What If Housing Were A Human Right In The U.S.?

Some time ago, I registered doubts about the political wisdom of framing homelessness as a human rights violation.

I’m not ready to recant. But I can see some advantages in the framing now, thanks to a recent webinar hosted by the National Law Center on Poverty & Homelessness.

The webinar focused on a new NLCHP report that uses a spin-off from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to grade the U.S. on homelessness and housing policies at all government levels.

This spin-off I’m referring to is formally known as Comment 4. It’s basically a UN committee’s interpretation of the right to adequate housing.

The right was originally one element in the Universal Declaration’s broader statement of a right to an adequate standard of living. It was then folded into a covenant, i.e., a set of binding commitments, on economic, social and cultural rights.

Though the U.S. was one of the movers and shakers behind the Universal Declaration, it did not embrace the covenant.

President Carter signed it early in his term, but he didn’t move forward to get the Senate’s consent, which the Constitution requires to make any international agreement U.S. law. Probably knew it was way too liberal to get a majority vote.

And if it was then, it certainly is now, though NLCHP notes some recent administration statements that implicitly recognize some basic (non-binding) human rights obligations.

It makes a good case, I think, for advantages we would gain from formally recognizing housing as a human right, defined according to the international standards in Comment 4.

The first is that it would convert adequate housing from an optional policy goal — something we may or may not spend money on — to an obligation comparable to obligations implicit in the Bill of Rights.

NLCHP says — and this was an important learning for me — that recognizing a right to housing wouldn’t mean that anyone and everyone could go to court and get the government to provide them with a decent house or apartment they could afford.

It would, however, commit the government to making consistent progress toward that goal — and to eliminating policies and practices that subvert it, e.g., public housing rules that ban people with criminal records.

The second advantage is that it would create a mechanism for accountability.

Advocates — and through their efforts, the general public — would have a common, comprehensive set of standards for assessing government housing policies and programs.

And the government would have to publicly report periodically on how it was complying with each because that’s one of the things governments agree to do under the unratified covenant.

NLCHP shows what the results could be. Not good, to put it mildly.

Comment 4 lays out seven aspects of the right to housing. NLCHP splits the first — security of tenure — into five subparts, giving us 12 aspects in all. The U.S. gets a grade for each, based on a set of criteria applied to policies and budgets at all government levels.

Six D grades, including one D+. Two C grades, both minuses. Only one in the A range — an A- for a subset of the criminalization of homelessness aspect. It’s fully offset by the F for criminalization of homelessness overall.

Now, some of the aspects in Comment 4 make me a tad uncomfortable. For example, the security of tenure rights seem to preclude forced evictions across the board.

Surely a landlord should be able, if all else fails, to get tenants removed from an apartment they’re trashing — or just cavalierly occupying rent-free.

I would guess that NLCHP agrees since it focuses on legal protections in foreclosures and rights to legal counsel in landlord/tenant cases. No problem there for me.

In any event, one may disagree with some of the specific housing right interpretations — and perhaps with some of the grades.

But I doubt anyone who’s been reading — or watching — the news would fail to agree that we’re doing a poor job of ensuring that everyone in this country has a decent, affordable place to live.

Or that periodic report cards like the one NLCHP has compiled are a worthwhile reminder that we should hold ourselves to higher standards than we evidently do.


3 Responses to What If Housing Were A Human Right In The U.S.?

  1. Willie_Matis says:


    This is a great post. I haven’t been able to find many posts on the subject of housing as a human right, but the subject has always been very interesting to me. I really appreciated reading your take on this because I have spoken about it on my own blog.

    I am still young and learning about policy, procedure and the effect of making housing a human right. So thank you for sharing the report and your opinion on the topic.

    I just wrote a post on this topic and would love feedback if you would be willing. Like I said, I am still learning and try to use my blog to straighten my thoughts out. Here is the link, http://bit.ly/nkQlDS

    -Willie Matis

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Willie. And for the shout-out on your blog. What you say about using your blog to straighten out your thoughts reflects my experience. For me, blogging provides a discipline for both learning and thinking. As the post on housing as a human right indicates, thoughts evolve over time as I learn more. So keep at it! Your vow to post twice a week is spot on.

  3. Willie_Matis says:

    Thanks, Kathryn! I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!

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