Bernie Should Declare Housing a Human Right

The right to housing should be part of the Green New Deal. And Bernie should help push it forward.

A view of San Francisco, February 18, 2014. Justin Sullivan / Getty

The United States is experiencing the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. The widespread unaffordability of shelter is rooted in stagnating wages, the history of racist lending practices, and a political and economic system rigged against working people.

In many of our cities, gentrification exacerbates the housing crisis for communities of color, often displacing longtime residents, while in other cities and towns we see continuing disinvestment and decline. In both cases, families and individuals face housing markets that don’t provide safe, decent, affordable housing.

In the worst-case scenario, people are without a home. The scourge of homelessness — which has exploded since the late 1980s — is the direct result of low wages, rising housing prices, inadequate health services, and criminalization of the poor (particularly people of color). To our national shame, over 30 percent of our homeless population are families with children.

While a number of Democratic presidential candidates have offered fairly comprehensive proposals on housing, the Sanders campaign unfortunately has not. This is surprising, particularly because Sanders is the only candidate who has proclaimed that “economic rights are human rights,” affirming the beliefs articulated in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The last article in the Declaration declares housing as a fundamental right. And that’s why Sanders, as a democratic socialist, should come out and say that housing, too, is a human right.

The Right to Housing

Like the right to health care or the right to employment, the right to housing affirms that the government has an obligation to guarantee all people a safe, decent, affordable place to live — if not currently provided by the market, then produced and maintained by local, state, and federal governments. Shelter must be considered a public good, sequestered from the vagaries of the private market.

The United States has never acknowledged housing as a human right. In 1948 the United Nations enshrined the right to adequate housing in its Declaration of Human Rights. But while former–First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led the committee that drafted the declaration, the United States has never become a signatory. Worse still, in recent years, United Nations special rapporteurs have visited the United States and reviewed the state of poverty and homelessness, resulting in scathing critiques of the country’s housing delivery system.

The year after the 1948 declaration, the United States did pass the Housing Act of 1949, the preamble of which declared a need for “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” The act established two major programs: public housing and urban renewal. The first committed the government to building 810,000 new homes within six years; the second provided funds to local governments to tear down “slums” and “renew” their neighborhoods.

Seventy years later, we have fulfilled neither the vision laid out in the Declaration of Human Rights nor the promise of the 1949 Housing Act. It took over twenty years to construct the public housing units that were promised in six. And when urban renewal programs tore down so-called slums, they displaced hundreds of thousands of poor, mostly African-American households. Those pushed out were not guaranteed public housing units. The decimation of back communities was so extensive, it led James Baldwin to call “urban renewal” a form of “Negro removal.”

Neoliberalization of Federal Housing Policy

In the 1970s, the US government began to retreat from its already inadequate efforts to carry out the Housing Act. The five decades since have seen political elites defund and demonize public housing while pushing various privatization schemes.

Among the first was President Nixon’s housing vouchers proposal, which he unveiled in 1974. Vouchers were used in some desegregation programs (for example, the Gautreaux program in Chicago’s public housing projects) to move tenants out of majority-black projects to majority-white neighborhoods with better schools and opportunities. Yet vouchers are totally dependent on private landlords’ willingness to accept them. Only in 2019, for instance, did Los Angeles City Council vote to ban Section 8 voucher discrimination. Their overwhelming effect has been to undermine public housing.

Another sign of creeping privatization was the federal government’s increasing use of subsidies to convince private and nonprofit developers to build and manage low-income housing. While this boosted the stock of subsidized housing, it ultimately produced time-limited terms of affordability, linking “affordability” to area median income and creating the paradox of unaffordable “affordable housing.”

The neoliberalization of housing continued in the 1980s, with public agency cuts, increasing marketization, and more stringent means-testing. President Reagan’s 1986 tax reform provided tax credits for private investment that contributed to affordable housing, while simultaneously cutting the Department Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget by 80 percent. Then in 1987 and 1990, Congress passed legislation that provided funding for homeless shelters and housing (the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act) and expanded funds for construction that specifically targeted housing the homeless (HOME Investment Partnerships Program).

Almost two decades later — following years of organizing — Congress passed the Housing Trust Fund, which created a federal bank dedicated to funding affordable housing. All but three states also have state trust funds, and every state except Wyoming has city- or county-supported trust funds.

While all these programs provide decent and affordable homes to millions of people, they are woefully inadequate to the task at hand: solving the housing crisis. Reliance on the “free hand” of the market to deliver shelter to millions of Americans has failed. On a deeper level, US housing policy has lost sight of the fact that housing units are homes for people — places to live, love, dream, mourn, heal, express ourselves, and do everything that enables us to be fully human. Housing is treated instead as a commodity, a vehicle for capital accumulation.

Bernie and Housing

Bernie Sanders is no stranger to housing activism. As a student activist in Chicago in the 1960s, he was arrested for protesting racial segregation. As mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, he supported the establishment of the Burlington Community Land Trust (CLT) (now Champlain Housing Trust), long a model for permanently affordable and community-controlled homes. In 2001, he was the first sponsor of the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF).

