Should We Have a Right To Housing?

January 30, 2010

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?

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