforcable against the government. They are enforceable against the people who themselves has rents so high nobody working one 40 hour a week job at minumum wage, can afford the rent. As big time property owners.

    The government is not at fault for every inequable act taken. You and I can be taken to court if we violate anouthers rights. Of course the poor will not often do this Because you must go to the Human Rights Courts in Geneva SW. It a long process.

    Unlike the American Courts, you do not usually get “money”. Just a ruling that it is your right to housing or as in Britan the right to wear low slung jeans.

    I know poverty people are far from experts on Human Rights. All that means is maybe its not quite right to project an outcome you know nothing about. To do so makes you a willing governmental pawn. You hit me as a lady of spunk, and caring not as a pawn.

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    Jan, in fact, I do know something about the law. Indeed, that’s one reason I believe that focusing on having housing declared a human right in the U.S. will not be nearly as effective as efforts to secure specific policy and program changes to significantly expand access to affordable housing. This doesn’t make me a governmental pawn. Only someone who’s principally concerned about results.

  5. jan says:

    Housing is already been declared a law, again I say its when President Carter as President signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People just do not know this is as much as the force of a treaty as anything.

    I am trying to find law cases on Human Rights in the USA courts. The courts happily disregard our constitutional rights.

    Now if have you anything tangible saying this is NOT a right tell me were to look. Tell me what nullified our presidents agreeing this was a right.

    I repect you, but you are incorrect.

  6. Kathryn Baer says:

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes back to the late 1940s. What Carter signed was one of several “conventions” developed to implement the declaration. Under U.S. law, these are essentially treaties and so have to be ratified by Congress. And Congress hasn’t ratified the convention at issue.

  7. jan says:

    There is debate whether or not Congress has to ratify. If the UN law out ranks federal law all which is required is any president Leader of the country to sign it. Just like state law outrank local ordinances, and federal law is supreme over state laws. UN outranks any one countries law.
    There is some say all which is required is the president signature of any country. Just as god set us the ten commandments, outranks international law. Human law out ranks the USA Normal business method, in my book of course.
    Sorry to disagree, but think your readers should have two sides of the story. Why do you want to make using the Human Rights more difficult? I do not believe they, allow for monetary awards. So they can not bankrupt the government. It you think they would you must think the government is both repeatedly acting wrongfully against its own citizens, and refuses to act better.

  8. […] time ago, I registered doubts about the political wisdom of framing homelessness as a human rights […]

  9. […] time ago, I registered doubts about the political wisdom of framing homelessness as a human rights […]

  10. […] a post earlier this year on her personal blog (which I suggest everyone subscribe to if you are interested in gov’t […]

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