But Sanders’s recent record has been less impressive. His 2016 presidential campaign proposed a massive expansion of the NHTF — at least $5 billion to construct, preserve, and rehabilitate at minimum 3.5 million subsidized rental homes. — but the rest of his platform addressed ways to increase homeownership. While this is understandable, given that homeownership has served as the major source of household wealth in the United States, the crisis we face is in rental housing and homelessness. Since the Great Recession — and with an increasing awareness of the climate crisis — the ideological fealty to the single-family detached house has diminished somewhat, and our national policies must spearhead the need for rental housing. The right to housing could frame our way forward.

Sanders’s 2020 campaign gives him a chance to do this, to scale up his ambitions, and present a democratic-socialist path out of our housing crisis.

Housing and the Green New Deal

The dangers of the climate crisis become more evident each day. We are experiencing more frequent and severe weather events and see the havoc that these natural disasters wreak on our homes and lives. We see how these climate-related disasters cause hundreds of thousands of Americans to flee their homes to escape fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. Many have no home to return to when the disaster passes. The refugees coming across our southern border are not only fleeing violence, but the poverty caused by climate-induced devastation of agriculture.

The Green New Deal (GND) exemplifies how democratic socialists can envision future commitments to economic justice, envisioning a “mass mobilization to create millions of good, high-wage jobs, provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security, and counteract systemic injustices.” It is a vital outline of ecological and equitable growth.

Yet the GND does not make the important connection between the climate crisis and where and how we build our homes. The Sanders campaign has an opportunity to advocate for the incorporation of housing as part of the following GND commitments:

  • The GND commitment to securing clean air, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment must specifically include access to shelter.
  • The GND commitment to repairing and upgrading infrastructure in the United States, along with energy-efficiency and new ways of manufacturing and building, must also include new ways to build sustainably constructed housing, as well as policies that curtail single-family zoning in favor of higher density in cities.
  • The GND commitment to new transportation systems, cleaning up hazardous waste, and ensuring sustainability must make sure that affordable housing is included near new transit, so low-income residents are not displaced.
  • The GND commitment to strengthening workers’ rights to organize and a guaranteed job must be coupled with policies that ensure good wages so workers can afford a safe, decent home. The policy bifurcation that separates work and home needs to end.

The GND resolution is a guide to mobilization and action. Bernie Sanders should integrate the right to housing within the Green New Deal through three policy recommendations:

  1. Building 10 million new homes for poor and working-class people over ten years, 1 million per year. This would require increasing HUD funding to pre-1986 levels, from $41.7 billion to $210 billion per year, and prioritizing public housing.
  2. Revamping federal subsidy programs to expand eligibility to presently excluded households in need and guarantee that housing is sequestered from the market through nonprofit ownership, including both rental and ownership models such as Community Land Trusts, Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives, Mutual Aid Housing Associations, and Tenant Syndicates.
  3. Adding housing to multiagency environmental justice programs and policies in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Energy and Transportation, to assure that subsidized housing is built to the highest energy efficiency standards using the most environmentally advanced technology, and planned in conjunction with transit systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Safe, decent, and affordable housing should be a major component of our response to the climate crisis.

Federal Recommendations for Democratic Socialists

Housing encompasses much more than bricks and mortar. We should imbue democratic-socialist principles in all housing policies and programs, and include the following:

  • Eliminating the Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID) and replacing it with a graduated tax credit benefitting lower-income homeowners and phasing out deductions for upper-income homeowners.
  • Adding a Renter’s Tax Credit, similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which applies to all renter households.
  • Guaranteeing the Right to Counsel (RTC) for tenants facing eviction in any housing with federal subsidy or tax incentives.
  • Expanding fair housing investigations by fully implementing fair housing laws, and expanding these to address exclusionary zoning, as well as passing national Source-of-Income legislation requiring landlords to accept tenant vouchers (mostly known as Section 8).
  • Expanding and funding the Community Development Block Grant Program.
  • Until massive subsidized housing construction gets underway with the GND, the next administration should declare a national emergency applicable to all jurisdictions (urban or rural) facing high levels of homelessness, disinvestment, gentrification, and displacement, and enact National Rent Control by citing the Emergency Price Control Act of 1941.

The points above lay out some fundamentals of a democratic-socialist housing agenda. This strategy would build new affordable housing, sustain existing subsidized housing, and allow renters to stay in their homes without fear of exorbitant rent increases. But the challenges working- and middle-class Americans face are not always specific to the physical structure of home. A left housing agenda must also include:

  • Re-regulating the banking and mortgage lending systems to prevent another crisis, as well as expanding the Community Reinvestment Act to better monitor banks and expanding it to cover both mortgage and insurance companies.
  • Eliminating predatory and payday lending through powers provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
  • Supporting credit unions and public banks as financial alternatives to private banks.
  • Expanding model ordinances and zoning plans for cities and counties to increase density, provide safer and more environmentally appropriate housing, etc. (for example, model zoning ordinances offered by Herbert Hoover when he was Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s).
  • Providing financial literacy model programs for high schools through the Department of Education.

We have no choice, and little time, but to develop an expansive campaign that combats the climate crisis and exorbitant inequality by retooling our economy to both end carbon emissions and lay the groundwork for a just and sustainable society. The Green New Deal is a bold outline of what we want and need. Bernie Sanders has an opportunity to incorporate a bold democratic-socialist vision of the right to housing as part of our national presidential debate leading up to the 2020 election.